There was another obstacle. GM and the UAW had to figure out how to cut labor costs at the plant.
For decades, the UAW and automakers fought openly as the companies tried to reduce costs and the union demanded pay increases. The UAW would strike, or threaten to, and the companies would cave in. By 2007, GM was paying $1,400 more per vehicle for labor than nonunion Toyota.
That same year, both sides agreed to a historic compromise on labor costs. They established a two-tier wage system that would pay new employees around $14 an hour, or half the hourly wage of older workers. Worker pay and pensions were frozen. Union trusts funded by the company and workers would take over retiree health care costs. Union President Bob King said each worker gave up at least $7,000 during the four-year contract.
But GM still couldn't make money building the Sonic at Orion without an immediate influx of lower-wage workers. So the UAW and GM went beyond the national agreement and came up with an unprecedented solution. More lower-wage workers could be hired at Orion than any other plant in the country. Forty percent would be paid the lower wage, as opposed to a maximum of 25 percent at other factories.
"We all sort of wanted to do something that was very radical that would test those relationships and also test our ability to be really competitive here," said Mark Reuss, GM's North America president.
Union leaders Sweeney and Dunn accepted the deal in October 2010, figuring it was better to have lower-paying jobs than none at all. They were vilified by some workers.
"People like to complain, but I think deep down inside, they realize what we had to do and why we did it and how everybody's truly benefiting," Dunn said. "It's better than having the doors closed and wondering where your next paycheck is coming from."
After the wage deal, GM started moving equipment into Orion. But there were still no workers to support the restaurants and shops surrounding the plant.
By early 2010, some of the small businesses around Casey's Chicken had started to close. Engineers who had been laid off by nearby parts suppliers came in asking to work for owner Casey Barnard for $8 an hour.
Meanwhile, plant workers were struggling. Unemployment benefits and a subsidy from GM that provided up to 70 percent of their pay began to run out. Some took jobs at other GM plants in Ohio or Missouri, where they bunked with fellow workers in crowded apartments or trailers and commuted home on weekends.
At the UAW hall, meetings had standing-room only crowds of 500 and lasted for hours. Workers stepped up to the microphone asking for help because their homes were being foreclosed and their cars repossessed.
"That was really crushing, going through that time," Dunn said. "These people had been working and making their payments all along on time and then the economy just dropped out on them."
Workers started trickling back to the plant in November 2010. But it wasn't enough for Casey's Chicken. After 14 years, the restaurant closed in the fall of 2011. Barnard is now working at a vacuum store a few doors from his former restaurant.
"I put every dime I had into keeping the business alive, but it came to a point where I couldn't afford it. I spent the college fund and everything in the bank," he said. "I had a passion for it, loved it. But you see that wall coming at you, and you know you're going to get crushed."
THE COMEBACK BEGINS
Early in 2010, Americans began returning to car dealerships as the economy improved. Sales were nowhere near pre-recession levels, but they were enough for GM to celebrate its first quarterly profit in three years.
As a dreadful winter ended, GM delivered on its promise to invest at Orion. Crates of robot arms, carts and conveyor parts arrived, filling the vast open space that had frightened Dunn just a few months earlier.
By midyear, Lang, the assembly line worker, got an offer from GM to move 160 miles away to Lordstown, Ohio, to work on the Chevrolet Cruze. By then, it was clear Orion would reopen to build the Sonic, and there were hopes of getting another car, the compact Buick Verano.