GM workers in Baltimore accustomed to uncertainty Broening Hwy. plant closed three times in past nine months

June 13, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Workers filing out of Baltimore's van plant yesterday had just lost their jobs again, this time because of the United Auto Workers' strike at the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich.

But they had a clear message:

Solidarity.

Employees were told at noon that the Broening Highway plant, which assembles Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, didn't have the inventory to continue production.

Living with uncertainty has become commonplace for the workers, many of whom transferred to Baltimore after other plants were permanently closed. The Baltimore site was shut down three times during the past nine months because of sluggish sales, and GM plans to slow production and lay off 125 of the plant's 3,100 workers here in July.

"You can't plan for the future. I had perfect credit my whole life, and now I've got to dip into my 401(k) and pull money out of my retirement savings," said Glenn Hanks, a spray painter who has worked at the plant for 26 years.

During ordinary layoffs, most workers receive unemployment benefits that amount to about half of regular pay, and GM kicks in a supplement that brings the total to about 95 percent of wages. But in accordance with the GM-UAW national agreement, GM doesn't have to pay the supplement during a strike.

Hanks, like many of his colleagues, berated GM for cutting jobs while giving "the big boys" huge raises.

In fact, Chairman John Smith Jr. was the only top GM executive to get a raise in 1997. His compensation package totaled $9.2 million, up nearly 8 percent from the year before. But union workers had little sympathy for other executives who, even with pay cuts, brought home more than $3 million each last year.

"They're giving the executives million-dollar bonuses, and we're in here busting our butts," said Dave Bjork, an assembler for six years. He said many people at the plant try to put aside a bit of savings for times such as these.

"It's scary, but it's the livelihood we chose," said Bjork, who planned to go fishing yesterday. "We want to be back in here working, but now our job is to support our fellow union members."

Massimo Sacca, who stamps serial numbers on cars and has been at the plant 25 years, said he has no choice but to support the Flint strikers.

"I have five years until retirement, and if our jobs go to Mexico or China or Brazil, I don't think I'm going to make it," he said. "I hope it gets resolved in the next couple of weeks. I just got remarried, and I have a 2-year-old daughter."

Not every worker was voicing support for the strikers.

Body shop assembler Mildred Clough, who transferred here two years ago after working at a now-defunct GM plant in New York for 19 years, said she lacked information to judge the situation. She said she was "disgusted" with her union's leadership for not keeping members informed that a layoff was imminent.

"Everything around here is hush-hush," she said. "I don't know what they're striking for. Before I go with you, I want to know something about it. I've never been to Flint, and I don't know what the conditions are."

Charles R. Alfred, president of Baltimore's UAW Local 239, said that he didn't know about the strike in advance and that his members learned of it the same way he did.

Although the workers are in a tenuous situation, many said they had given GM too many years to abandon it before their pensions kick in.

"Where are you going to get another job that pays this amount?" said assembly line worker Kenneth Gordineer. He has been with GM 24 years, makes nearly $20 an hour and has a wife and five children to support -- two of whom are in college. "You've just got to go with the flow."

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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