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As GM Hires, Michigan City's Outlook Brightens

A line worker checks vehicles at the General  Motors Hamtramck assembly plant in November. GM is adding two shifts and about 2,500 jobs at the plant.
A line worker checks vehicles at the General Motors Hamtramck assembly plant in November. GM is adding two shifts and about 2,500 jobs at the plant.

Hamtramck, Mich., has seen its fortunes rise and fall with the auto industry. In recent years, they've been falling. But now there's reason for some optimism. General Motors says it will add 2,500 jobs at its Detroit-Hamtramck plant, and bring production of the next-generation Chevy Impala to the facility.

The plant, which straddles the border dividing the two cities, has not exactly been humming with activity in recent years. Sluggish demand for the cars it produced had the plant running one shift, four days a week.

But Mark Reuss, GM's North American president, recently told workers that's about to change.

"We're going to add a second shift, and then a third shift at some point after that. Three shifts," Reuss said as workers cheered.

The line at Detroit-Hamtramck has never run more than two daily shifts in its 26-year history. But company officials say they're confident that demand for the vehicles the plant now produces — the hybrid-electric Chevy Volt, the Malibu and later the Impala — will be strong enough to triple its workforce and run production around the clock.

'A Shot In The Arm'

Lige Ridley drives a forklift on the plant's east dock. After years of layoffs, buyouts, union concessions and ultimately the company's bankruptcy, Ridley says the jobs announcement could not have come at a better time.

"A shot in the arm," Ridley says. "A good shot in the arm. It's about time, isn't it?"

Cathie Gordon thinks so. She owns a bar just up the street from the plant called the New Dodge Lounge. It was named for the Dodge factory that closed in 1980. Dodge Main, as it was known, provided jobs for many of the Polish immigrant families who settled in Hamtramck.

Gordon bought the bar in 1985, the same year GM opened its assembly plant.

"When we first bought the bar, I would probably service and feed approximately 100 guys in one hour for lunch. Business was booming," Gordon says.

But then the layoffs started. Slowly at first, then in bigger waves.

"With the economy and more layoffs, you see my business," she says. Gordon points toward her bar, where there's one lone patron nursing a Miller High Life.

Struggling To Stay Afloat

In addition to being a business owner, Gordon is also a Hamtramck City Council member. And like her business, the city has been struggling to stay afloat. Last year, Hamtramck flirted with the idea of bankruptcy. And officials have had to scramble to avoid payless paydays.

Gordon says any new jobs will help. And she hopes some of her former regulars get called back from layoff so she can make them lunchtime burgers, and pour them drafts after their shifts end.

There are about 1,300 laid-off GM workers, and they'll be called back to work before anyone new is hired. Then the company will go to a list of people referred by current workers.

Dwayne Durant paints Chevy Volts at the plant. "I gave my nephew my referral. And he's been he's been out of work for two years, so hopefully they'll call him. It's just a good thing to have the opportunity to get a job," he says.

If he's hired, Durant's nephew won't make the kind of money his uncle does. New hires will be paid "second-tier" wages: about $14 an hour, or half what senior workers earn.

"But you know, I look at it like this: 'Oatmeal is better than no meal.' So you take the good with the bad. And hopefully with this new contract they'll get some of those benefits back," Durant says.

The 2,500 jobs being added in Hamtramck are a drop in the bucket when compared with the nearly 900,000 jobs the state lost between 2000 and 2009. But economists say the auto industry, which steered Michigan's economy off a cliff during those years, now appears poised to help lead the state into a sustained economic recovery.

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