New York in the World: How one manufacturing plant survived

Aug 20, 2013

In 1975, the workforce in several major cities in upstate New York had more than 40 percent of their jobs in manufacturing. Today, that number hovers around 10 percent. There are examples of manufacturers and workers in New York state who have found a place in our new global economy, but not without sacrifice.

For Bob Coleman, there is nothing trendy in the philosophy of “buy local.”  As a third generation employee at the General Motors Powertrain Plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., and the union shop chair, it’s a way of life.

“Both my daughters know that I promote ‘Buy American.’ And they know, do not pull a foreign vehicle in our driveway,” he says.

While Coleman would never be caught dead owning a Nissan , Toyota or any foreign-made vehicle, he knows that around here, there is no room for naiveté.

“Years ago, you have GM, Ford and Chrysler. We had no competitors. We didn’t have Hyundai and all them here. You had people that were fat and happy, thinking that nothing would ever happen to GM cause it’s such a large corporation,” said Coleman.

In the old days, the words “fat and happy” would have been an odd choice for a union guy to use in talking about workers. But then everything in the U.S. auto industry came to a head: foreign competition, recession, high oil prices and an antiquated lineup of gas-guzzlers. It was a perfect storm and it brought GM to its knees.

In June 2009, GM filed for bankruptcy. As part of the reorganization, the company shed 20,000 U.S. jobs and shuttered several plants

Tonawanda was lucky.  The facility, which at it’s height in 1969 had employed 12,000 people, was now down to just shy of 800.  But its doors stayed open. And then in 2010, came word from on high: Tonawanda would be awarded two new engine lines and an investment of almost $1 billion.

“Once we got the word that we were going to be awarded the new engines, things really started to happen fast,” said team leader Joe Frontera.

Since then, the workforce here has more than doubled. But there’s a catch. The reason GM can afford to hire all these workers is because pay has gone down. An agreement between GM and the United Auto Workers in 2007 established a two-tier wage system, under which many new hires now get about half of what older workers earn for the same jobs: about $16 an hour versus $29. In some places this system could have an effect on morale.

 A "History of General Motors" poster hanging on the wall inside the Tonawanda office space. I thought some of the "era" labels were pretty funny and descriptive of the issues.
A "History of General Motors" poster hanging on the wall inside the Tonawanda office space. I thought some of the "era" labels were pretty funny and descriptive of the issues.
Credit Sidsel Overgaard/WRVO

“That particular issue is still developing. We’re starting to see the tier-twos slowly being integrated with the rest of us. So, it gets you thinking about, hey, why have me here if you can have this employee here doing just as good a job or better than me and making half of what I make,” Frontera said.

“When you look at all the positives and the benefits and the upsides, it’s tremendous,” said Steve Finch, the plant manager at Tonawanda. “We’re insourcing work, we’re growing our ranks, we’re bringing more people in. Yes, they pay less than what the traditional employee would have gotten before, but they’re still a good paying job. Still a very good job.”

All in all, as Tonawanda marks its 75th anniversary this year, spirits are high. For some, pay may be down, but at least there are enough people around to throw a party. And these days, that is no small feat.

All this week, we’ll be bringing you  a series of stories from the documentary about the state of the economy in New York state. "New York in the World" with Garrick Utley will air on WRVO Public Media  Sunday, August 25 at 7 p.m. In part three, we'll bring you a story about how how the near-demise of a manufacturing sector in New York City gave rise to something even bigger.