There was a hint of optimism yesterday that a breakthrough could be coming in the two-week strike by the Canadian Auto Workers union against General Motors Corp. that threatens to close GM's Baltimore van plant as early as Tuesday.
The hope of a settlement centered around a two-hour meeting in Toronto yesterday between GM Chairman John F. Smith Jr. and Basil "Buzz" Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers. It was their first meeting since the walkout began Oct. 2.
"This was a meeting that may let us break the logjam," Hargrove said after the session.
Smith said only that the meeting was cordial.
The strike by 28,510 CAW members has shut down General Motors of Canada Ltd. and has idled 11,287 workers in the United States and Mexico at plants that either rely on Canadian parts or make parts for use in Canada.
It threatens a number of other U.S. operations. According to a memo from General Motors to some Baltimore area dealers, the company's Chevrolet Astro and GMC van plant in Southeast Baltimore could close as early as Tuesday if the Canadian strike is not settled soon. The memo talked about 11 Chevrolet product lines being shut down by Nov. 5. William O'Neill, a spokesman for GM, said that the scheduled closings are "rough estimates."
John G. Middlebrook, general manager of the Chevrolet division, said Chevrolet is being hit particularly hard by the strike because plants in Canada are the single source for the Lumina, Monte Carlo and Camaro. They are also the source of one third of Chevrolet's popular full-size pickup trucks.
An executive with a dealership, who asked that he and his business not be identified, said he got the impression from the memo that GM "was drawing a line in the sand" and was prepared for a long strike, possibly 30 to 60 days.
Charles R. Alfred, president of Local 239, which represents the ,, workers at GM's plant here, questioned the memo to the dealers.
"That is not what they told us," Alfred said yesterday. "I met with the plant management yesterday morning and they said there is no definite date on when we might shut down. I think we have enough parts to work until at least the end of next week."
Yesterday, after Smith and Hargrove finished talking, GM spokesman Stew Low said the two sides "are still finding common ground on tough issues." He described the meeting as a review of GM's competitive position rather than a bargaining session.
The meeting came around the same time several hundred CAW members began occupying a GM parts plant in Oshawa, Ontario, to prevent GM from removing equipment.
GM was seeking a court order to remove from the plant up to 75 pieces of metal-stamping machines and other equipment, some of which is used to build parts for non-GM customers. After his meeting with Hargrove, Smith agreed to stop court proceedings to try to remove the equipment until next Monday.
Auto analysts are not ready to say that Smith's appearance at the talks will break the deadlock, but they think it can be a big help.
"There are two things coming into play here," said Dale Brickner, associate director of Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations. "The Smith involvement, which could get the talks moving, and the Yokich factor."
He explained that there may be a push for Stephen Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers union, to reach an agreement with GM covering U.S. plants that would serve as a model for an agreement in Canada.
Pub Date: 10/17/96