GM to shut here for a month

About 1,000 workers at Broening van plant will be off Dec. 16-Jan. 13

Extended Christmas vacation

Company's other factories will halt assembly lines from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2

October 31, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

About 1,000 employees at Baltimore's General Motors Corp. van assembly plant will be off the job nearly three weeks longer than the rest of GM's factory workers across the country at the end of 2002 and into 2003, the company revealed yesterday.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said yesterday that all of the automaker's factories will be dark from Dec. 23 until Jan. 2 for Christmas vacation, but the Broening Highway plant, which produces Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, will close Dec. 16 and won't reopen until Jan. 13.

"It has to do with market demand," Flores said. "We continue to look at the marketplace and try to align production with demand for the vans."

Brian Goebel, a spokesman for the local plant, said the shutdown will affect about 1,000 of the plant's 1,600 workers.

The announced cut in production comes on the heels of a midsummer sales boom that prompted the world's largest automaker to cancel a scheduled one-week closing of the plant that had been set for Oct. 14.

Sales of the Astro jumped 18.7 percent in August after rising nearly 5 percent in July.

The Astro's sister vehicle, the GMC Safari, posted a 31 percent jump in sales during August. The Broening Highway plant produces nearly three times as many Astro vans as it does Safaris.

In September, GM sold only 2,403 Astro vans, 32.1 percent below sales during September 2001. Safari sales were off 28.3 percent and totaled only 724 units.

Flores could not fully explain the sharp decline in sales, after the summer's jump. He said he thought it had to do with the fact that demand fluctuates for commercial models of the vans, "and a great portion of the production in Baltimore is commercial vehicles."

Of the vans produced in Baltimore, 40 percent are made for the commercial market, Goebel said. Commercial vans are noticeably different because of their lack of rear side windows.

Industry analysts say the Baltimore vans benefited from favorable publicity earlier in the year.

In late May, the Baltimore plant was credited with a 16 percent improvement in the quality of the Astro and Safari by J.D. Power & Associates. The improvement was well above GM's overall quality improvement of 11 percent.

At about the same time, George E. Hoffer, an economics professor with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and an auto analyst, reported that the Astro and Safari vans hold their resale value better than other vans made by GM, or Ford or DaimlerChrysler vans.

The announcement of the closing in Baltimore also comes at a time when workers at a dozen other GM car and truck production plants are working overtime this week to keep up with sales.

The GM plant's closing will affect production at more than a dozen other area companies that supply it with parts, including the Johnson Controls Inc. plant in Belcamp that makes seats for the vans.

Bill Dawson, a Johnson spokesman, said that the closing of the van plant will alter seat production but that it was too soon to say how many of his company's 152 workers will be laid off.

Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation, offered a mixed assessment when asked about the future of the 67-year-old Baltimore assembly plant.

He said Baltimore could benefit from a new trend within the industry of building niche market vehicles, where it doesn't need high volume to justify a product's continued production.

Flynn cautioned, however, that the age of the Astro and Safari hinder their consumer appeal. "There is a premium for newness," he said, noting that the Astro and Safari have not undergone a major redesign since their introduction in 1984.

David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state continues its efforts to persuade GM to assign a new product to the Baltimore plant. "A new vehicle would be our preference," he said, "but it could also be an engine or a parts plant."

He expects the governor elected Tuesday to meet with GM officials in the first or second quarter of the new year.

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