Happy Days Return To Middle River

December 17, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

To the cheers of 1,400 workers at its Middle River plant, Martin Marietta Corp. yesterday announced an agreement on a major new contract that safeguards their jobs by generating up to 20 years of new work.

Standing in a semi-circle around a makeshift stage, workers broke into applause when Norman R. Augustine, Martin Marietta's chairman and chief executive, told them the company had won a contract to be the sole source supplier of thrust reversers for a line of General Electric Corp. aircraft engines.

They clapped again and again as Mr. Augustine explained that the contract has the potential to develop $3 billion in new business over the next 20 years -- current orders for the thrust reversers are valued at $500 million -- and offers the opportunity for significant growth. It could double sales and the work force of the Middle River plant, he said.

Mr. Augustine even offered hope to workers at its Glen Burnie plant, who stand to lose their jobs early next year when the company closes its facilities there and shifts the production of electronic submarine-tracking devices to Syracuse, N.Y.

Some of these workers, Mr. Augustine said, "could be offered jobs at Middle River," but he declined to indicate how many. Others, he said, would be transferred to Syracuse. The Glen Burnie plant has about 480 workers.

The agreement with General Electric Corp. calls for Martin Marietta to supply the thrust reversers used on GE's CF6 family of jet engines. Thrust reversers are parts of the engine that act like brakes for jet liners as they land. The CF6 engine is used on a wide variety of planes, including the Boeing 747 and 767, the McDonnell Douglas MD 11 and the Airbus 310. More than 1,700 planes are powered by this family of GE engines.

Yesterday's announcement was good new for Middle River workers, who weren't sure that Martin Marietta's 64-year-old Baltimore County plant would be around to celebrate its 65th anniversary.

The plant that built the famed China Clipper in the 1930s, the B-16 Marauder bombers in the 1940s and the Titan II rockets that carried the Gemini astronauts into space in the 1960s had fallen on hard times in recent years.

Nearly 3,000 workers had lost their jobs since 1988, and more were facing unemployment in the months ahead.

Mr. Augustine explained yesterday that the business volume at Middle River had declined to the point that it was difficult for the company to justify keeping a facility that size open. The Middle River complex consists of about 20 buildings covering the space of 45 football fields.

"We had two choices," he said. "Shut down and get out [of the thrust reverser business], or make the investment and stay in."

To stay in the business, the GE contract was vital. The Middle River plant has been building thrust reversers for nearly 25 years, but it was about seventh on the list of suppliers in terms of units delivered. This was not good enough, said Mr. Augustine, who insists that the company be No. 1 or No. 2 in markets its serves.

Mr. Augustine said Martin Marietta was competing against four or five other companies around the country for the GE contract, but declined to identify them.

He said the GE pact would also put the plant in a better position to deal directly with the airlines for spare parts and other work.

State officials, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who participated in yesterday's announcement, also played a role in securing the future of the Middle River plant. Responding to threats of its closing, the state promised a $900,000 financial package that will be used to help retrain workers and to relocate equipment and some key personnel from GE's plant in Cincinnati.

The state also has agreed to lease a five-story building that Martin Marietta had constructed at its Middle River complex five years ago to house an engineer and the executive offices.

Another benefit of the GE contract is that it lessens the local division's dependence on a declining military budget. William F. Ballhaus Jr., president of the division, said it would provide a 50-50 split between military and commercial business.

Another major contract at the plant is a Navy pact for the production of missile launching systems used by ships.

Following yesterday's announcement, foreman William Ratliff said he was "feeling a lot better" about his own job security. "The outlook here has been mighty bleak the past few months," said the 41 year-old Essex resident, who has been with the company for 16 years.

"We're looking at 15 years of new work," said Tom Light, an inspector on the thrust reverser assembly line.

Mr. Light, 44, also of Essex, called the GE contract "a big shot in the arm" for the Middle River plant. "We can all breathe a little easier now. Now people can buy that house or that new car they've wanted."

Production on the new work will begin in January, and the plant is expected to boost its output of thrust reversers from seven unit sets a month to 12 by next March.

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