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Workers Return To GM’s Fairfax Plant On Monday, Months After Mass Layoffs

Clarence Brown is the United Autoworkers Local 31 president. He says he's ecstatic employees at Fairfax are returning to work but is cautious about the future because of the global supply chain.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Clarence Brown is the United Autoworkers Local 31 president. He says he's ecstatic employees at Fairfax are returning to work but is cautious about the future because of the global supply chain.

General Motors employees at the Fairfax Assembly and Stamping Plant resume production Monday. They've been idled since February due to the global semiconductor chip shortage.

Even though he hadn’t collected a paycheck from GM in seven months, Anthony Walker still spent days counseling his co-workers from the Fairfax Assembly and Stamping Plant, which had been idled since February 8.

Walker is the Employee Assistance Program counselor for workers and family at the plant, a role that he says continued even when they weren’t building cars.

“People that are dealing with addiction, because mental health and addiction don't stop, whether we're laid off or not,” he says.

Walker is now one of about 1,800 workers returning to the plant Monday, when the line starts up for the first time in months to produce the Cadillac XT4.

“The stress levels and the detriments on individuals and their families have been enormous,” Walker says. “The thought of maybe we will be there for a few months, working a little bit of normalcy, is a blessing, a good sound to hear.”

Ever since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the car industry as a whole has struggled with supply chain issues. And like many manufacturers, car makers like GM felt the sting of a worldwide shortage of semiconductor chips this last year.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Employees are returning Monday to manufacture the Cadillac XT4 at the Fairfax Assembly and Stamping Plant after a seven-month layoff.

Falan Yinug, director of industry statistics and economic policy at the Semiconductor Industry Association, says the increased demand for electronics put a lot of pressure on the global supply.

What caught manufacturers off guard, though, was how fast the demand for cars increased toward the end of 2020.

“We’re probably through the worst of it,” he says cautiously.

But catching up is going to take time, Yinug says.

“It’s literally modern-day alchemy,” he says. “It’s the most advanced manufacturing out there.”

It takes an especially long time to make a semiconductor chip, Yinug says — around 26 weeks. Without those parts, most cars and trucks cannot be manufactured. That disruption set off a ripple effect of plant closures that reached all the way to Kansas City.

Monday is the first day back in a week for temporarily-idled employees at the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, which manufactures the Ford F-150. The plant also laid off employees in May 2021 for more than a month.

At the Fairfax plant, Cadillac SUVs will resume production Monday, while Chevy Malibus aren’t slated to restart until Nov. 1.

In the near future, Yinug says the industry should start storing more inventory of chips. Currently, most U.S. automakers rely on a just-in-time inventory system, where they order the chips as they need them.

General Motors
Employees at the Fairfax Assembly and Stamping Plant took refresher training on the importance of preventing mobile equipment and pedestrian accidents before returning to work Monday.

For Clarence Brown, president of United Autoworkers Local 31, the return of workers offers some tenuous hope — even though he's still cautious about the supply of semiconductor chips.

“Monday’s going to be a day of work,” he says. “Some people are going to be doing different jobs, but what we do here in Fairfax is, we adjust.”

Brown says he grateful the workers will be able to provide for their families again, especially as the holiday season approaches.

“The uncertainty of the business we're in, and because of the chip only throws another curve into that,” he says. “But our hopes and my prayers, I bet we can survive and come back to the end of the year.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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