7. GM Plant Almost Shuts Down
With Christmas approaching in 1991, my assistant walked into my office and announced that the chairman of General Motors was on the phone and wanted to speak with me.
How nice, I though. 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. Christmas being upon us seemed a good time for such a chat.
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. It was the least popular of the company’s entire line up.
Worst still, they were building it not only in Arlington but also in one of their plants in the Detroit area. He said they certainly didn’t need to be building a car they couldn’t sell in two different plants. One was more than they actually needed.
Next he explained that the cost to build the car in Arlington was higher due to transportation charges. He said that wasn’t the only factor but I needed to begin to think about how my town would deal with the shut down of the 40-year-old plant that had literally 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 circles in my office 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.”
But, 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 realization, 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.
More important than the financial blow, I was convinced, was the image of Arlington losing the thing that set the city’s future into motion in 1951 when GM announced they had chosen our city as the place in Texas where they would build their cars.
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.
In the following days, I contacted Governor Ann Richards and 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 the media.
The people of Arlington joined the campaign. We produced a bumper sticker that was a take off on General Motor’s national sales message that they were the “Heartbeat of America.”
Our theme was to “Keep GM the Heartbeat of Arlington” and it caught on big time. We put up banners at city hall. The slogan caught on with newspapers and television. Our message was spreading all the way to Detroit.
The national media all 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.
Even though all of this was potentially effective in convincing the GM board of directors that Arlington was committed to a long future with the company, producing the best product at the lowest possible price was going to be critically important in deciding which plant to keep.
To that end, I spent more time with the plant manager and chairman of the local automobile workers union 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 pickup trucks and SUV’s. The icon of the new line up was the Suburban, also known as the National Car of Texas.
In years to come the plant would undergo several phases of robotic and technological upgrades and multiple expansions each costing more than the original facility – all to the lasting economic benefit of the city’s largest employer and biggest taxpayer.
So the thing that didn’t happen in this case was that GM’s unafraid decision makers didn’t cave in to the intimidation tactics of Arlington’s competing facility and chose instead to go with a winner.
The most popular bumper sticker in the history of the city - everybody could join the campaing to save the GM plant.