GM ends waiting game, says it has no plans to close Baltimore plant

June 16, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Ending 2 1/2 years of suspense, General Motors Corp. confirmed yesterday that it would continue building minivans in Baltimore, signaling the company's intent to keep the assembly plant open indefinitely.

The future of the Baltimore plant and its 3,400 well-paying jobs had been up in the air since the fall of 1990, when GM posted a $2 billion quarterly loss and said it was considering closing more plants to save money.

At the time, GM said its Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, which are made here, were due for design changes for the 1996 model year and that it might not continue producing them in Baltimore.

A GM spokeswoman said then that "Baltimore is high on the list of contenders" to build the restyled van but cautioned that the company would consider other sites for the work. And, over the past couple of years, GM has consistently said that no decision had been made on where it would produce its new midsized van.

That changed yesterday when GM acknowledged for the first time that it had made a decision regarding the local plant.

The company "has no plans to shift [its van] production out of Baltimore," said Mary Ann Tyler, a spokeswoman with GM's North American Truck Platforms division in Pontiac, Mich., which oversees the operation of the Baltimore plant.

She cautioned, however, that "there are no guarantees" and that the future of the plant, which pumps about $1 billion into the region's economy each year, remained dependent on continued consumer demand for the product and the quality of work by plant employees.

Rodney A. Trump, president of United Auto Workers Union Local 239, which represents the hourly workers at the plant, said he was told of GM's commitment to Baltimore in a telephone call within the past 30 days from a high-ranking GM executive, whom he declined to identify.

Mr. Trump, in turn, notified workers at the plant via a closed circuit television address into the factory.

"Assuming that the economy doesn't go to hell, the market falls off for our product or our quality drops off, this means that we be building vans up to the year 2000," Mr. Trump said yesterday.

At that time, he explained, GM is scheduled to produce a new van and, again, there were no indications where it would be built.

Bill Toohey, a spokesman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has worked closely with the GM plant to help ensure that it remained open, said the senator had been informed of the company's decision.

"It's a great feeling of security," said Henry Bert, referring to the GM decision. Mr. Bert celebrated his 27th anniversary at the Broening Highway plant yesterday.

This time last year the 46-year-old assembly line worker, who installs air conditioners, was not so certain he would complete his 30th year with the plant. He said he felt as if he was "living under the gun" and gave the local plant only "a 50-50 chance" of surviving GM's corporate restructuring.

The restructuring, which has already started, will close 23 plants and cut more than 74,000 jobs in the next few years. The move is aimed at sharply reducing GM's costs to adjust to a smaller market share.

The primary threat to the 58-year-old East Baltimore plant was the region's failure to meet federal air quality standards. It was a threat that sent Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Ms. Mikulski, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other state officials scurrying to seek solutions.

Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials had previously cited the aged factory as the largest source of pollution in the area.

The ozone-damaging pollutants emitted by the Baltimore plant are associated with its vehicle-painting operations, explained Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Under terms of the new federal Clean Air Act, which goes into effect in 1996, the Baltimore region must reduce pollution emissions by 15 percent. There was concern on the part of state officials that GM would close the Baltimore plant and shift its van production to another part of the country where it was easier to meet pollution regulations.

In a meeting late last year with the governor, Mark L. Wasserman, the secretary of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, and Environmental Secretary Robert Perciasepe, Robert R. Rieman, the manager of GM's Baltimore plant, expressed concern about the plant's ability to achieve a 15 percent reduction in emissions.

Mr. Perciasepe sent Mr. Rieman a letter in January explaining that his department would not expect each source in the area to reduce emissions by 15 percent.

"You should know that we would be prepared to exercise any flexibility allowed under the CAA [Clean Air Act] to accommodate present and future needs at your facility," the letter said.

The economic impact of GM's decision goes far beyond the boundaries of the Broening highway plant.

A number of companies scattered throughout the metropolitan area produce parts for the vans made at the GM plant.

About 200 workers at the Johnson Controls Inc. plant in Belcamp make seats for the GM vans. Monarch Industries Inc., also in Belcamp, produces instrument panels and other plastic components. It has 80 employees. The Marada Industries Inc. plant in Westminster, which has about 200 workers, is also highly dependent on the GM plant.

M. Dennis Sisolak, the manager at Johnson Controls, said the plant had just reached an agreement with the Baltimore plant to supply parts for the 1996 model year.

"It gives us a new lease on life," he said.

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