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GM Workers Worry That Plant Shutdowns May Not Be Over

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Across the U.S., thousands of General Motors workers spent a second day on picket lines today. They want higher wages, especially for those at the bottom of the company's pay scale. And they want GM to restart assembly plants it shut down this year. But the company still has lots of unused capacity, and it may not be done closing plants. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You'll sign right next to your name, and it's in alphabetical order, so...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: It's nearly 11 o'clock at the union hall in Kansas City, Kan. Dozens of people are walking in from the dark to a plastic folding table to sign up for the night shift, midnight to 6 a.m., walking the picket lines at the Fairfax assembly plant. Almost 2,200 hourly employees are on strike here. UAW Local 31 President Clarence Brown says the biggest issue for him isn't wages or benefits but something much more basic - job security.

CLARENCE BROWN: They're closing plants in the United States of America, scattering their - our members and their families all over the country.

MORRIS: Late last year, General Motors announced plans to shut down three North American assembly plants - Lordstown, Ohio, where GM made the Chevy Cruze compact car; Detroit-Hamtramck, then producing Chevy Volts and larger sedans; and Oshawa, Ontario, which had been making Cadillacs and Impalas. See the pattern here? They were all building primarily cars, not trucks or SUVs - cars.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: Cars are not doing so well, and that's part of GM's problem.

MORRIS: Kristin Dziczek at the Center for Automotive Research says GM has capacity to make an extra million vehicles a year.

DZICZEK: Almost all of it dedicated to sedan production. So there is a problem with GM sedans in the market.

MORRIS: The company can produce way more than it can sell, and Dziczek says even stopping the assembly lines at the shuttered plants this year didn't take up enough slack. She says some plants are running well below capacity, including one here in Kansas which builds an old standby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) And Chevrolet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where are you going, America?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) To Malibu.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Looks like a large slice of America's going to Malibu. Chevy's new sized...

MORRIS: GM introduced the Chevy Malibu in the 1960s and relaunched it in the '90s as a value family sedan. But sales have tanked in the last few years, and auto trader analyst Michelle Krebs says that's part of a larger trend.

MICHELLE KREBS: There has been a dramatic shift by consumers away from traditional cars to sport utility vehicles, and so that's made plants that build cars vulnerable.

MORRIS: That includes two GM plants in Michigan - Lansing Grand River and the Lake Oregon assembly plant - as well as the one in Kansas City, Kan. And Krebs says the prospect of idling these plants may be part of the contract negotiations going on now.

KREBS: The focus has been on the plants that have been announced, but I have to believe behind the scenes there is discussion about all of these other plants as well.

MORRIS: Because it isn't sustainable to run an auto assembly plant below half capacity. Kristin Dziczek says GM will have to find better-selling vehicles to build in its underperforming plants or close more of them. And that would be a blow to these workers picketing the plant in Kansas City, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)

MORRIS: For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.