Future uncertain for local GM plant

November 22, 1992|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

It all started 57 years ago with the rhythmic sounds of clanging metal and the flashy fireworks of welding torches.

FDR was president and the world was still in the grip of the Great Depression when the first car -- a shiny, black Chevrolet Master Deluxe sedan -- rolled off the assembly line at General Motors Corp.'s factory of the future, the auto assembly plant in southeast Baltimore.

Nearly 11 million vehicles followed, as the plant produced a wide variety of models including Chevy Impalas, Buicks, GMC pickup trucks and Astro and Safari minivans.

Now, that long stretch could be coming to an end.

Industry insiders say the Broening Highway factory -- the city's largest manufacturer, with about 3,400 workers -- is running on empty. One calls Baltimore "highly vulnerable" as financially troubled GM looks to cut costs by closing factories. Another says, "Baltimore is doomed."

Among the threats to the factory: Baltimore's inability to meet federal air pollution standards, consolidation of the auto industry in the Midwest and GM's evaluation of other production sites for a restyled van being considered for the 1996 model year.

GM officials won't say much about the future of Baltimore, stressing that a decision has not been made.

But one outspoken advocate for the factory is Rodney A. Trump, president of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers. "We have one of the best, if not the very best, work forces in the country right here in Baltimore. . . . We've had a reputation from 1935 to 1992 of building some of the best-quality vehicles in the world."

He says it wouldn't make sense to close a plant that has served GM well and that not too long ago was among the most profitable in the company's line-up. And he can offer plenty of other reasons to keep the plant open: a good location, excellent transportation, a mild climate and reasonable energy costs.

Speculation over the factory's future began late last year when GMannounced that it would close some factories to cut production costs and to become more competitive with the likes of Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda. GM's announced target: closing 21 plants and eliminating 74,000 jobs by 1995.

GM, which posted a $970.7 million loss for the first nine months of 1992, already has named four assembly plants that will close by 1995. Announcements on four more plants are expected by the end of 1992, and others will follow.

Automotive News, the industry's respected trade publication, raised some eyebrows in Baltimore in August when it put the local minivan assembly plant on its list of factories that "could be among the plants to close."

But Phil Frame, a staff member who worked on the list, says, "That list is obsolete. If we were doing it today I would amend that it and put Baltimore under the [heading of] plants that will probably close. Personally, I think Baltimore is doomed."

Van production, he says, could be shifted to GM's Oklahoma City plant, which has excess capacity.

David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, also offers a gloomy forecast for Baltimore. "It would not be surprising at all that the Baltimore plant goes," said Mr. Cole, whose father, Edward N. Cole, served as GM's president in the late 1970s.

Like Mr. Frame, he included Baltimore among the four plant closings that GM expects to announce soon. Even if Baltimore escapes this round of closings, they say, the word could come later.

Baltimore's failure to meet federal air quality standards represents a "very, very serious problem" for the plant, Mr. Cole says. Air quality, he said, "is right at the top of the heap of factors [auto] manufacturers look at when they have to make plant closing decisions."

GM could be forced to spend money on emission controls once Maryland develops new regulations to bring the state into compliance with tougher federal pollution standards.

Most of the emissions from auto plants come from the paint shops. GM already has invested more than $100 million in the Baltimore paint shop over the past decade, including about $55 million for a system to capture and burn pollutants before they escape.

Noting that GM has been strapped for cash, Mr. Cole added, "It's really tough to invest millions of dollars in one plant when you could get by with putting nothing in another [factory]" where air quality is less a problem.

And stock analyst Maryann Keller, managing director of Furman Selz Inc. in New York City, says factory emissions played key roles in earlier decisions by Ford and GM to close three plants on the West Coast.

Factories along the East and West coasts also are vulnerable because of their distance from the market, Mr. Cole says. This wasn't a factor 25 years ago, when GM might have two or three plants in different parts of the country producing the same car. Now, however, he thinks there will be continued consolidation of the auto industry within the Midwest.

Living under the gun

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