For some GM workers, a sadly familiar feeling

Many on second shift at Broening plant faced closings before

April 17, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In 1996, when General Motors closed its huge minivan plant north of New York City, about 2,000 workers scattered to the economic winds. One was Kevin Rogers, who went south -- to GM's aging van assembly plant on Broening Highway in Baltimore.

Soon after he arrived, he sensed something familiar in the air. When they cut back the overtime, when they replaced the plant manager and began relocating top officials, when the floors started to look dirtier and when they started hiring temporary workers, he knew what was next.

"When you go through one plant closing, you can smell another one coming," Rogers said, as he parked his car and hustled toward the employees' entrance last week to start his 3: 30 p.m.-to-midnight shift on the Broening assembly line.

GM confirmed last week that it would shut down Rogers' shift -- the second of the plant's two production shifts -- in July. It's possibly the first step toward closing the 65-year-old plant by 2003, unless the state can persuade GM to keep operations running.

And so, when much of the nation is riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity -- with unemployment at record lows and semiskilled workers in demand -- Rogers and some of his co-workers find it hard to believe they may be out of work and job-hunting again.

"A lot of people don't want to move anymore," said Rogers, who's been with GM for 21 years. "For some people, this is their third plant in 10 years."

The evening shift employs about 1,000 unionized workers and 200 temporary, nonunion workers. Most lack the seniority of those on the preferred 6 a.m.-to-2: 30 p.m. first shift.

After the final second-shift vans roll off the assembly line in July, the lucky ones will be packing their bags and heading to one of GM's 25 other assembly plants, while others will be scouring the want ads for a new job. GM says it will try to relocate as many workers from the shift as it can but that none of the workers is assured a future with the company.

"At this point, the possibility of layoffs still exists," plant spokesman Brian Goebel said.

The shutdown in July will be one of GM's largest job cuts in recent years. And for Baltimore, it will be another huge cut to an ever-dwindling manufacturing base.

GM is the city's largest manufacturing employer. It is one of the few remaining manufacturing plants on a southeast Baltimore stretch of waterfront that was once home to a Seagram's distiller, an American Standard plant and a Western Electric plant.

Today, gleaming white Chevy Astros and GMC Safaris are churned out at a rate of 45 an hour, then stacked onto truck carriers or rail cars at Broening Highway. The possible closure of the plant in 2003 is due to decreasing demand for the vans.

The loss of 1,000 workers this summer will also cut wide swaths through many neighborhoods, yanking children from schools and causing "for sale" signs to sprout on lawns.

The average age of the plant's 2,500 unionized workers is 46, although second-shift workers tend to be younger. The base pay for an assembly-line worker is $21.57, or nearly $45,000 a year. Most live in communities near the plant, with 29 percent in the city and 40 percent in Baltimore County. About 15 percent live in Harford County, and the rest commute from as far as the Eastern Shore, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

The second shift is considered a "melting pot" because many of its workers had been laid off from other GM plants before they arrived in Baltimore, said Bill Sutton. As Baltimore natives, Sutton and his son, Jeff, are in the minority on their shift.

"It's a bummer, man," said the elder Sutton, who is hoping he won't have to leave Baltimore to find work.

Like many second-shift GM workers, he had been hoping to be among the ones chosen to work at a transmission plant that GM is opening this year in White Marsh.

But that plant is expected to employ only 380 workers. And in the unionized world of auto assembly, seniority rules, meaning the new jobs will be offered first to longtime Broening workers -- including those on the first shift.

Not everyone is planning ahead, though. Some workers are hoping a last-minute deal will be struck before July. Others are trusting GM to find them different jobs in the company -- even to offer relocation packages as it did for Rogers and other North Tarrytown, N.Y., workers, who received from $20,000 to $60,000 each.

The gradual shutdown of the plant -- announced two years ago -- has been coming for so long, it almost doesn't seem real to some workers. And even if they are laid off, their United Auto Workers contract will guarantee them nearly a year's pay at 95 percent of their salary, plus benefits.

"I can't worry about something that's out of my control, right?" said one worker as he hurried toward the pedestrian tunnel that carries workers from the parking lot toward the assembly line.

A worker named Mildred -- who declined to give her last name for fear it might affect her chances of finding another GM job -- came to Baltimore after the North Tarrytown plant closed in 1996. She left behind many family members, but she said she made a new life for herself in Baltimore and doesn't want to uproot again.

"It's like a circle," she said. "Once it gets broken, it's never the same."

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