Finding work away from assembly line

With GM factory closed, some wait at a `job bank' for openings, go back to school or get into volunteer work

September 18, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

In the sweltering second-story room of a Dundalk church, three hardworking men sawed and glued and sweated.

The sweating part they were used to. They had spent many of their summers welding metal and wiring vans in the thick of Baltimore's General Motors plant, where the fans only blow around the stifling air, they said.

"It's like standing in front of a hairdryer," recalled Rick Siegert, who worked at the Broening Highway factory for eight years and is now a full-time volunteer with a GM salary.

When General Motors Corp. closed its 70-year-old Baltimore van assembly plant in May, it left these three men and hundreds of other workers out of a job. But as part of its contract with the United Auto Workers, the GM employees continue to collect their paychecks and benefits at least until the contract expires in 2007.

The only catch: If they are not placed in another GM job, they must either go to school, volunteer full time or sit in the "job bank," which is housed on one floor of a General Motors facility at Point Breeze in Southeast Baltimore. There, workers wait out the 40 hours each week that otherwise would have been spent on the assembly line.

For Siegert, 39, and his two co-workers, Andrew Cierkowski, 27, and Mike Forrester Jr., 38, the choice was easy.

"I still can't believe people are still sitting in a room somewhere," said Siegert, who has sat in the job bank during previous layoffs. "You can only play cards so long. It starts to feel like you're in jail."

Contract provision

The job bank - Job Opportunity Bank Security, or JOBS program - is a provision the UAW has negotiated into all of its labor contracts with GM, Chrysler and Ford, said Steven Szakaly, an economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. It allows idled workers to collect their pay until GM finds them another job within the company or they retire, Szakaly said.

For union workers, the benefit is that the program gives them time to go to school, receive training or find a job elsewhere while still getting paid.

The provision is costly, though. Szakaly estimates that General Motors has "at least a couple thousand" workers in its job bank program. Each idled worker costs GM about $110,000 a year, Szakaly said.

Financial drain

"Obviously, they're paying for workers to essentially do nothing, so it's a fairly large financial drain, especially when you start multiplying this by the thousands of workers they now have in the job bank," Szakaly said.

And Szakaly said the job bank program will not likely be given up in the next contract negotiation, which means the Baltimore workers could continue to be paid well beyond 2007.

General Motors spokesmen declined to comment on the job bank program. The media are not permitted inside the job bank, and several GM workers there declined to be interviewed for this article.

About 165 of the Baltimore van assembly plant's former workers spend their days sitting in the job bank, and 259 are either volunteering or going back to school, said Jeff Beard, vice president of UAW Local 239.

About a third of the Broening Highway plant's 1,100 workers retired when the plant closed, and the remaining union workers either found jobs at GM's Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh or transferred to plants in Louisiana or Texas, he said.

Employees who put in their hours at the job bank are permitted to work second jobs, as long as it doesn't interfere with their obligation to General Motors, said Kip Wirtz, union shop chairman for the Baltimore plant.

When Beard visited the job bank early this summer, he said some workers seemed to still be in shock from the plant closing.

The Broening Highway plant closed May 13. Financially strapped GM blamed the shut-down on dwindling sales of Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans, the only products made there since 1984.

"Some of them looked like they were confused: Do I go back to school? Do I take the layoff? Do I retire?" Beard recalled. "They were undecided. Even though you felt that the plant was going to close, till reality really sets in you just don't know."

Still, Beard said, several workers are staying positive.

Many have found volunteer jobs at GM dealerships, libraries, firehouses, parks and other places in their communities. Representatives from the union and the company follow up with them on the job, he said.

Teach about the bay

Ed Canaan, who worked in the trim department at GM from 1965 until the plant closed, spent a week in the job bank before starting his volunteer job at Chesapeake Bay Memories, a Baltimore County nonprofit that educates the community about the bay.

At the job bank, his former co-workers mostly sat around reading books, playing cards and watching television, he said.

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