Anxiety level up at Martin Marietta

October 14, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

These are uneasy times for workers at Martin Marietta Corp.'s Middle River plant.

The company said yesterday that it expects to lay off some workers, probably fewer than 100, in coming weeks, followed by more layoffs next year. Martin blamed a decline in commercial aircraft orders.

News of the layoffs come as workers are already nervous about the impact of the proposed merger between Martin Marietta and Lockheed Corp., a consolidation that some fear could mean the final chapter in the Middle River plant's storied 65-year history.

Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, and two of his top aides picked up on the concerns of workers during a visit to the complex Wednesday.

Since opening in 1929, the Middle River plant has played a key role in the company's operations. The plant built the famed China Clipper in the 1930s, the B-26 Marauder bombers in the 1940s and the Titan II rockets that carried the Gemini astronauts into space in the 1960s.

But it has fallen on hard times in recent years, and employment has dropped to about 1,400 from 4,100 in 1988.

Those remaining "are in a state of suspense," Mr. Wasserman said after his meeting with plant officials. For the second time in as many years, he said, there is real concern about the future of Middle River operations.

Donald Carson, a spokesman for the company's Aero and Naval Systems division, said the current wave of layoffs is expected to be completed by the middle of next month. Workers at the Baltimore County complex make thrust reversers that act as brakes to slow landing jetliners.

Mr. Carson said there will be more layoffs next year "as we move to match employment with the workload." He said it was too soon to say how many workers would lose their jobs in 1995.

Hanging over it all is the proposed merger with Lockheed, whic "has everybody out here nervous," said Nellie Grinage, a quality control inspector who has been with the Middle River plant for 15 years.

Mrs. Grinage, who lives in Essex, remembers how close the complex came to closing after the company merged its operation with the General Electric aerospace division it acquired in 1992.

"When they briefed us on that merger, over in E-building, they showed a slide that said Baltimore [Middle River] would close. But they said, 'That's a mistake. We've changed our mind.' "

This time around, she said, the tension level is even higher.

"We felt more comfortable during the GE merger," Mrs. Grinage said. "Martin Marietta was the major player in that transaction, now it seems like Lockheed is the major player. We don't know what plans they might have for this plant."

Kenneth Miles, the bargaining chairman for Local 738 of the United Auto Workers union, which represents factory workers at the Martin Marietta plant, said one concern is that the merged company will shift work from Middle River to Lockheed's operation in Marietta, Ga. "That's a good-size operation, and it's supposed to be a pretty modern factory," he said.

Mr. Miles said he brought up the concern of the Marietta, Ga., threat in a recent meeting with Robert B. Coutts, who took over as head of the Middle River complex in August. "He's an upfront, honest, straight-shooter," Mr. Miles said, "but he doesn't have any answers at this time."

Mr. Coutts could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mr. Carson conceded that shifting work to Georgia was a possibility, but stressed that this is nothing more than speculation. On the other hand, he said, "they might decide to move work from Marietta to Middle River" to boost its production capacity above the current 60 to 70 percent level.

Karen Purdy, a Martin Marietta spokeswoman at corporate headquarters in Bethesda, said it might be late next summer before anyone knows how the two companies might fit together, assuming the merger is approved by federal regulators and the companies' shareholders.

Mr. Wasserman, who participated in an aggressive state effort to persuade Martin Marietta to keep the Middle River plant open after the GE merger, said it was too soon to do much at this time, but stressed that he would seek a meeting with Martin Marietta's Chairman Norman R. Augustine to discuss the fate of the Middle River plant immediately after federal approval of the merger. Mr. Augustine would be president of Lockheed Martin.

To persuade the company to change its mind about closing Middle River last year, the state came up with a $900,000 package that will be used to help retrain workers and to relocate equipment and some key personnel. The state also has agreed to lease a five-story building that Martin Marietta had constructed at its Middle River complex six years ago to house engineering operations and executive offices.

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