GM workers booed, but there was a message at Spring Hill

Those who are monitoring the comeback of General Motors might have missed a significant sign last week.

Beneath the boos and jeering from an audience of UAW workers at GM's engine plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., there was a subtle message of something big to come.

Here was the scene: GM North America President Mark Reuss travelled to the mostly dark and empty Spring Hill plant to formally announce that it will invest $483 million to add another engine line to the engine-plant portion of the big complex.

During the financial crisis of 2009, GM shut down vehicle production there, moving the Chevrolet Traverse to a plant southwest of Lansing, Mich. The engine plant stayed open. Some 2,000 auto assemblers lost their jobs.

Sitting on the makeshift stage with Reuss that day were various UAW leaders, Spring Hill management, local politicians, the local mayor, the governor of Tennessee, and Tennessee's two Republican U.S. Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. Almost all of them received hearty applause.

But Corker, who hails from Chattanooga where Volkswagen is spending $1 billion on a new auto plant, is persona non grata at Spring Hill. As GM was begging Congress for financial support in late 2008, Corker joined with a group of southern Republicans who argued against saving GM.

The conspiracy theory of 2009 was that GM pulled the Traverse out of Tennessee in order to punish Corker.

As he stepped up to the podium to address the plant's workers last week, he was met with a wall of unrestrained booing, leaving him momentarily silent and his seated neighbors embarrassed. But then the senator went on with his remarks.

So what can GM watchers divine from that moment?

The sign worth noting isn't that the UAW is still furious with Corker. GM management probably doesn't think much of him, either, frankly.

The sign worth noting is that Corker was sitting there at all.

Ask yourself: Why would UAW Enemy No. 1 subject himself to being heckled and humiliated at a celebratory event? Or for that matter, why would Mark Reuss even bother inviting Corker to the event?

The answer is that the local family is setting aside bygones in order to move forward in 2010. Sitting there in the engine factory that day were a popular Democratic governor, two Republican senators, local politicians, the president of GM North America, the regional head of the UAW, and others -- all saying the same words: Our desire is to see another vehicle go into production at Spring Hill.

That's how states woo automakers these days. In order to accomplish anything that ends in “billions” any more, all parties have to be at the table and cooperating. In 2009, they were not. In 2010, they are. Chances are that all of them working together -- even Bob Corker -- will now restart Spring Hill.