GM Shreveport: back to the beginning

By Carolyn Roy - bio|email

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - It's been nearly 30 years since General Motors arrived in the ArkLaTex.  At one time, it was one of Louisiana's largest manufacturing employers, but it seems in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even before GM's Shreveport Assembly plant opened in the fall of 1981, the excitement about the company's investment in the region and it's people was palpable.  In a story on a January preview tour of the huge facility, then-KSLA reporter Wray Post said the new truck assembly plant interior "borders on the awesome, with 4.2 acres under one roof."

The automaker opened the plant in October 1981, with a dedication ceremony attended by then-GM president F. Jack McDonald.  With U.S. Senator Russell Long in the passenger seat, McDonald drove a new "S Truck" assembled there through a giant map of Louisiana.  As KSLA reporter Wray Post reported at the time, "It was a fitting symbol of the industrialization of the Sunbelt."

It was designed to build a new small, energy-efficient truck and bring hundreds of new jobs, even as the auto industry was suffering the biggest slump in more than 20 years.  GM posted the biggest loss of all the month of the dedication, with Post reporting, "As more than 350 invited guests toured the plant, a conspicuous gloom hovered over industry nationwide."

Still, there was an air of optimism.  The Chevrolet S Truck was a new entry into the truck field, touted as the first domestically-built line of small pickup trucks and an answer to foreign competition.  When local GM dealers got their first look at the new trucks, KSLA reporter Brian Irwin described them as "delighted with the new trucks, seeing them as the beginning of the renewal of interest in American-built automotive products," saying they "expected brisk sales on two counts: one, they see this as the truck of the future and two, it's a symbol of American ingenuity, built right here in Shreveport."

1,200 Employees worked there in those early days.  Demand was strong enough to add a second shift in 1983, when S Truck was replaced by the Chevy S10.  Production on the S10 and it's GM version, the GMC Sonoma, continued until 2003.

By the fall of that year, GM had invested $800 million dollars re-tooling and expanding the plant to build two new mid-sized trucks, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Talk of building the new Hummer line here began soon after, and became real with another $20 million dollar investment and 500 new jobs.  The first H3s rolled off the line in Shreveport on April 18th, 2005.  On that day, Plant Manger David Gibbons predicted,  "It's a well known recognized product in North America. It's going to be a global product.  It's going to put Shreveport on the national map."  And indeed, it was the industry's "fastest growing brand" by the following summer, driving up sales more than 100%.

Then, in the summer of 2008, oil prices spiked, sending gas prices into record highs and SUV sales sliding.  By fall, the housing crisis hit and the credit crunch delivered the knockout blow. In September of 2008, GM officials cut the second shift at the plant, leaving nearly 800 workers without jobs, and confirmed the Hummer line was officially for sale.

Now, the whole plant is up for sale.  At it's height, GM employed more than 3,200.  Today, they're back down to fewer than 1,200 employees and one shift.  Just as it was 30 years ago, they are up against slumping sales in a struggling economy and looking for ways to compete with foreign automakers.

Ironically, it could be a Chinese company that will take over the plant and continue production of the Hummer here.   China's Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co. agreed to buy the Hummer brand from GM this month.  The sale is still pending.  In the meantime, the plant will continue assembling the Hummer SUVs.

If it the deal comes through, GM will continue to build the H3 and the H3T at the Shreveport plant on a "contract assembly" basis for a "mutually agreed period of time."  Exactly how long that is has not been released, but it has been laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding as part of the proposed deal.

When employees return from an extended summer furlough in mid-August, they will resume production on the Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks.  The company says the exact date they will stop will depend upon market conditions, but the closure is slated for no later than June 2012.  After that, it will be put up for sale as an asset the company must shed in order to emerge from bankruptcy in leaner, more viable condition.

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