By Bernie Woodall
LAKE ORION, Michigan (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers will seek a commitment from General Motors Co <GM.N> to build new products at two idled plants in Tennessee and Wisconsin in upcoming contract negotiations, a top union official said on Tuesday.
Reopening the plants is key to the UAW's strategy of focusing on jobs first and wages second in upcoming labor negotiations with the three major U.S. automakers, said Joe Ashton, the UAW's vice president for GM.
Ashton said it would be easier to reopen the idled assembly line at its Spring Hill, Tennessee, plant where GM still builds engines, and has stamping operations and about 1,000 hourly workers.
There is no production at GM's plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, where a handful of workers secure and maintain the property.
"Product commitments equate to jobs, so that is exactly the direction we are looking at," in upcoming labor talks, Ashton told reporters at GM's Orion Assembly plant near Detroit, which will begin making the Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano later this year.
"We're going to put a big emphasis on jobs," Ashton said, comparing this year's talks with those of four years ago when the UAW granted GM, Ford Motor Co <F.N>, and Chrysler concessions during hard economic times.
Chrysler is managed by Italy's Fiat SpA <FIA.MI>.
"We could talk about wages, which is really important to our membership," Ashton added. "But if you don't have jobs, as you can see, wages really don't mean as much."
The union will go into talks "the same way we have in the past. But we do know it's a different time. We want to remain competitive."
Later this year, the Orion assembly plant will have 1,550 workers on two shifts. Forty percent of those hourly workers will make what is called a second-tier wage. This wage is about half what the majority of the workers at the plant will make.
GM has 750 workers at the plant working on setting up for production and who are now training, said GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter.
The Orion plant is held up by the UAW and GM as an example of how the one-time bitter adversaries can keep jobs in the United States, due in large part to so many workers making the entry level wage of less than $15 per hour.
Allowing lower wages at Orion Assembly, helped keep the jobs in Michigan, said Ashton of the UAW and Cathy Clegg, vice president for labor relations at GM.
Ashton said GM could have easily sent those jobs to Mexico or South Korea otherwise.
The Spring Hill plant is where the Saturn brand of GM was born in the 1980s to better compete with Japanese brands. The brand developed a devoted following, but never made money for GM and it was shut in 2009.
The Janesville plant also was idled in 2009.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; editing by Tim Dobbyn and Andre Grenon)