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Arlington GM Workers in Survival Mode <img src="" border="0">

By Shelley Kofler

Arlington, TX –


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When General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner speaks to the Greater Dallas Chamber on Thursday, GM workers in Arlington will be listening for encouragement. They are being handed what may be the toughest assignment in the GM family: become the sole producers of full-sized SUV's that will sell in a market shifting to fuel efficient vehicles. KERA's Shelley Kofler has more on how auto workers are hoping to meet the challenge.

The crack of pool cues and chatter ricochet from a front room at Lecia Gerkin-Patterson's home. Her three young daughters are enjoying a week day with their mom while she sips coffee in the kitchen.

Normally, on a Monday morning, Lecia would be bolting fuel lines into vehicle frames at the General Motors Plant in Arlington.

That's where we found her as GM announced a four-week shut down of the Arlington assembly line, which means Lecia will spend the month of July at home. She'll be laid off another three weeks through the end of the year when the plant closes again. The production cutback follows a 30 percent drop in this year's sales of the main SUV's built in Arlington.

Patterson and Reporter: Between my husband and I we have seven children he has four I have three. So you need this job. I definitely need this job. Do you ever think about the stability of being part of the automobile industry? Well, when you hire in you know nothing is for sure any more. You put away some savings. You have to cut back on your spending a little and ride it out like they did in the 70's. I'm third generation so I've seen how my grandparents did and I've seen how my parents did.

What they did then is what she says 2,400 Arlington auto workers are doing now, focusing on quality and giving 150 percent to keep their jobs and their plant. They have embraced a challenge like no other in the General Motors family. By 2010 theirs will be the only facility building the company's full-sized SUV's, a tough assignment as drivers pumping four-dollar-a-gallon gas abandon their 12-mile a gallon guzzlers.

At full production more that 1,000 trucks and SUV's roll off this assembly line each day

Auto worker pointing out vehicles: You want a Cadillac right here. You want a Tahoe, right here. You want a Yukon, right here.

Chevy Tahoes, GMC Yukons and exclusive Cadillac Escalades. The traditional SUV's only get about 12 to14 miles a gallon in the city and 20 on the highway. But window stickers being slapped on new Tahoe and Yukon hybrids promise up to 22 miles per gallon.

Lecia, like Local United Auto Worker President J.R. Flores, believes the hybrids could save Arlington from severe cutbacks, layoffs or the loss of one of the plant's two shifts.

Flores: The problem is when people picture SUV's they picture gas just pouring out of it and, you know, a bottomless tank eating at their wallet. But if they come and look at the hybrids I think they will buy them.

Another veteran autoworker Paul de la Cruz isn't so sure. He's eyeing the Tahoe hybrid's $54,000 sticker price.

De la Cruz and reporter: Do you think it will save the plant? Truthfully, no. Why? It's too late. It's an expensive vehicle and it's not going to save a lot of gas mileage. People need lighter vehicles and more affordable at the same time.

Plant management isn't candy coating the situation. Planning administrator Michael Stevens says the company's decision to shutter the plant for additional weeks was a bad sign.

Stevens: I'd say it's troubling. It means the economy is in worse shape than we were lead to believe. So as vehicle sales have continued to slide and gas prices have continued to inch up there are more people who are backing away from looking at a sports utility vehicle. So as the reversal in the market takes place it's very scary.

Stevens says GM owns about 63 percent of the SUV market which is shrinking but not going away. Customers who tow horse trailers and campers won't give up the power and size.

The mission now as Lecia Gerkin-Patterson sees it is for Arlington employees to deliver the customer satisfaction that has earned this plant many honors in the industry.

Patterson: We have better quality, better production, better people relationship between union and management and it paid off for us.

He says it's what may keep Texas' GM plant alive again this time.