About 600 at GM face layoffs

Second shift ending next month at plant on Broening Highway


June 17, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Approximately 600 workers at the General Motors Corp. minivan assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore will be laid off next month when the second shift is eliminated, the company said yesterday.

The economic impact of the layoffs will be blunted considerably by a provision of the United Auto Workers contract with GM that provides workers with 95 percent of their normal take-home pay until recalled.

GM announced in April that it would end second-shift production at its sprawling plant, but could not say then how many workers would be laid off.

The second shift normally employs about 1,200 workers.

Brian Goebel, a spokesman for the local plant, said the number of potential layoffs was reduced as a result of some workers transferring to GM assembly plants in other parts of the country. He also said some second-shift workers are moving to GM's new Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh and others are retiring.

The last two-shift operation is scheduled June 30. At that time, the 65-year-old plant will close for model changeover. When production resumes July 17, there will be only one shift.

It will be the first time that the plant has operated a single shift since 1979, when a slowdown in car sales necessitated a cutback in production. At that time, the plant had 6,800 workers and made Chevrolet pickups along with three models of cars - Chevrolet Malibus, Monte Carlos and Pontiac Lemans.

In April, when GM first announced its plan for its second-shift cutback, it attributed the move to declining sales.

Although sales of the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans now made here have surged in recent months, and are up 12.6 percent for the first five months of the year, GM said last week that it would not reconsider its move to trim production.

Dan Flores, a spokesman for GM's Truck Group in Pontiac, Mich., which has jurisdiction over the Broening Highway plant, said the company's decision was based on a long-term forecast of the market which predicts a softening of sales.

Elimination of the second shift is expected to have only a minimal impact on workers and the regional economy.

Under terms of the four-year national contract between GM and the United Auto Workers, ratified Oct. 13, the laid-off workers will collect up to 95 percent of their take-home pay through a combination of unemployment benefits and supplemental pay from the company.

The contract also stipulates that the plant has bring the workers back after 42 weeks, according to Goebel. He said callback details are to be worked out at the time of their return.

When operating in its normal two-shift operation, the GM plant is frequently referred to by state economic development officials as "an engine that help pull the Baltimore area economy."

The big plant currently employs about 2,400 workers. Economists estimate that it pumps $1 billion in the regional economy each year. It's the city's largest manufacturing employer.

Charles R. Alfred, president of UAW Local 239, which represents the plant's hourly workers, said he does not understand why the second shift is being eliminated.

"I think there is a future for these vans," Alfred said. "I don't know what GM sees when it looks into its crystal ball, but right now the van are selling well."

Alfred called the plant's work force "second to none."

His praise of the workers was supported by an automotive research company report earlier this week which noted that the Baltimore plant posted a 6 percent gain in productivity last year and was the industry's third-most productive minivan plant in North America.

In its annual report on the productivity of all North American auto manufacturing plants, Harbour and Associates Inc. said the Baltimore assembly plant required 29.09 labor hours per vehicle. It was topped only by Ford's Windstar van plant in Ontario, Canada, and a GM van plant in Doraville, Ga., that produces the Montana, Silhouette and Venture vans.

Ronald E. Harbour, noted that the Baltimore plant jumped from fifth place in 1998, which he called an achievement considering the age of the vans made here and the fact that they have not been redesigned since their introduction in 1984.

"We have a good work force here," Alfred said. "The Harbour report shows that."

Thursday evening, the U.S. Senate voted to continue the freeze on fuel standards known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). Under the freeze, the federal mandated fuel economy will remain at 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for trucks, said William H. Noack, a GM spokesman.

GM had expressed concern that an increase in CAFE standards for trucks would have jeopardized its light truck production, including the vans made here.

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