Plant makes its final run

Workers at General Motors' Baltimore plant finished making the last van on the 70-year-old assembly line yesterday, joining another piece of the city's blue-collar past and taking their spot in the financially troubled carmaker's history.

The last van rolled off the line at 11:05 a.m. as workers and retirees gathered to watch what they knew had been coming for years. GM decided last year to close the plant yesterday, leaving 1,100 workers without jobs.

But when the line stopped, it still weighed heavily on workers.

"I really wasn't ready to let go," said Karen White, 54, of Essex, who worked in the paint department.

"Our lives changed today," said Thomasine Parrott, 44, tears streaming down her face, as she left the plant.

The Broening Highway factory, which manufactured Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans for 21 years, has been a steady presence in Baltimore for generations. It pumped money into the local economy, employed thousands and remained a symbol of good-paying manufacturing jobs that meant a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.

But GM has been struggling with steep financial losses, intense competition from foreign carmakers and high costs for funding health care for workers and retirees. The Baltimore factory's closing has become emblematic of a troubled company that experts said may be forced to close more plants.

The final van began its journey through the factory last week. Departments began shutting down as the van -- with a cardboard sign that read "The end" hanging from its back -- passed through the plant. During a media tour Thursday, the factory that decades ago bustled with roaring machines and more than 7,000 workers already seemed quiet inside.

Workers rode bicycles through the 3 million-square-foot building. Two men swept the floor beside the still assembly line. When the instrument panel line stopped, workers gathered around a plastic picnic table in their work area, shaking hands and hugging.

"I loved working here," said Keith Boone, 30, who worked in the body shop and spent a dozen years at GM -- commuting 46 miles each way to work from Pennsylvania. "I loved my job."

Four senior employees drove some of the last vans off the line yesterday. Plant Manager Timothy E. Stansbury gave a speech on the factory floor, talking about the decades-long history of the plant, where Monte Carlos and El Caminos were once made. Four workers with perfect attendance for the year won some of the final vans manufactured.

Workers cheered as the assembly line finished its run and signed the last van with colored magic markers. They posed for a group photo in the plant before trickling out just before noon to the parking lot filled with GM trucks and other American cars.

In the coming weeks, some workers will remain at the plant to help decommission it, though the company has not said how many would stay or for how long. Some of the equipment in the factory will be moved to other GM facilities, and the state is hoping to persuade GM to donate the 182-acre Southeast Baltimore site for a global trade and technology center.

Plant workers have the option of retiring, going into the job bank to do community service, going back to school or waiting until a position opens at another GM plant. They will be paid their salaries for two years under a contract with the United Auto Workers. Shutting down the factory is expected to cost GM up to $6 million a month in employee compensation and benefits.

Between 600 and 700 Baltimore workers are eligible for retirement, said Nancy Sarpolis, a company spokeswoman. Figures on how many will retire, go into the job bank or transfer to another plant were not available because workers were still deciding what to do, she said.

Production at the Baltimore plant had been winding down for years. In 2000, it went from two shifts to one. The Astro and Safari vans, the only products made at the plant since 1984, haven't been remodeled in 20 years, and their sales have dwindled.

But even though the signs were there and the plant closure had been rumored for years, it was still a difficult day for workers.

"We were here more than we were at home, that's the emotional part," said Charlotte Griffin, 50, who sat with her co-workers from the paint shop, drinking beer at the crowded Poncabird Pub after the plant closed.

Since announcing the plant closing in November, General Motors has reported its biggest quarterly loss in more than a decade -- $1.1 billion for the first quarter of 2005 -- and its bond rating was cut last week to junk status. GM has gone from holding about 50 percent of the U.S. automotive market share in the 1970s to about 25 percent today.

Experts have said GM is the largest health care provider in the world, with about 70 percent of its health care costs going to retirees. For every vehicle GM produced in 2004, the company spent $1,525 on health care and $675 on pension costs.

Now, some GM workers worry they could end up like the retired Bethlehem Steel workers at Sparrows Point who lost their health coverage and part of their pensions after the steelmaker declared bankruptcy and handed their pensions over to the federal government.

"I came to General Motors for the money and benefits," said Rick Siegert, 38, who worked at the plant for eight years. "Who thought GM would ever leave? But then again, I live in Sparrows Point, so who thought Bethlehem Steel would have closed up?"

Several retirees returned to the plant to watch the final van come off the line. The plant was open only to workers and retirees yesterday.

David Sawyer began working at the GM plant in 1973 and retired three decades later from the company's Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh.

"My whole life was spent in there, my whole adult life," said the 50-year-old as he left the plant. "It was big a family in there."

One worker who was happy, though, was George Garcia. The former paint department worker went into the plant to retire after 32 years. While in the benefits office, Garcia asked who won the last vans coming off the line. He was told that one winner worked in the paint department.

"Oh, I hope I know him," he replied.

Turns out, the winner of the new, fully loaded black van was Garcia.

Sun staff writer Blanca Torres contributed to this article.