GM to cut work force, keep plant

Company commits to Broening Highway until at least 2003

Union welcomes extension

State officials say they'll lobby for retention of 2nd shift

November 20, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

General Motors Corp. said yesterday that it will keep its 64-year-old Baltimore van-assembly plant open through the fall of 2003 but will reduce the plant's work force.

The news was another in a series of promises to keep the plant open. In July 1998, GM said it would keep the plant on Broening Highway operating through 2000. In June, the company extended that to 2001. Every announcement, including yesterday's, has come with the warning that the long-term future of the plant is up in the air.

Because GM studies show that demand for Chevy Astros and GMC Safaris is likely to wane, officials plan to go from two shifts to one beginning next summer.

Each shift has about 1,200 workers. GM officials acknowledged that fewer people will be working at the plant but would not project possible layoffs.

"We don't want to speculate on what may happen to the work force," said Dan Flores, a GM Truck Group spokesman in Pontiac, Mich. "We have to align manufacturing operations with where we think the market's going to be."

He said that if demand picks up for the rear-wheel- and all-wheel-drive vans, which have not undergone a major redesign since production began here in 1984, the company might rethink eliminating the second shift. He declined to discuss sales or production numbers.

Charles R. Alfred, president of United Autoworkers Local 239, which represents about 2,500 workers at the Broening Highway plant, welcomed the latest extension.

"Don't write us off yet," he said. "The forecast is only a projected forecast, and that can change tomorrow. It's happened to us before."

Alfred said that with about 25 people retiring every month, transfers to other GM facilities and the opening of the company's Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh, it is possible that there will be few, if any, layoffs.

He said many workers were upbeat about yesterday's news but that those with less seniority -- who would be the first to go if there were layoffs -- were less optimistic.

One option for laid-off workers could be a transfer to the Allison plant, which is under construction and will begin hiring an estimated 375 hourly workers early next year, said Rick McKinnon, Allison's general director of Baltimore operations.

"We will give the van people the first opportunity for employment," McKinnon said yesterday, adding that pay will be the same at both plants. "We're excited, but it's difficult to mix a good-news, bad-news situation."

Economists estimate that the GM plant pumps about $1 billion into the regional economy every year, and public officials tried yesterday to keep their eyes on the favorable part of GM's announcement.

"Overall, I believe this is positive news for the greater Baltimore region," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The state's secretary of business and economic development, Richard C. Mike Lewin, said he had spoken earlier in the day with officials at the Broening Highway plant and at the union.

"I would say we are puzzled by the shift decision," Lewin said. "The vans are currently selling well, we're told, and we know this is an award-winning work force."

Lewin said he, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski plan to attempt to persuade GM to keep the second shift beyond next summer.

"The three of us will not rest until GM either introduces a new product line, builds a new facility, retools Broening Highway or whatever is necessary to take advantage of the best-trained automotive work force in the world," Lewin said.

That effort does not include offering GM financial incentives.

"We've got plenty of arguments that are much more powerful than any kind of financial assistance," Lewin said.

If GM decides to add a product line at the plant and needs worker training, "we're there to help them," he said.

The state is spending more than $14 million on the Allison plant, including $8 million for widening roads, $4 million in grants and tax credits, and a $2.25 million loan that can be forgiven if certain hiring conditions are met.

Glendening praised the automaker's extended commitment to the plant but added that "despite these successes, we must all continue our work to convince GM to assign a new product line to a retooled or new assembly plant in Maryland."

There are no plans to begin assembling a new type of truck or van in Baltimore, Flores said.

"Through 2003, they will make the current product," he said. "Beyond that, ultimately the marketplace and GM's product portfolio -- the truck lineup -- will decide what happens to the facility."

North of the Baltimore plant at Monarch Manufacturing Inc. in Belcamp, plant manager Joe Schriefer said he wasn't sure how to take yesterday's news. Monarch's sole business is supplying center consoles and dashboards for the Broening Highway plant.

The company's fortunes, like those of several other companies in the area, rise and fall with those of GM. Last year, when GM was crippled by two strikes in Flint, Mich., Monarch laid off 105 of its 125 employees.

"We were excited about the extension through 2003, but they didn't give us a lot of information," Schriefer said. "I asked several questions, but they didn't know product numbers. Until then, we can't make decisions."

Alfred praised the efforts of the Glendening administration, Mikulski and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin to keep GM in Baltimore.

"This state looks after businesses, but it also cares about people, and that's kind of a rarity," he said.

"Look at what they did to get Allison here. They've done everything they can to provide property and numerous other things for GM on Broening Highway."

Sun staff writer Greg Schneider contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 11/20/99

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