Auto Plant Shutdown Spares an Essential: Corvette Parts


As union officials grew concerned about factory safety, the three big U.S. automakers announced in March that they would shutter their North American operations, sending home roughly 150,000 workers.

But with a pandemic raging, a handful of General Motors workers have labored on — including several dozen at a plant in Bedford, Ind., that makes chassis for the Chevrolet Corvette, one of G.M.’s most iconic and expensive vehicles.

A G.M. spokesman, confirming the accounts of workers, said the factory’s continuing operation was aimed at reducing a chassis shortage and helping resume Corvette production more quickly once the company reopens an assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky.

The spokesman said that the Bedford plant was running three shifts a day — with about 20 people per shift, down from about 250 hourly workers normally — and that the workers had volunteered for the assignment, at their usual wage.

The exceptions to the broader shutdown shine a light on the sometimes murky debate over which economic activities should continue during the coronavirus pandemic, and how much discretion employers should have when making such decisions.

Still, few employers have asked rank-and-file workers to punch in while taking such prominent efforts to suspend their operations.

Corvette parts production in Bedford, which primarily supports new vehicles rather than repairs, has been running at some level since March and went to three shifts in April, according to the spokesman, though the making of parts there for other models has been suspended.

Each of the three big U.S. automakers is relying on a small number of workers during the shutdown, said Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the United Automobile Workers union, and the union has cooperated as long as the work is voluntary and adequate safety measures are in place.

He added that the workers were typically asked to help retool plants so that they could operate more safely after reopening, or to work on functions like the distribution of parts for repairs. G.M. has also brought back about 1,000 workers to make ventilators at a Kokomo, Ind., plant.

Since the initial closings, the U.A.W. has opposed what it considers to be premature efforts to recall workers generally, and it has reacted tepidly to announcements by Fiat Chrysler and G.M. that they will resume production this month.

Though it is unclear when Corvette assembly will resume, outside analysts have underscored the importance of the car — whose most recent model typically sells for $60,000 to $80,000 — to the company’s prospects.

The Morgan Stanley analysts said the Corvette could be critical to G.M.’s longer-term strategy if the company could take advantage of the car’s brand name and customer loyalty in other lines of business, such as B.E.V.s, or battery electric vehicles.

Corvette is “more than a needle-mover for G.M.,” the analysts wrote. “We’re looking at the potential of a hypothetical Corvette brand expansion, into S.U.V. and B.E.V.s, as a way for G.M. to help fund the transition to electric.”

The G.M. spokesman said the shortage of parts from Bedford was a problem because they were used at a key point in Corvette assembly.

Two G.M. employees in Bedford, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about company operations, said the shortage had to do with errors during the new production process. The company spokesman attributed the shortage to the gradual ramp-up typical for the introduction of a new vehicle.

One of the Bedford workers said he was not worried about safety because he primarily worked alone pouring hot metal and could stay at least six feet from co-workers unless he needed to consult a supervisor. The employee said that he had resumed working in late March, shortly after the plant closed, and that he had been at the factory for several weeks since then, though not every week.

The second worker said he had declined an offer to return to the plant, partly out of safety concerns.

“They wanted me to go to work, they needed someone to pour metal,” the worker said. “I chose not to go down. I did not want to risk getting sick.”



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