The rebirth of Broening

October 13, 2003

GENERAL MOTORS recently ran two-page newspaper ads picturing 48 of the company's vehicles, "the best cars and trucks in our history." But several GM models weren't in the ad, among them the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari - midsize vans made at Baltimore's Broening Highway plant.

Local plant managers responded with a sharply worded internal memo, complaining of their products' "neglect." The memo notes that the vans' combined sales this year through September topped those of some well-advertised Cadillacs and Buicks.

This is the latest salvo in the long struggle to keep making vehicles at a plant operating since before World War II. GM is committed to producing the Astro and Safari there until the fall of 2005, but guarantees nothing beyond then. And the new contract just signed by the United Auto Workers, the Big Three U.S. automakers and two of their parts suppliers lifts a closing moratorium from about 10 industry facilities, including Broening.

"All signs are looking bad" for Broening, says Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's economic development chief. As a result, Maryland leaders are engaging in some creative thinking, focusing on saving not so much the Broening plant but its jobs. At stake are about 1,200 $25-an-hour (plus fringes) jobs, not to be taken lightly in a state that has lost a third of its manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years.

Broening's fate is tied to the larger issues afflicting U.S.-owned automakers and the UAW, which have been losing ground to foreign-owned, nonunion auto plants cropping up across the South. The new ventures boast high productivity and aren't burdened - for now - by the Big Three's high retiree health and pension bills.

Thus with the new UAW contract, both sides were in the same leaking boat. Among the trade-offs, the union maintained its no-premium health coverage and its healthy pensions, and the industry got some flexibility to shrink its overcapacity.

On paper, it's hard to argue for the 68-year-old Broening facility. Among U.S. minivan and truck plants, its productivity is below average. Broening workers admirably are still increasing productivity, but from 2001 to 2002 their gains ran a 10th of GM's average. Moreover, Broening makes a model that is substantially unchanged since 1984 and that has seen sharply falling sales.

GM says that consumers will determine the plant's fate, a line that seems to hitch Broening's future to a model that the company is not promoting and whose overall category appears to be withering.

As a result, Maryland officials wisely are now talking about not trying to retain Astro and Safari production so much as finding new work for Broening's workers - via the long shot of a new GM investment in building a new vehicle in a new building at the plant site, or, at the very least, expanding job opportunities at GM's new Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mr. Melissaratos and perhaps Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, long involved in fighting for Broening, will be going to Detroit in December. Mr. Melissaratos says they'll pitch GM on a bold vision of linking a new plant at the Broening site to Baltimore's adjacent port, enabling the company to bring in parts duty-free, assemble a global car for the European market and export it from the port. It would be a sort of Baltimore maquiladora, akin to the U.S.-owned export plants in Mexico.

That hasn't really been tried in this country before - and its economics deserve a healthy dose of skepticism - but such new approaches and state intervention are needed here. Just this year, a relatively small package of about $5 million in state incentives helped Volvo opt to reinvest $150 million in its aged Hagerstown Mack Truck plant, retaining at least 1,000 jobs.

Plan B in the state's approach to retaining Broening jobs involves Allison Transmission, which opened in late 2000 with about 400 former Broening hourly workers who were retrained for well-paying, even more highly skilled jobs than assembling autos. Allison reportedly had been planning to double its work force, but that's on hold.

In the meantime, the White Marsh plant has been widely hailed as a highly productive facility, a success for GM and for Broening workers. More than anything else, it shows what can be achieved here by a local work force well worthy of GM's consideration for substantial renewed investment.

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