Saving Broening's jobs

December 03, 2003

STATE AND LOCAL political leaders' journey to Michigan on Monday was a welcome show of bipartisan support for creative approaches to saving the more than 1,100 high-paying manufacturing jobs now at Baltimore's General Motors plant on Broening Highway.

The future of the 68-year-old Broening plant is now so bleak that it requires the unusual specter of Maryland's leading bitter rivals - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his potential opponent in the next gubernatorial race, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - joining together in a lobbying campaign.

The Maryland delegation also included U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, U.S. Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the state economic development chief, Aris Melissaratos. But politicians' appeals alone will not suffice to save these jobs - that can only happen with a plan that makes financial sense for GM.

The Broening plant no longer seems to meet that standard. It produces the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari, outmoded tradesmen vans in a shrinking market niche. The plant's productivity remains below GM's average; it's been rising but more slowly than GM's average. The company is committed to keeping Broening open only until fall 2005; under their new union contract, its workers will be paid into 2007.

Automaking is now a high-tech enterprise, and Baltimore and Maryland need to retain and attract such high-end manufacturing - linked to the state's considerable knowledge assets. Maryland has lost a third of its manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years, and the city has de-industrialized to the point where less than 10 percent of its jobs remain in manufacturing.

The Maryland delegation says it offered GM several suggestions for continuing to employ Broening's workforce:

The plant could continue making about 50,000 vans - and perhaps another "boutique" product - for a year or two after 2005, buying time for other options to evolve.

If Broening closes, its workers and perhaps those from aging GM plants in Delaware and New Jersey could be transferred to a new regional plant, preferably in Northeast Maryland and potentially tapping into Maryland's emerging expertise in fuel-cell technologies.

If GM expands its successful Allison transmission plant in White Marsh, more Broening workers could join 400 of their retrained colleagues already working there.

A new plant could be built on Broening's parking lot and tied to Baltimore's port. Parts could be imported duty-free, and cars assembled and exported to Europe, where labor costs are higher - a reverse version of the U.S.-owned export plants in Mexico. It's a bold idea that's never been tried.

All that said, the clock's still ticking for Broening. GM, awash in production overcapacity worldwide, listened but didn't respond with any new plans or signals. The Maryland political effort was an exemplary show on the face of it, but now comes the hard part: sustained, aggressive and pragmatic follow-up to save Broening's jobs.

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