GM's White Marsh plant gearing up for success

As it thrives, doubts surround Baltimore van assembly plant

Grand opening tomorrow

March 30, 2001|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Rick McKinnon scans the sprawling, well-lighted, spotlessly clean, brightly painted manufacturing plant featuring the latest robotic machinery and proudly proclaims, "We have a future here."

McKinnon, 58, is the quick-to-smile, soft-spoken, gray-haired general director of the General Motors Corp. Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh, which will celebrate its grand opening tomorrow. The public is invited.

McKinnon doesn't mention GM's other big factory in the region, the 66-year-old van assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore, but the contrast is obvious.

The Allison plant is still gearing up to meet its goal of producing 140,000 automatic transmissions a year for use in light commercial trucks.

GM has planned a $199 million expansion that would double the plant's production. Originally, the nation's largest automaker had made a commitment to complete the expansion by the end of next year, but it has pushed that back to the end of 2004.

Employment at the transmission plant, which has 350 workers, is growing. This summer, 100 people will join the work force. The planned expansion would add 390 workers.

The outlook for Allison contrasts sharply with that at GM's Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari van plant on Broening Highway.

Workers at the van plant worry about their future.

Production is on the decline.

Employment is dwindling.

The vast majority of the workers at the Allison plant transferred from the van plant. John Petros was one of them.

Petros, 59, jumped at the opportunity to leave his job as a van road tester at the assembly plant and go to work for Allison.

"There is no comparison," said Petros, a resident of Glen Rock, Pa. "This is so much better. I don't know about the future of the Baltimore plant. A lot of the guys here feel that way."

GM is telling the 1,500 workers at its van plant only that the factory will remain open until the third quarter of 2003. Beyond that, the company has said, the market for the Astro and Safari vans will determine how long the plant remains open.

The Baltimore-made vans have not undergone a major redesign since their introduction in 1984.

Sales have been declining in recent years. GM announced last week that it would close the Baltimore plant for one week in May to bring production into line with sales.

Comparing working conditions at the two factories, Petros said, "This is so much better. It was terribly hot at the Baltimore plant. When it was 95 outside, it was 110 in the plant. Here it's a controlled 70 degrees.

"It is like night and day."

Bill George, 50, also made the leap to Allison from the van plant.

The resident of the Hamilton section of Baltimore called it "the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm starting at the ground floor of a brand-new plant. This gave me the opportunity to leave a legacy to other union workers. We are getting this plant up and running."

George also sees a big difference in the management styles at the two plants. "The management here is friendly. They are helpful. Everybody is on a first name basis," he said. "At Broening Highway, they were standoffish. They wouldn't tell you anything up front."

Petros also commented on the management differences. "People here are approachable," he said. "If you have a problem, they listen. If you need a tool to do you job, they get it."

In preparation for the 11 a.m.-to-3 p.m. open house, landscape workers were putting fresh mulch around the pachysandra and Japanese hollies decorating the plant's front entrance.

"We are proud of this plant. We think we have an exciting story to tell," McKinnon said as he looked out his office window, across a field to the CarMax used-car dealership on Philadelphia Road.

"We want the CarMax salesman to come in. We want the people at the Target store to come, the merchants, bankers, all the people in the area. It's a good opportunity for them to see a world-class manufacturing plant."

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