GM official reports progress in talks with Mich. workers A strike there could halt work in Baltimore

Auto industry

June 02, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, Del. -- G. Richard Wagoner Jr., president of General Motors Corp.'s North American Operations, reported some progress yesterday in talks to avoid a strike at a Flint, Mich., sheet metal plant that could halt production at Baltimore's largest manufacturing employer.

Speaking to reporters after the company's shareholders meeting here, Wagoner said the company and the union were both trying to prevent a situation similar to the strike at a Dayton, Ohio, brake parts plant in 1996 that idled all of GM's assembly plants in the United States and Canada, and cost the company $900 million.

United Auto Workers Local 659, which represents about 3,400 workers, issued a Thursday strike deadline that it said could shut down most of GM's truck production in a matter of days.

"It could close our plant," said Charles R. Alfred, president of Local 239, which represents hourly workers at GM's Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari van plant on Broening Highway, which employs 3,100 workers.

"They make frames for our vans," Alfred said of the Flint stamping plant, "and if there are no frames, there are no vans."

Joseph Jacuzzi, a spokesman for GM's Truck Group in Pontiac, Mich., said it was too soon to speculate on the impact of a strike in Flint on the Southeast Baltimore plant.

Wagoner said yesterday that the lesson learned from the Dayton strike is that "nobody wins" from a situation like that.

He also defended GM's move last week of taking metal-forming dies from the Flint plant in an effort to avoid a shutdown of production of its new line of full-size pickup trucks.

The dies are used to make hoods and fenders of GM's top-selling vehicles.

"It's a critical launch for us and we just felt we didn't want to hold that whole start-up at risk," Wagoner said of the introduction of the 1999 pickups.

The removal of the dies angered workers and set the stage for intense negotiations this week.

The threatened strike at the sheet metal plant is not the only labor dispute that GM is facing.

Arthur McGee, president of United Auto Workers Local 599 in Flint, said workers at the Buick City complex could also walk off the job in the coming weeks.

In addition to producing full-size sedans, the 26-plant complex produces a wide variety of parts, including transmission components, used in a number of GM products.

McGee made a personal appeal to John F. Smith Jr., chairman, president and chief executive of GM, to reconsider the company's decision to close the Buick City assembly plant next year.

The plant employs 3,100 and makes Buick LeSabres and Pontiac Bonnevilles.

Smith said the decision to close the plant was based on falling sales of the large cars manufactured there.

He said industry sales in that market segment are down to what GM's share of the market was in past years.

McGee described the union's mood in Flint as "very combative" and warned that a strike at the sheet metal plant was very possible.

He said workers at the Buick City plant are willing to produce light trucks or even recreational vehicles if that will keep the plant open.

The closing of the Buick City factory complex, McGee said, "sends a message that GM can't be trusted and won't stand behind its work force."

He noted Smith briefed shareholders on the company's plans for five new vehicle assembly plants in other parts of the world, but made no mention of new U.S. plants.

During the meeting, shareholders approved the company's slate of directors and its appointment of a public accountant. They rejected other proposals dealing with term limits for directors, cumulative voting, greenhouse gas emissions and dealings with China and countries of the former Soviet Union.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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