Those who don't retire have the security of knowing they'll be paid for another two years. But what happens after that is weighing on the minds of some Baltimore workers who have watched GM's finances deteriorate during the few months since the closing was announced.
Bethlehem Steel workers at Sparrows Point who lost their health coverage and part of their pensions after the steelmaker declared bankruptcy. Others who had hoped to transfer to a nearby GM auto parts plant aren't as optimistic as they once were.
"I really believe for the first time that there's a lot of concern for the future," said Joe Evans, 58, who has worked at GM for 40 years. "You're playing with people's livelihoods, their lives."
In the Broening Highway plant's heyday, two shifts a day churned out vehicles, pumping life and money into the local economy. It was symbolic of a time when consumers were proud to buy products made in the United States and one in four people worked in manufacturing jobs. Many of those workers thought they would make GM vehicles for years and retire with the perks long associated with the auto industry.
Now, as production of the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans in Baltimore nears an end, experts say what is happening at the 70-year-old factory is symbolic of something else: the struggles of a troubled company. General Motors is losing footing to international competitors with lower production costs, paying a high price for health care for employees and retirees and, experts say, making vehicles that a growing number of consumers don't want.
"General Motors is a broken company," said Peter Morici, an economist and professor of business at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "If you sell an inferior product and you expect a premium price, you're going to go out of business. That's General Motors' problem."
The company's bond rating has been cut to junk status, it is losing a price war with Japanese automakers, and rising oil prices are making gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles less attractive to consumers. GM has gone from holding about 50 percent of the U.S. automotive market share in the 1970s to about 25 percent today.
"Their business has shrunk so much that they're structurally unprofitable in North America," said David Healy, an auto industry analyst for New York-based Burnham Securities who predicts more layoffs, plant closings and white-collar salary cuts at General Motors.
"Closing the plant in Baltimore was a good decision," said Walter McManus, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, "but they need to do more of it, and that's the bad news."
For generations, working at a factory like the GM plant meant a nice, middle-class lifestyle. When soldiers came home after World War II, they returned to jobs and booming businesses. Americans bought American cars. Solid wages and benefits became ingrained in major industries, such as auto and steel, said Jack W. Plunkett, chief executive officer of Plunkett Research Ltd., a market research firm in Houston.
In 2004, General Motors spent $5.2 billion in health care. The company covers 1.1 million employees, retirees and their dependents. For every vehicle GM produced in 2004, the company spent $1,525 on health care and $675 on pension costs, said GM spokeswoman Pam Reese.
General Motors' obligation to its U.S. pension plans was $89 billion in 2004, according to documents filed last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In an SEC filing this year, the company said it "remains burdened by a high fixed cost structure due to its large retiree base." Reese said that for every current GM employee there are 2.6 retirees.
Analysts say those wages and benefits, among other things, are catching up with GM.
"GM is at a critical crossroads, needing to do everything it can to reduce costs," Plunkett said.