General Motors and the United Automobile Workers union appear to have worked out a formula for labor peace, and that is good news for the GM plant on Broening Highway and for the lagging Baltimore economy.
With sales of minivans still holding up well in an otherwise soft auto market, the tentative national contract signed by GM and UAW all but guarantees steady jobs for the 3,700 employees at Broening and employment for 5,700 other Baltimore area residents tied to the operations of the GM plant, the city's second-largest employer.
In dollar terms, the plant itself represents an annual payroll of $155 million; spin-off for suppliers, sub-contractors and merchants adds another $108 million to the local economy. So any shutdown, especially with a recession threatening, would have come at a very bad time.
From the moment in 1984 when GM launched into the minivan field by plowing $270 million into its old Baltimore plant, the Broening highway operation has buttressed the city's dwindling industrial base. While American-made passenger cars were losing allure, minivans remained until this year the one GM model never sold at discount. And until this year, when a slow market caused a four-week shut-down in January, Broening never missed a beat. Output is now back to a rate of 200,000 vehicles per year, which requires two production shifts and a maintenance shift.
In national terms, the GM contract is expected to set a pattern for contracts at Ford and Chrysler. All Big Three automakers are hurting, not least General Motors, whose market share has shrunk from 45 per cent to 36 percent in only five years.
It has been a fractious period for labor relations as a contract loophole not seen by the union led to the idling of four plants. But now that both the company and the union have new leadership, the word is out that only increased productivity can meet the Japanese challenge. Baltimore's stake in the success of the new contract is immense.