When GM Almost Closed Its Arlington Plant

Editor’s note: This month’s Finish Line is one in an occasional series that former Mayor Greene calls “How our community was shaped by 10 things that didn’t happen.” This month’s commentary is the sixth of those 10 things.

 

With Christmas approaching in 1991, my assistant walked into my office and announced that the chairman of General Motors was on the phone.

How nice, I thought. GM brass called their plant city mayors from time to time, and I always enjoyed the opportunity to reinforce Arlington’s commitment to support our city’s leading corporate employer and largest taxpayer.

Only thing was, this time the call was not any kind of Christmas greeting. It was bad news. Really bad news.

Chairman Bob Stempel first described something I already knew – that the national recession was taking a toll on the big car company. He then went on to say something I feared – that sales were way down of the Chevrolet Caprice they were building in Arlington.

Worst still, they were building it not only in Arlington but also in a plant in the Detroit area. He said they certainly didn’t need to be producing a car in two different plants that they couldn’t sell.

He said I needed to begin to think about how my town would deal with the shutdown of the 40-year-old plant that had undeniably launched the city’s prominence in the modern era of its history.

To say the least, I was stunned by his very unwelcome news. I remember walking around in a daze trying to think of what to do next. I had never imagined such a thing as watching a padlock affixed to the gate of the place where almost 4,000 local people were employed.

The Dallas Morning News summed it up by reporting, “Unemployment would surge, nearby businesses would suffer and the city would lose its largest taxpayer.”

However, Stempel had left a crack in the door by saying the final decision of which of the two plants to shutter – ours or the one in Detroit – would not be made for a couple of months. Even with that, it was not immediately certain that the city could do much of anything to avoid the economic calamity about to befall us, as our fate was in the hands of the big car company.

Without any kind of agenda yet developed, I called an emergency meeting of the city council. If nothing else, I planned to declare that the city’s leaders were mobilizing an all-out campaign to save the plant. Every member of the council got a specific assignment that day to lead our quickly developing effort to send a message that we weren’t going to just sit around and wait to see what was going to happen.

A call to Governor Ann Richards found her to be ready to help. She came to Arlington soon thereafter and joined with me in a couple of news conferences to declare the resources of the state were at our disposal. I had similar conversations with our Washington D. C. delegations in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives. A high-profile mobilization of local, state and national leaders was quickly initiated. I traveled to Austin, Washington, and Detroit with these folks, and they all spent time in Arlington with us – always in front of news reporters.

Members of the national media found their way to Arlington. Covering the story of what was happening here was a reflection of the toll the recession was taking across the country. The New York Times ran a feature article, the ABC prime time Nightline news show was broadcast twice from Arlington, and the local media provided daily reports throughout.

I spent more time with the plant manager and chairman of the local UAW chapter than anyone else. Reworking the local labor agreement to reduce costs, increase efficiency and ensure the highest quality of fit and finish for the cars built in Arlington were all critical elements.

Meanwhile, the labor leaders in the Detroit plant were taking a different approach. Instead of talking about modifying their contracts, their strategy was to warn the GM brass of terrible consequences. They promised reprisals, lawsuits and work stoppages if the company closed their plant.

In the end, I imagined myself in the GM boardroom to witness the discussions. One plant – the one in Arlington – was surrounded by the whole community, an entire team of political leaders, and a work force saying they would do whatever it took to keep their plant open. The other plant was issuing threats. I liked our strategy better.

You know the result.

Not only did GM chose the Arlington plant but later transformed it to build the icon of the new line up –  the Suburban, also known as the National Car of Texas. Today our plant is the most productive among all the company’s assembly facilities and about to undergo a $1.4 billion expansion and add more than 500 new jobs.

So, the thing that didn’t happen in this case was that GM’s decision makers didn’t cave in to the intimidation tactics of Arlington’s competing facility and chose instead to go with a winner.

 

Richard Greene was Arlington’s mayor from 1987-1997, was appointed by President George W. Bush as Regional Administrator to the EPA, and currently teaches in the University of Texas at Arlington’s graduate program in the

College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs.