Efforts grow to keep GM plant going

As deadline nears, officials, union strive to extend production

State willing to offer aid

Ultimate goal, says new manager, is new product for factory

March 03, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The clock keeps ticking.

About 1,500 workers at the General Motors Corp. van assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore live with the threat of losing their jobs as the world's largest automaker deals with a serious industry problem of excess plant capacity.

GM has put Baltimore on a list of plants at risk for closing, but there is a concerted effort on the part of the new plant manager, the union that represents the workers and the state not to let that happen.

"I did not come here to close this plant down," Tim E. Stansbury, who took over as manager at the 67-year-old factory last month, said, tapping his desk for emphasis. "I'm not about to concede that the end is here."

GM says it is committed to continuing van production through the third quarter of next year. . Beyond that date, the company says, the market for the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans will determine the plant's future.

With that time getting closer, plant managers are huddling with union officials to look for ways to extend production.

"Our strategy is to extend van production well beyond the third quarter of next year," said Lee Dorsey, president of United Auto Workers Local 239, which represents the plant's hourly workers. "I'm hoping to convince GM to extend production by a year, or maybe two. That's my goal."

That's just a temporary fix. The ultimate goal, Stansbury said, is to secure a new product to be built at the plant. And the longer the doors stay open and the assembly line keeps moving, the greater the chances of that happening.

To achieve this, management and labor are looking at a number of ways to pump new life into one of GM's oldest products and one of its oldest assembly plants. They include:

Persuading GM to give the Astro and Safari - in production since 1984 - a major face lift to make them more competitive in the van market and more appealing to car buyers.

Getting the company to fund a national advertising campaign to market the vans.

Improving the quality of the Astro and Safari.

Boosting the plant's productivity.

The state is prepared to be a major player in the process, according to David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. It's ready with a fat incentive package ranging from helping to finance a new plant to expanding the current one. It's waiting for a decision from GM regarding its plans for Baltimore.

More is at risk than the jobs at 2122 Broening Highway. Economists estimate that the GM plant and its network of local suppliers, with another 1,700 workers, pump more than $1 billion into the regional economy each year.

Sales of the Astro and Safari have been declining, prompting GM in July to eliminate second-shift production. At that time, the company laid off about 600 workers, though most have been called back. Some replaced workers who transferred to the company's new Allison truck transmission plant in White Marsh.

Astro and Safari van sales dropped 37.5 percent last year to 77,928 vehicles.

A vehicle face lift would help, said David E. Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. He said the Astro and Safari "are long in the tooth" and have not had a major upgrade since their introduction in the mid-1980s.

Stansbury said he knows of no plans within GM to upgrade the van. But he said he has a team of plant engineers looking into what would need to be done for the van to meet impending federal safety standards and be produced beyond 2004.

When it comes to advertising the vans, "the thinking at GM and at Madison Avenue has to change," said Charles R. Miller, chairman of Local 239's shop committee.

"Madison Avenue is part of our problem. They create the enthusiasm and the excitement that make people want to buy our product, but because these vans have been around for a while, they don't give them much attention," he said.

He noted that GM does not include the Astro and Safari in its vehicle selection at some auto shows.

"There is a market for these vans," Miller said. "There are people who want a simple truck, an all-wheel-drive vehicle without all the bells and whistles. GM should recognize that." All-wheel drive is an option on the Astro and Safari.

Workers are encouraged to get involved in boosting the quality of the vans.

"We communicate with the workers that we are all in this together," Dorsey said. "It's one area where we can help control our destiny. Let's excel in the things we can control. Our goal is to be No. 1 in quality, as measured by J.D. Power" & Associates.

Stansbury insists that there have been major quality improvements in recent years, but the people at J.D. Power say problems remain.

Brian Walters, director of product research for the automotive research company, said the quality of the Astro and Safari is below the industry average. "But, it's not fair to blame workers at the Baltimore plant," he said.

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