Waking up with nothing to do The GM layoff: A distant labor dispute has paralyzed the lives of Victor Wilborne and 2,600 others laid off at the General Motors plant in Baltimore.

March 16, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

Just before dawn, Victor H. Wilborne will fall asleep as usual, awake at the accustomed time around noon and dress the same way, probably in blue jeans, a button-down shirt and work shoes. Only, he no longer has anywhere to go.

The afternoon hours have become an unfamiliar urban ritual of sounds, people and police cars, and he thinks, "So this is what goes on?" And he knows, "I'm not supposed to be here, I'm supposed to be at work."

Yet Mr. Wilborne is one of 2,600 General Motors workers in Baltimore and more than 100,000 nationwide who suddenly find themselves out of work.

They are caught in the middle of a when you've worked all your life. It's like limbo."

Since Tuesday, when the GM Broening Highway plant shut down, he has tended to his azaleas, cleared his yard of dead leaves and twigs, fixed the lawn mower, hung out with buddies, played cards, stopped for a beer.

Mary doesn't understand, and she asks, "Why do you got to go out for two, three hours? Why can't you stay at home?"

And he says, "I'm not used to staying at home, I'm not used to watching 'Murphy Brown.' My psyche and my body are geared up to be at work." But he thinks, at home, this is his wife's world, and he must adjust.

"I'm just at a loss what to do with my time."

He can only wait as GM and the UAW wage war over economics and security: The company wants to buy some parts outside its plants because it's cheaper, but the union fears it will mean the loss of jobs.

"This is wrecking homes. When you change people's lives around, it can have a terrible effect. Most everybody's kind of lost. Something's been taken."

It's not just about money, even though he has a $519 car insurance payment due next week and could lose all but $150 of his $900 estimated weekly salary.

He will have to cut back on the little things, movies, restaurants, trips to see the kids. But they are all grown up; his rowhouse and 1992 Saturn are paid for. And having weathered at least five other strikes in his day, he always keeps a six-month reserve of savings.

What Mr. Wilborne misses is the routine: The clanging and banging of the night shift from 3: 30 p.m. to 12, or 1 a.m.

Under bright lights in the paint department, he would stand in his inspection station booth with a pen in hand, bent over, scrutinizing the paint job of Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans rolling backward on a conveyor belt 45 vans per hour, about 400 a day, black, white, red, green.

In code, he would note imperfections: "10" for dirt, "110" for mutilation. The march of vans would be relentless, for eight to 10 hours, with only two 23-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. His dark eyes shielded behind safety bifocals, he would concentrate, watch and feel "dehumanized."

Yet, he said, "This has been my whole life really, the plant has been my whole life. I've worked everywhere in the plant, the body shop, I've worked in trim, the truck line, I've done just about everything."

And he never meant to.

About four miles from the GM plant, Mr. Wilborne grew up in Turner Station, a neighborhood below Dundalk, so named, he recalled, because it was the end of the line for the No. 26 trolley car before it turned around.

And he would sit on a hill there, an 11-year-old boy, and gaze at Mustang fighter planes roaring overhead, thinking, "One day, that's what I'd like to do. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but when I came out of school, black men didn't fly."

He has never flown, though he remains an airplane buff, and he knows things about their speeds, where they come from, what they're made for. Now, he said, "I'd like to put on the G-straps, the suit, the helmet and just sit in the cockpit and take a picture, that'd be a fantasy come true."

The dream has simplified from the time his father, Garland, the son of Virginia sharecroppers, a minister and shipfitter at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point yard, admonished his son to strive to "make good money and take care of your family."

That is what Mr. Wilborne has done for the past 28 years. Now, he can only wait until the strike ends.

"People usually live and die within 25 miles of where they were born," he said. "I live 10 miles from the plant, my whole life is within that 25-mile circle. I've worked all my life, raised a family and done the best I can to tell them the world is changing and jobs won't be the same."

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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