How To Keep GM in Baltimore

December 23, 1991

A happy thing happened on Broening Highway last week. On the same day General Motors President Robert C. Stempel announced a mammoth retrenchment plan to close 21 plants and lay off 74,000 employees over the next few years, minivans with a new rear look rolled off the Baltimore assembly line for the first time.

Gone was the center post in the rear window that annoyed countless Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari drivers and turned off countless potential buyers. Despite plunging auto sales nationally, the new feature should boost the fortunes of one of GM's most popular vehicles. Demand is so great that Broening's 3,700 employees are working overtime and increasing production levels to 14,000 vans a week -- a rise of 18 percent.

Precisely two weeks before Mr. Stempel's grim news, something else delightfully out of kilter with the times occurred at the Broening Highway plant. After seven years of wrangling with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment was at last able to certify that the plant's painting operations were not in violation of Clean Air Acts. It took millions of investment dollars and strong-arm politicking, especially by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who heads the subcommittee with jurisdiction over EPA appropriations, to bring about this welcome change.

Baltimore's position thus will be strengthened in the middle of this decade, when GM decides where the next generation of truck-vans will be made. Because they are likely to be slightly larger vehicles, more body surface will have to be painted. That's where the emissions question becomes critical. Without EPA's blessing, the temptation for GM to go elsewhere would be that much greater. The new federal action could prolong the Baltimore monopoly on assembling GM truck-vans straight through the second half of this decade.

These two breakthroughs -- one almost guaranteeing a full work force for the present, the other raising hopes for the future -- do not mean Baltimore can relax. On the contrary, Mr. Stempel's plan to close ten assembly plants is already generating fierce competition among GM cities. Some will be trying to grab Baltimore's minivan franchise. Tens of millions of dollars, thousands of workers, hundreds of subcontractors and suppliers -- all ride in the balance.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer was a major mover in obtaining the minivan monopoly in 1984. Now he and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Maryland legislators should push a long-term action plan to protect Broening Highway's future. All the political pressure in the world will not help, however, unless management and labor cooperate as never before to make the Broening plant even more productive, efficient and quality conscious than it is now. Public-private teamwork is required to keep the area's largest manufacturer in business.

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