DETROIT -- General Motors on Monday said it planned to bring nearly 700 jobs back to its idled assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., next year for work on any of the company's cars whenever extra production is needed.
Such a flexible plant, which GM said would allow for "real-time reaction to sales spikes in a given car or crossover," would be unusual in the auto industry. The company said it would spend $61 million preparing the plant to start building the Chevrolet Equinox, a small Canadian-built crossover for which GM has had difficulty keeping up with demand, in the second half of 2012.
GM said it would later add about 1,200 more jobs at the plant and invest $183 million to build a new midsize vehicle there for the 2015 model year.
GM agreed in September to reopen the Spring Hill plant as part of its four-year labor agreement with the United Automobile Workers union. The assembly plant, originally the home of GM's now-defunct Saturn brand, shut down in 2009, though an engine plant on the site remains in operation.
"Spring Hill has a history as one of GM's most innovative and flexible plants," Cathy Clegg, GM's vice president of labor relations, said in a statement. "We're pleased that, working together with the UAW, we were able to build on that history and develop a plan to resume production at Spring Hill."
Though the event was largely celebratory, the workers loudly booed Bob Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee, who criticized the union during Congressional hearings in 2008 that led to the federal government bailouts of GM and Chrysler.
GM and UAW officials said they expected to hire 400 to 500 new workers as part of the first round of jobs coming back to the plant. Those workers would be paid entry-level wages, which start at about $15 an hour, a little more than half as much as full-wage workers earn.
"The best economic stimulus that there is a job," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said at a ceremony at the plant Monday. "And Spring Hill is going to have plenty of new jobs coming in."
A small number of the workers who were laid off when the plant closed remain in the area, about 30 miles south of Nashville. Others transferred to GM plants in other states, but of those who did, only 280 chose a relocation package that allowed them to automatically transfer back to Spring Hill when the plant reopened. About 800 others gave up that right by choosing to take a $30,000 lump-sum relocation payment, Clegg said on a conference call with reporters.
Most of the dislocated former Spring Hill employees now work in Lansing, Mich. Some left their families behind in Tennessee and were hoping the plant's resurrection would mean they could return home.
Joe Ashton, a UAW vice president who leads the union's GM department, said it was unclear how many of the Spring Hill jobs would be on the entry-level pay scale because some of the former employees who transferred would undoubtedly want to stay at their new plant.
Clegg said the plan to build the Equinox in Spring Hill would not affect production of the vehicle at two plants in Canada where it is currently built. Sales of the Equinox are up 45 percent in the United States this year, and it has been consistently in short supply since being redesigned more than two years ago.
The reopening of GM's Spring Hill plant was a major victory for the union during the contract negotiations. The UAW president, Bob King, said he believed getting the plant back online and persuading the three Detroit automakers to commit to adding nearly 20,000 new jobs over all was more critical than asking for wage increases.
"Collectively in the UAW, we made a decision to make the communities in America our No. 1 priority," King told workers who gathered at the plant Monday for the announcement. "Most important to us was creating jobs for more Americans."
The mayor of Spring Hill, Michael Dinwiddie, called the plant's reopening "a tremendous moment in history" and expressed his elation that GM was coming back to "this underdog of a city that almost everyone had written off."