Auto plant - GM photoGeneral Motors earned its largest profit ever in 2011, two years after it nearly collapsed.

Strong sales in the United States and China helped the automaker turn a profit of $7.6 billion, beating its old record of $6.7 billion set during the pickup and SUV boom of 1997.

GM said 47,500 blue-collar workers in the United States will get $7,000 profit-sharing checks in March.

The car company is vastly different than it was in 1997. It’s smaller and has less debt, and its union contract is less costly.

(READ the AP story in the Charlotte Observer)