United Auto Workers members walk off the job and picket at the Chrysler LLC world headquarters after the UAW and Chrysler LLC failed to reach a tentative contract agreement by an 11am UAW strike-imposed deadline October 10, 2007 in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

United Auto Workers members walk off the job and picket at the Chrysler LLC world headquarters after the UAW and Chrysler LLC failed to reach a tentative contract agreement by an 11am UAW strike-imposed deadline October 10, 2007 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/TNS)

DETROIT - On the picket line Wednesday in front of the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, a worker carrying a "UAW on Strike" sign used body language to say he thinks his plant has been a bargaining chip for contract negotiations.

While he offered a quick "No comment," the man pointed to his head, which was nodding a vigorous, "Yes."

Earlier in the week, Nelson Worley, who's worked at the plant since the year it opened in 1985, was even clearer.

"I've always felt they'll keep it open," Worley said.

That belief is a far cry from the headlines that rang out last year.

The fate of the more than 4 million-square-foot plant straddling the border of Detroit and Hamtramck, an enclave within the larger city, had been thought sealed in November when GM announced it was "unallocating" five of its plants in the United States and Canada, one of which was Detroit-Hamtramck.

The announcement was widely condemned in part because of language connected to the UAW contract believed to protect the plants from closure and a belief that GM's creative use of language was disingenuous at best. "Unallocated" meant, simply, no new vehicle was allocated to the plant for assembly.

Before the strike, however, the plant was still operating on an extension granted in February to produce the Cadillac CT6 and Chevrolet Impala even after GM ended production of the once-revolutionary Chevy Volt. That extension, numerous informed rumors and talk of an electric pickup have prompted more than idle speculation that the GM plant closest to the company's headquarters in downtown Detroit could have a second act as an electric truck plant.

A GM spokesman directed a reporter to a series of statements from the company and its executives to show that the company began publicly discussing electric pickup plans, without details, in April. Electric trucks were also part of GM's offer to the UAW, whose members have been on strike this week.

Was the original intent to use D-Ham as a bargaining chip in UAW negotiations when the company long intended to retool the plant as a showplace for a new electric vehicle? Experts are mixed in that assessment, but they seem to agree that this plant, perhaps more so than the others, has a good chance of producing future vehicles.

'Successful track record'

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues, thinks Detroit-Hamtramck could remain open, producing electric trucks.

While that would be welcome news for workers, more crucial questions involve the details if the plant does not close.

"I think the factory is viable. I think GM could well keep it open. You've got a good workforce. You've got a successful track record," Shaiken said, noting that specifics matter. "Are you putting (in) one electric vehicle or three, and what is the projected time frame? You could have 600 workers (or) 800 like you do right now. It's better than a closed plant, but not what many workers are hoping for."

Art Wheaton, a director at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said GM's announcement last year was unusual because such plant news typically stems from the bargaining table. It's not just negative announcements either. Now, whether to placate a president who likes to weigh in on automotive industry news or other politicians, companies have been making plant investment news outside of the traditional bargaining framework, a move that effectively takes away a win from the union even though "the company always makes the decision about what to build and where to build (it)."

Wheaton referenced the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announcement in February of a massive investment in the Detroit area, including the decision to turn the Mack Engine complex on the city's east side into a new assembly plant for SUVs. An investment by GM at D-Ham for what would be seen as a future-looking electric vehicle production plant would fit a theme.

"There's a bigger push to make Detroit the auto capital again," Wheaton said.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said that it may never be known whether GM always intended to keep production at D-Ham, but an electric truck announcement for the plant would serve both the company's ends and the union's.

"Seems like everyone wins," he said.

Better than no jobs

Although an electric vehicle plant, and the companies that would supply it, are likely to employ fewer workers than a comparable internal combustion engine plant and its suppliers, the prospect of more new jobs remains a plus, Brauer said.

"Dropping numbers may not be the best news. ... But it's better than no numbers," Brauer said. "If electric vehicle demand really starts to swing around, then who's to say we couldn't have more plants and more workers even if (the individual plants have) fewer workers."

Whether electric trucks are a commercial success is not a given, at least in the short term, however.

One challenge to the vision is that the cost and range are not conducive for electric truck sales at this time, according to Brauer. The enthusiastic reaction to Michigan startup Rivian's unveiling of a planned electric pickup last year, however, offers the possibility of a robust future market. Incidentally, Ford's decision to invest in Rivian, which also has substantial backing from Amazon, has put pressure on GM, which reportedly flirted with its own potential investment in Rivian.

So where does that leave D-Ham, a plant with as fraught a history as any? While GM comes in for harsh criticism for any plant closure, in part because of assistance during its 2009 bankruptcy, the prospect of a closed D-Ham carries extra baggage because of what was destroyed to create it. The government's use of eminent domain to clear 1,000 homes in the Poletown neighborhood for the plant engendered lasting animosity among many in the Detroit area even as workers have built their livelihoods from its presence.

Rashida Tlaib, the U.S. House representative from Detroit who has been attacked by and called for the impeachment of President Trump, had a clear message for GM earlier this week in a meeting with the Free Press editorial board: keep the plant open or give the property back to the public.

"Look at the history of what we gave up to give them that plant, and they're abandoning us?" she said.

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