American Dream: a rude awakening

Manufacturing: Economic change overtakes GM's Baltimore plant, where good jobs once lasted decades.

February 20, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

When Paul Pinkney heard of job openings at the General Motors plant in southeast Baltimore, he went there nearly every day for two weeks before being invited inside. Finally, on his ninth visit, he was taken to the assembly line and shown a greasy pit, with automobiles suspended above and sparks flying, where he would work.

That was nearly 40 years ago. Today, the filth and danger have diminished, but Pinkney, at age 63, remains. He has spent more than half his life in the 3.1 million-square-foot plant, so vast that it could house 50 football fields and workers use bicycles to get from one end to the other.

Many of his co-workers likely won't last so long.

"If you start in Baltimore now," Pinkney said, "ain't no way you're going to finish there."

The demise of the van factory on Broening Highway has been a topic of speculation for years. But the rumors became more real last fall when General Motors Corp. targeted the plant for possible closure by next year in a new contract with the United Auto Workers.

Sales of the GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro vans manufactured at the plant are dwindling. Experts say retooling the plant for a new model is unlikely.

So for the 1,100 GM workers at Broening Highway, fast receding, like an image in a rear-view mirror, is what they have now - a factory job that affords a middle-class lifestyle.

Jobs go overseas

In 1965, when Pinkney began at GM, one of every four adults in the United States worked in manufacturing. Now, it's barely one in 10. During Pinkney's time on the assembly line, the country has lost more than 2 million manufacturing positions to cheaper labor overseas and to technology gains - more than the population of West Virginia.

Disappearing manufacturing jobs have become a potent political issue in this presidential election year. Democrats claim President Bush hasn't done enough to stem a decline in manufacturing employment, while the president is emphasizing his efforts to shore up industry.

The debate reflects a sobering economic trend.

Service jobs are substituting for lost factory jobs, but with much lower salaries. Food-service workers earn an average of about $8.50 an hour; production workers today average about $15 an hour.

Pinkney, by comparison, earns $26 an hour at GM. Starting pay at many of today's manufacturing jobs is about a quarter of that, says Andrew J. DuBrin, an industrial psychologist and a professor of management at Rochester Institute of Technology.

"We're returning to the survival of the fittest, where only the wealthy people are going to have decent lives and the Paul Pinkneys are going to be working at Wal-Mart," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.

In the twilight of his career at GM, Pinkney knows he is one of the lucky ones. Had he been born a generation later, Pinkney acknowledges, it's unlikely he would have been able to land such a stable, well-paying job without a college education.

"These younger people, they're going to have to move or get other trades or something because, at the rate things are going, they can bring in two pieces of equipment and eliminate 10 jobs," Pinkney said.

Pinkney is planning to work for General Motors for two more years, when he's 65 and eligible for Social Security, or until the Broening Highway factory closes - whichever comes first.

Whatever the plant's fate, General Motors has been a driving force in Pinkney's life: He met his second wife there. The job allowed him to help provide college educations for four children. His four-bedroom house, from its big-screen TV for watching football to the deck he built out back, was bought with GM money.

Pinkney has worked at Broening Highway since he was 24. Born and raised in the city, he grew up in Cherry Hill with two brothers and a sister. In the mornings, he would run his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Butch, through the neighborhood. Summers included fishing, crabbing and cooking hot dogs and beans on camping trips in the nearby woods.

"It was like living in a dream world," he recalled.

Odd jobs and steel

By age 14, Pinkney was carrying shoppers' groceries home from the neighborhood A&P for a quarter. After high school, he intended to take a job at the bustling Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant at Sparrows Point but got only as far as the locker room.

"The closer I got to Bethlehem Steel, the more ominous it got. Things just had this red look," he recalled. "Everything had iron or dust on it, and the noise. ... Something in me said, `Don't do it.'"

Instead, he took a job at the London Fog coat factory in Baltimore, making $1.25 an hour to spread cloth through machines and cut out imperfections. He worked other jobs on the side, caddying at golf courses and cleaning downtown office buildings, to patch together an income, but it wasn't enough.

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