GM plant takes final orders for vans

Officials calculating time needed before the closing

February 04, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

General Motors accepted final orders this week for the last vans to be manufactured at its Baltimore plant, moving the 70-year-old Broening Highway factory another step closer to its shutdown this year.

The deadline to order the vans was Monday, said Dan Flores, a GM spokesman. He said company officials are calculating how many production days will be needed to fill the plant's final orders so they can schedule a closing date for the factory. About 1,100 workers at the plant are waiting for a shutdown date so they can prepare for early retirement, a transfer to another factory or layoffs.

General Motors announced in November that it would close the plant in Southeast Baltimore sometime in 2005.

"We definitely do not have an approved build-out date," Flores said, "but we're working our way toward that."

Based on past factory shutdowns, experts said production likely will slow as the Baltimore plant fulfills its final vehicle orders and prepares to close.

Michael Flynn, director of the office for the study of automotive transportation at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, said the plant could shut down in stages, laying off some workers before it closes for good.

Workers must learn of the plant's closing date at least 60 days before its shutdown, as required by federal law. Possible options for the workers once the plant closes include retirement or being placed on layoff status, which means an employee will receive part of his or her take-home pay and be eligible for unemployment benefits. Plant workers earn an average of $27 an hour.

If jobs are available, workers could be transferred to other GM facilities. Fourteen Broening Highway workers have moved to other plants, including the Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh, said Walter Plummer, president of United Auto Workers Local 239, which represents the factory's workers.

Once a giant in Baltimore's manufacturing community, the plant went to one shift from two in 2000.

Its workforce is a fraction of the 7,000 employees at its height 30 years ago.

Sales of the plant's Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans have been dwindling, and in 2003 Broening Highway was the only major plant targeted for closing under a four-year contract reached between GM and the United Auto Workers.

State officials are lobbying the company to donate the Southeast Baltimore property to Maryland taxpayers once the plant is closed.

The state hopes to build a global trade and technology center at the site to study fuel cells and other transportation advances.

Maryland officials are writing a proposal for GM that explains its plan for the property. GM has said a decision about the plant's future will take years.

General Motors has been under increasing pressure from Wall Street to close some of its plants, said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The deadline for Astro and Safari van orders passing this week is another sign that the plant is near the end of its run, Cole said.

Plummer said that for many of the workers, the plant's closing still hasn't soaked in.

"I don't really think it's going to hit them until the final one or two days before the closing," he said.

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