Broening GM plant to close May 13

1,100 workers knew end was due, not date

State hopes site will be donated

February 09, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

General Motors' Broening Highway assembly plant, one of the city's last remaining symbols of an industrial lifestyle that dominated the Baltimore economy for generations, will make its final van May 13, company and union officials said yesterday.

The plant's 1,100 workers learned of the official closing date yesterday when the assembly line shut down briefly at 7:30 a.m. and a recorded message from plant manager Timothy E. Stansbury was broadcast over television screens throughout the factory.

Walter Plummer, president of the United Auto Workers Local 239, which represents the workers at the GM plant, said employees took the news in stride. He said the factory's final day had been rumored for weeks.

FOR THE RECORD - General Motors Corp. workers in Baltimore will receive about 70 percent of their regular take-home pay after taxes and other deductions when placed on layoff status, according to the plant's union. A front-page article yesterday incorrectly reported the amount.

"I think they're handling it real well, really, for a plant closing," Plummer said. But he expects that as the last day nears, "it's probably going to hit harder."

The company announced in November that it was closing the 70-year-old plant this year, and GM stopped taking orders last week for the vans made there.

GM officials still are working on final details of how to close the factory, which manufactures about 224 Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans a day, said plant communications manager Brook Galbraith-Smith.

Paul Pinkney, 64, who has worked at the GM plant for 40 years and plans to retire when it closes, said employees were told yesterday that they will build 130 vans on the factory's last day. The final four vans to come off the assembly lines will be raffled off to workers, he said.

Most employees are likely to keep their jobs at the plant until the final week of production, GM officials said, in part because of the way the vans are made. Each vehicle's life begins in the body shop where workers weld its metal structure together. It then moves to the paint shop and later to general assembly where the engine, wheels and other parts are tied to the frame.

So as the final vans move through each department of the factory, the body shop might close a few days before general assembly stops, said GM spokesman Dan Flores, and some workers might be sent home a few days before the plant shuts down. A skeleton staff will stay working in the factory once it closes.

"There isn't a point in time where, on the 13th, we shut off the lights and everyone goes home," Flores said. "We've still got to maintain the facility."

State officials are trying to ensure an economic life for the 182-acre factory site after its closing by pushing GM executives to donate the land to Maryland taxpayers for other uses.

Plummer said the union's biggest worry is that Baltimore assembly workers won't receive priority on job transfers before the plant closes. After May 13, Baltimore workers will be the first in line for transfers to other GM factories. But if jobs open at other plants before the Broening Highway factory closes, "then some of our people could be shut out," he said.

GM and union officials are negotiating incentive packages for retirees, Plummer said. Already, 14 workers have transferred to other plants.

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. Once unemployment benefits run out, workers will earn about 55 percent of their regular take-home pay, Plummer said. Plant workers earn an average of $27 an hour.

The plant closure is expected to cost GM up to $6 million a month in employee compensation and benefits. The company also will write off a pretax, noncash charge of $52 million, or $32 million after taxes, for plant assets. It will incur a $20 million pretax liability, or $12 million after taxes, for environmental and other costs associated with shutting the plant, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last month.

Sales of the GMC Safari and Chevy Astro vans have been dwindling for years. The Baltimore plant went to one shift from two in 2000, and its work force is a fraction of the 7,000 it employed at its height 30 years ago.

The plant hasn't been given a new product since 1985, and experts have said it would cost millions of dollars to upgrade the factory and outfit it to build something new.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said he hopes to turn the negative into a positive after the plant closes by converting the site to a research facility to study hybrid vehicles, battery technology, fuel cells and other advances.

GM officials say the decision process for the plant property likely will take years.

Pinkney, the worker who plans to retire in May, said yesterday's announcement was somewhat gloomy for him because most of the coworkers he began with have either retired or passed away.

"I was a little sad there for a couple of minutes," said Pinkney, who works in maintenance. "I'd like [if] we all walk out of there together, but that's not the way it's going to go."

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