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Will Trump Deliver On Promises To Bring Back Manufacturing Jobs?


President-elect Donald Trump's promise to bring back manufacturing jobs was attractive, even to card-carrying union members who have historically supported Democrats. It's not clear how or if Trump can deliver. And even if he does, there's been a price in recent years when manufacturing jobs are brought back to the United States - American workers accept lower salaries. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has more.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Tractor trailers are pulling in and out of this sprawling plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., where General Motors now makes one of its Cadillac SUVs. This is a plant that very nearly closed in the depths of the recession, especially when GM was on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, several thousand workers here, and things are so busy they're working around the clock - even did not take off Election Day, which is typically a holiday for this plant.

MIKE HERRON: Our workforce is - is tired, but they're very happy with the scenario in terms of the fact that we've got a highly popular product that's selling well in the marketplace. And that's a very good place for us to be.

FARMER: Mike Herron is the longtime chairman of the local United Auto Workers. His phone is buzzing nonstop, and he's a little out of breath from crisscrossing this huge complex, trying to train all the new hires. The SUV they're building is already a top seller, but Herron says not just any car can be made in the U.S. profitably.

HERRON: I'm saying be careful. Like, I'll give you an example. The Cadillac that we're building right now in this plant was brought back from Mexico.

FARMER: But getting production back hinged on the union agreeing to reduce starting pay by nearly half. The generous pensions are replaced by 401(k)s. And even the deep employee discounts on new cars are harder to come by.

HERRON: You can tell somebody that you're going to bring all these jobs back to America, but at the end of the day, the automotive manufacturers are going to have to make a financial return on their investment. And in order to do that, you have to figure out a way to make money in this country.

FARMER: And yet, GM hasn't had too much trouble finding job-seekers at its Tennessee plant.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Make sure you put your cards here, please.

FARMER: Trainees wear badges that say temporary as they line up to register with the union. Susan Richardson was hired on earlier this year.

SUSAN RICHARDSON: They started hiring the locals. So, you know, as soon as I heard that, I put in. And I'm actually getting my chance at it, so I'm just very, very blessed.

FARMER: She says she's been interested in working for GM since the company opened its plant in 1990. John Daniel Allen sees opportunity to regroup after shutting down his family's dairy farm.

JOHN DANIEL ALLEN: You know, I'm 40 years old and probably need some retirement and that kind of stuff, so I've decided to step out and try something new.

FARMER: For recent hires like Allen, it will take nearly a decade to work their way up the pay scale to where GM employees used to start. But that negotiated deal to cut labor costs was the only way to keep factories like this one going. Just like GM's Spring Hill plant itself, the union's fitness center is back in business. Sam Madewell is pumping iron on a day off and thinking about the future under a new president.

SAM MADEWELL: You know, we try to be optimistic about it, but, you know, I guess only time will tell.

FARMER: Maybe Trump will help the domestic auto industry, but Madewell doubts that workers will see it in their paychecks.

MADEWELL: There's a stronghold. I think it's in every organization. The company - the man is winning, you know? And I don't know if Trump is for us or against us, but seems like the man is winning. It seems like the man has won.

FARMER: Trump wasn't Madewell's choice. Still, he says he's willing to give the president-elect a chance.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Spring Hill, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.