ORION TWP., MI – United Auto Workers union Vice President Joe Ashton expects General Motors to begin hiring new workers as soon as the remaining 1,200 hourly personnel are called back sometime before the end of the year.

Ashton revealed during last week’s UAW convention in Detroit that GM, some 20 months removed from bankruptcy and profitable last year for the first time since 2004, would call back to work all remaining laid-off employees.

The callbacks include a mix of workers earning wages at both ends of the 2-tier pay levels.

“We look forward to bringing everybody back to work by year’s end,” Ashton tells journalists at an event here linked to the September launch of the Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano small cars.

After that, Ashton adds, GM could “hire immediately” to fill other positions. The head of the UAW’s GM department does not speculate on numbers of new hires or their location, but says that later this year, “GM will make some announcements about where they will put product.”

Ashton admits much rides on the turnaround in consumer demand.

Sales have picked up in recent months after the recession, compelling GM to add workers and shifts at some assembly plants. But the destructive aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this month threatens production, which would limit product availability and perhaps pinch sales.

GM’s head of labor relations, Cathy Clegg, also is on hand here but declines to confirm Ashton’s hopes for the new hires. She also refuses to speculate on how deeply the events in Japan have affected U.S. production beyond the recent 1-week shutdown at the auto maker’s Shreveport, LA, assembly plant.

Speaking to specific assembly plants in Shreveport; Janesville, WI; and Spring Hill, TN; Ashton says he expects “the plants should be utilized as sales pick up.”

But unlike Janesville and Spring Hill, which were placed on “standby” status with GM’s bankruptcy, Shreveport is lumped in with a number of assets slated for liquidation.

Shreveport makes small pickups, and its stamping facility does extra work for GM’s fullsize trucks. But it does not have a product scheduled beyond June 2012. The facility could be restarted, sold or shut down.

“We differ on Shreveport,” Ashton says of talks between the UAW and GM over the site. “But we feel GM has an obligation to Shreveport.”

Standby status means GM has halted production at Janesville and Spring Hill but not removed the tooling from the facilities, and they could be restarted should demand warrant.

Securing future product commitments and safeguarding jobs will be atop the UAW’s agenda when it begins bargaining with the Detroit Three later this year on a new 4-year contract, Ashton says.

“Emphasis on jobs,” he says. “Wages don’t mean as much. We’re looking for product commitments. Product commitments equate to jobs.”

The UAW’s membership pushed its leaders at last week’s convention to reverse the 2-tier wage status at some Detroit Three assembly plants, saying it divides the workforce.

At Orion Twp., which lies some 50 miles (81 km) north of Detroit, about 40% of its workers earn wages at the lower second tier rate the auto makers won for a number of their sites during the last round of negotiations in 2007.

Detroit auto makers argued the cheaper labor would make their workforce more financially competitive with the transplants, most of which are not UAW-represented. GM says the wage tiers make it possible to build a small car in the U.S., unlike its hometown rivals that produce B-segment products in Mexico.

No UAW workers at Orion dropped down from the first tier to the second. Ashton says collaboration between the UAW and GM helped keep 1,640 jobs at the facility.