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Return of 'third shift' for automakers brings hope, economic ripple effect

By Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Anthony Pylant, an idled auto worker from Tennessee, was relieved and excited when he got a letter that a General Motors assembly plant in Flint, Mich., was adding a third shift.

“You don’t know what you got until it’s gone and man, we didn’t realize what we had, you know, until we lost it,” Pylant said.

In 2009, the Spring Hill, Tenn., GM plant where Pylant worked shut down. Pylant searched for work for two years, but nothing he found matched the money or benefits he had before he was laid off.

“It’s sort of a pride thing,” Pylant said.  “It really hurt, so when this came up. It was like, I got to do what I know how to do, you know.”

In November of last year, Pylant and two of his co-workers from the Tennessee plant moved into a sparse apartment in Flint, Mich.

“After a lot of crying and tears and packing up, here all three of us are in Michigan,” Pylant said.

Pylant and his roommates, Dave Gray and Marcus Tyler, pack their lunches and travel to their 11 p.m. shift together five nights a week. They work on the assembly line until 7 a.m. 

“You got to be a vampire, sleep during the day while everybody else is living their life,” Pylant said.


The third shift in Flint is one of five places where General Motors has added a graveyard shift since it received a $50 billion bailout from the government in 2009. 

Nationwide, other automakers have added third shifts as well. In Belvidere, Ill., Chrysler recently announced plans to add a third shift by the summer. Ford recently added a third shift to a plant in Chicago.  

“We have studied third shifts and we’re very careful about when we put them on.  The last thing we want to do is put on a third shift, bring people in from around the country, disrupt their lives, bring them here and then something happens,” said Larry Zahner, manufacturing manager for General Motors North America.  “So we’ve been very careful assuring when we put the third shift on, it’s going to stick.”

Two years ago, GM shut down the third shift at the Flint assembly plant after the automaker was forced to file for bankruptcy and ask the government for help.  GM pared down pension packages, got rid of thousands of jobs, hundreds of dealerships and watched their stock price tumble.

Now the automaker that some nicknamed ‘Government Motors’ in the wake of the economic collapse appears to be turning a corner.  It is now the number one automaker in the world, a title it regained in part to Toyota’s struggles after the devastating tsunami.  The company is expected to announce its 2011 net income Thursday and some have predicted it will be a record high for the company.

“While what’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S. may not be the slogan of the day, when we create a job, we still help the economy and we create more jobs outside,” Zahner said.

The addition of the third shift in Flint has added 750 jobs at the plant. Most of the jobs have gone to long laid-off auto workers. The jobs pay around $29 an hour with benefits.

Union local head Barry Campbell and plant chief Amy Farmer said that since the bailout, there’s been a shift in how labor and management relations interact with one another.

“We strategize together, we plan projects together, we execute together,” Farmer said.

Both Farmer and Campbell were born and raised in Flint.  They say that the third shift makes them hopeful about Flint’s future.

“We’re always looking for available floor space.  I want to fill every inch.  I want all the jobs.  I want to continue to build trucks.  I want our kids hopefully down the road to have jobs too, right here in Flint,” Campbell said.

Flint, nicknamed ‘Vehicle City,’ has long been emblematic of the rise and fall of the auto industry.  It has shrunk to almost half the city it once was. In its heyday, there were 80,000 auto related jobs, now there are only 7,000 auto related jobs.  The iconic plant, founded in 1947, once rolled vehicles like the Corvette and Bel Air off its line.  Now, it churns out 684 Chevrolet Silverado HD trucks each day.  Experts say that the increasing demand for the heavy duty truck, named truck of the year by Motor Trend in 2011, is a positive economic sign.

“I think the Flint assembly plant and the heavy duty trucks here are a real economic indicator of where we’re going.  People are going back to work.  Companies are starting to buy pickup trucks for their businesses.  This is all great news,” said Joanne Muller, the Detroit bureau chief for Forbes Media who has covered the auto industry for 20 years.

Muller said that the jobs gain at the assembly plant is rippling through the community.  

“They say for every auto assembly job, there are 10 jobs that are added, whether it’s through suppliers, hairdressers, bars,” Muller said.  “It rolls through a community and you can really see it with the ups and downs of Michigan, you know? When the auto industry is doing well, Michigan is doing well.  When it’s not, nobody is doing well.”

Three miles from the GM plant, Oakley Industries has added 12 full time jobs at their sub assembly plant.   Workers there assemble tires that are then used at the GM plant.  A parts supplier, LSI, also added 60 new jobs.

On a visit by NBC News to Angelo’s Coney Island, a 63-year-old restaurant in Flint, owner Neil Helmkay said that the increase in plant workers means that he’ll likely add a few more waitresses.

“I’ve probably increased business anywhere from 5 percent to 8 percent and as GM gets more jobs in the area, of course we’re going to grow along with everybody else,” Helmkay said.

Forbes bureau chief Muller described the auto industry as ‘woven into the fabric of Flint’ and said that GM’s decision to add a third shift in Flint was as much a political decision as a business one.   

“GM made the decision to invest here because it was politically the right thing to do.  They owed it to their workers.  They owed it to their heritage.  They owed it to the government,” Muller said.  “Even though it’s smaller, their presence here is smaller than it used to be, I think there’s a connection and there always will be.”

For Pylant, the once idled GM worker who has returned to the assembly line, the job is precious.

“You know, I didn’t go to college, but I’m making a good salary.  It’s the last stand of the middle class family,” Pylant said.  “There’s a million people across this nation who would swap spots with us in a heartbeat, so I don’t take it for granted at all.”

Editor's Note: Correspondent Mike Taibbi will appear live on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams to discuss the impact of his report, 'The Graveyard Shift,' on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 9pm/8c.