Foreseeing continued depressed automobile sales, the General Motors Corp. said yesterday it will indefinitely lay off 300 of the 3,500 workers at its Broening Highway minivan plant.
The layoffs will begin Jan. 22 and may reduce the output of Baltimore's only automobile assembly plant by more than 10 percent, union and management officials said.
Philip Frame, who follows the minivan market for the Detroit-based trade publication Automotive News, said he thinks the Baltimore plant is safe from a shutdown but that GM must cut employment because of projections that 1991 will be even worse than 1990 for sales.
Domestic car and truck sales, which reached more than 15 million in 1988, are likely to drop to 14.3 million vehicles this year and sink below 14 million in 1991, Mr. Frame said.
"They are looking ahead, for once," Mr. Frame said.
Rodney Trump, president of the area's United Auto Workers union local, said the plant's managers and labor representatives haven't discussed the numbers or mechanism of the Baltimore layoff.
But he said most of the laid-off workers probably would have at least five years' seniority at the plant.
He said plant officials told him they planned to slow the assembly line down from 47 vans to 42 vans an hour. GM executives said the 47-van-an-hour line would be slowed, but they declined to say how much.
"We were working overtime earlier this year," Mr. Trump noted. "Then the economy went to hell."
Because of a recently signed labor pact, the laid-off workers will receive up to 95 percent of their usual pay from a combination of state unemployment insurance and a company fund for 36 weeks, said plant spokesman Terry Youngerman.
The Baltimore minivan plant has escaped previous waves of consolidations and layoffs in the industry, but Mr. Trump said he wasn't surprised by the layoff announcement. "The whole damn world's coming apart," he said.
Only 119,153 Baltimore-produced Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans had been sold this year through Nov. 1, said Kari Hulsey, assistant public affairs director for GM's truck and bus group in Detroit. That is down almost 13 percent from sales in the same period last year, she said.
Wayne Currie, sales manager for the Miller Bros. Chevrolet dealership on U.S. 40 in Howard County, said yesterday that minivan sales dropped precipitously a couple of months ago.
"For two years we saw a slow decline. Then we had two big crises in the last 90 days," he said, referring to Congress' inability to settle the government budget deficit and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
"This has not been a gradual taper. It has been a severe nose-dive. We're being skinned," he said.
"Now we see people who are worried they are not going to keep their jobs. . . . Veterans Day is usually a big holiday for us. But this year, nobody was here."
Sales of fuel-efficient cars are improving, and dealers are still selling cars to first-time buyers and those who need new transportation, but "there is no impulse purchasing," Mr. Curry said. "Nobody out there is buying because they feel like buying a car." Usually, the dealership tries to keep a 60- to 70-day inventory of vehicles on its lot, Mr. Curry said. But now the dealership has a 90-day inventory of Astro and Safari vans, he said.
Last year, faced by declining minivan sales, GM's Baltimore plant laid off all of its assembly workers for four extra weeks by extending its Christmas holiday shutdown into late January.
If sales continue to flag, GM might also shut down the entire plant for a few extra weeks, Ms. Hulsey said.
"It is such a fluid situation," she said, explaining that the plant's schedule could be altered again.
The regularly scheduled Christmastime layoff, during which workers are paid, will run from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2 this year, she said.
The layoff announcement follows the announcement by the nation's largest carmaker of several huge cost-cutting moves.