GM shuts van plant

others on overtime

1,000 laid off for a week

Astro, Safari sales decline

May 21, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

For the third time this year, General Motors Corp. has stopped production at its Baltimore van assembly plant for a week.

But this time the Broening Highway facility is the only North American plant run by a Big Three automaker that is shut down.

While other factories run by GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford are requiring their workers to put in overtime to meet strong demand, slow sales of the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans have forced the Baltimore plant to lay off its 1,000 hourly employees "to keep production in line with consumer demand," said Brian Goebel, a spokesman for the facility.

Union officials could not be reached yesterday for comment on the shutdown.

Dan Flores, a spokesman for GM's Truck Group in Pontiac, Mich., which has jurisdiction over the Baltimore plant, said Astro sales were off 5.1 percent in April.

Dealers sold 5,806 of the Chevy vans last month, compared with sales of 5,873 in April last year.

The decline in Safari sales was even sharper, but the sales volume was considerably lower. Safari sales dropped 31.1 percent last month to 1,478 vehicles.

For the first four months of the year, Flores said, Astro sales were down 20.2 percent and Safari sales were off 36.4 percent.

Astro and Safari production peaked in 1988, when the plant's 3,800 workers built 219,547 vehicles. Annual production dropped to 82,264 vehicles last year, the first full year of one-shift production, and total employment is down to about 1,700.

The Broening Highway facility is still considered the city's largest manufacturing employer, and in recent years it has been credited with contributing more than $1 billion a year to the regional economy.

About 400 van plant workers were transferred to GM's Allison truck transmission manufacturing plant in White Marsh, which opened in December 2000.

GM has hinted - but stopped short of saying - that the White Marsh plant was built to offset a permanent closing of the Broening Highway facility.

R. Richard Wagoner Jr., GM's president and chief executive, said last year that the major investment in the Allison plant was to provide "opportunities for a long-standing GM work force" in Baltimore.

Yesterday, Flores reiterated GM's position that Astro and Safari production is scheduled at the Baltimore plant only until the end of the third quarter of next year.

Beyond that, he said, the market will determine the future of the van and possibly of the 67-year-old assembly plant.

George E. Hoffer, an economics professor and an automotive analyst with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, blamed the sluggish Astro and Safari sales on the age of the van design.

"It hasn't had any fundamental changes or upgrades that the consumer can see since it was first introduced" in 1984 for the 1985 model year, said Hoffer.

"Nobody else has a vehicle out there that it is selling for the passenger market that age," he said. "That's the primary reason it is selling so poorly.

"It's strange, but the respect that the Astro and Safari lack in the new car showroom, they make up out on the used car lot."

Hoffer said passenger versions of the Astro and Safari vans hold their value better than any of the other Big Three vans on the market.

He said a 1996 Safari passenger van retains 35.1 percent of its original value, compared with 33.2 percent for the 1996 Dodge Caravan and 26.9 percent for the Ford Aerostar van.

"They are highly valued on the used car lot," Hoffer said of the Astro and Safari.

"That's because they hold up better than other vans. They are more rugged, they are more hearty than the other vans. That is why they hold their value so well. They are not dogs on the used car lots."

But the slow sales of new units have forced three shutdowns this year. Workers began the year on layoff after the normal Christmas and New Year's holiday halt in production. The January layoff was scheduled to last only one week but was extended to a second week.

In mid-February the plant closed again for one week.

While workers here are on layoff this week, GM employees at 15 of GM's 29 other car and truck lines in North America are working overtime.

The extra production is needed to meet consumer demand for such vehicles as the Corvette, Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, and the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicles.

Both Ford and DaimlerChrysler have nine North American plants on overtime this week.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been pushing GM to assign the Baltimore plant a new vehicle, but the company has made no such commitment.

This week's closing of the van plant will have an impact on at least a half-dozen regional companies that supply parts for the van, including Johnson Controls Inc. in Belcamp.

Johnson makes seats for the Astro and Safari, and company spokesman William Dawson said some of Johnson's workers are on layoff and will not return to work until van production resumes next Tuesday.

He could not say how many of the plant's roughly 200 workers were on layoff.

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