Struggle grows to stem losses in factory jobs

Uncertain fate of GM plant here galvanizes politicians

Big economic impact feared

Manufacturers in Md. now have just 7% of work force

December 07, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Clinton Bryan's early days on the assembly line at General Motors' van factory in Southeast Baltimore remain vividly etched in his mind even though they were a decade ago: pick up a seat-belt harness, put it into the vehicle, screw it in, walk back, pick up another, begin again.

With more than 400 installations a day, Bryan could practically wear a groove in the floor with his footprints.

"Your hands swell up, your legs are numb," Bryan recalled over a bowl of mussels and an iced tea at a pub that doubles as a GM hangout. "The first night at work, you don't want to go back the next day."

Bryan did go back the next day - and nearly every other workday for the 10 years since. Soon, however, the 47-year-old will move to Texas to begin work at another GM facility that offers greater job security.

Lawmakers in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington are fighting to retain the jobs of workers like Bryan in Baltimore, whose outdated GM plant is targeted for closure in 2005.

Manufacturing is but a shadow of its former self in Maryland and the United States, with companies moving production outside the country for cheaper labor. But with solid-paying jobs, the support of organized labor and a historic importance, the manufacturing sector remains a potent political force.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who've been at odds on other matters, joined Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and other officials at a press conference Monday after a visit with GM executives in Michigan. It was an uncommon collection of political might to demonstrate concern for the plant's future. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's public lament afterward that he should have been invited on the trip, too, only underscored the issue's symbolic importance.

Days later, President Bush visited Pittsburgh to bolster support for re-election in industrial Pennsylvania, even though his decision - announced later - to lift tariffs on foreign steel angered domestic producers and their workers. The issue remained hot as he arrived in Baltimore Friday to tout recent positive economic news.

As politics is often about crunching numbers, politicians typically align themselves with promising areas of growth, not decline. That's not the case with manufacturing, which now produces 13 percent of nonfarm employment nationally, about a third of its impact more than 30 years ago.

Its diminution has been even greater in Maryland, where manufacturing generates 7 percent of nonfarm employment. That's about a fifth of its 1960s proportion. General Motors, once one of the state's largest employers, now ranks no higher than 71st, despite inclusion of the Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh, which opened in 2001 to help offset attrition at the van factory a dozen miles south.

But various economic and political observers conclude that manufacturing is too crucial to ignore. Its job opportunities are nearly impossible to replace in an increasingly service economy that offers lower pay and benefits. The spinoff of work to suppliers also creates jobs.

Politicians work to save manufacturing jobs in part, experts said, to show their constituents that they care - even if their efforts prove futile.

The van plant, like the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. factory in Sparrows Point, has shrunk in slow motion, unlike closures or mergers in technology, banking or health industries where changes are often too swift for elected leaders to change.

"Manufacturing has played a very important role in our economy," said Helen D. Bentley, the former Baltimore County congresswoman who long worked to sustain the city's port. "It's the guts of our economy, and it's the key to what made America great."

Manufacturing supported 23 million jobs in the United States last year - 15 million manufacturing jobs and another 8 million jobs in other sectors tied to manufacturing, said Hank Cox, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. Members of the association - the country's largest industrial trade association - include GM, Ford Motor Co. and Maytag Corp.

Manufacturing spins off a flurry of other jobs, from the ones that supply the raw material to the ones that sell the finished product, down to the diners that feed workers at the plant.

"They just have a way of generating a lot of economic activity all around them. There are manufacturing workers, and restaurants spring up to serve them. It brings money into the community," Cox said.

The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., estimates that jobs like those at GM's factory on Broening Highway each contribute $300,000 to the community, including the worker's salary and supply costs, compared with $73,000 generated by nonmanufacturing positions.

"These are big-time, high-value-added jobs that if you can keep them or grow them have enormous economic impact," said David E. Cole, chairman of the center.

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