As a General Motors employee for 25 years, John Sofia is well acquainted with the shuttered-factory shuffle, the decades-old dance requiring union workers to move hundreds of miles between cities as the automaker closes plants.
Over the past 15 years, the 56-year-old Baltimore County man has bounced between three states spanning 1,200 miles, losing two marriages to the same woman along the way.
“I had lost the marriage, I had lost my house and everything because of the distance,” Sofia said.
It’s a painful procession Sofia now faces again along with more than 170 of his fellow union workers in Baltimore County. The electricians, mechanics and assembly line laborers were laid off in May when GM closed its White Marsh factory, the last vestige of the once-mighty company’s eight-decade presence in Maryland.
They have until the end of September to relocate to factories in seven states as far away as Texas. While some younger workers can quit rather than relocate, more-senior employees need to move to keep their family health benefits and to attain the time they need to retire at 30 years of service. Many of those are ready and willing to pounce on any early retirement option that the United Auto Workers might negotiate with GM in a new contract.
Others are choosing to remain in laid-off limbo in Baltimore County, hoping that GM reopens the White Marsh plant that had employed more than 300.
“They’re on their way to closing us up unless we get an 11th hour reprieve,” said Guy White, the United Auto Worker’s shop chairman for the White Marsh facility. “There are people who are going to gamble and stay. But there are some who have 25 years and need five years to retire. They have no other option than to move.”
Few face a harder choice than Sofia, who needs to work exactly five more years to qualify for retirement.
Moving 900 miles to Wentzville, Missouri, where most of the new jobs have been offered, would require Sofia to leave behind his dementia-suffering mother, one of the few women in the 1970′s who was hired for the GM Broening Highway factory that once employed 7,000 workers before a steady decline led to its 2005 closure.
He noted that Wentzville “is 13 hours away, which causes a hardship for everybody, especially me because I’m the caregiver for my mother.”
After living with his mother in their White Marsh condo, Sofia recently moved her into an assisted living facility in Parkville as her condition worsened so badly that she now speaks only her native Italian — a situation that has required him to interpret for staff. Without his job, Sofia said he wouldn’t have the money to provide proper care for his mother.
His decision: He has no choice but to move to Wentzville.
The company originally offered employees the option of moving to 60 open positions in six states — Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Texas. After that, the company gave workers a final opportunity to decide on 114 remaining jobs in those states and Indiana.
Sofia started work at Broening Highway as a temporary employee in 1989. Five years later he was a full-time GM employee and UAW member.
When the Baltimore facility closed in 2005, Sofia faced his first relocation. It wasn’t so bad, just an hour up the highway in Wilmington, Delaware.
Still, he said the commute contributed to the first divorce from his wife. But they soon reconciled and remarried within a year. Then, in 2009, Sofia had to move to Kansas City, Kansas, a position that required him to fly back and forth from Baltimore until 2013.
“It did cause a hardship because I was married, but my wife and kids did not come with me, they were still in Maryland," Sofia said.
He moved four states closer to Ohio’s Lordstown plant and drove the nearly six hours back to Baltimore each week with other workers from the area. Still, the distance led to a second divorce in 2014.
Two years later in February 2016, Sofia returned to Maryland for a job at the White Marsh factory.
GM opened the White Marsh plant in December 2000. It made light truck transmissions and electric motors until GM announced in November it was shutting the plant down. The move was a small part of a massive restructuring of the 111-year-old company that included shutting production at five North American plants and laying off up to 14,000 factory and white-collar workers.
But the automaker quickly pledged that every blue-collar U.S. worker would have a job waiting if they were willing to move.
Meanwhile, ongoing negotiations with the UAW have continued to give members hope that the White Marsh facility could be reopened. The company calls the factory “unallocated," not closed. That means “there is no production activity currently going on at the facility,” said GM spokesman David Barnas.
That gives White a “glimmer of hope,” he said.
“GM hasn’t definitively said we’re shutting down,” said White, one of seven employees still maintaining the White Marsh plant.
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While White is grateful the company is offering new positions to workers, he said the process is not a “very compassionate way of going about it.”
“They give you a week to make up your mind and they give you a month to move,” he said. “That’s not a lot of time to find a place to live, get your kids enrolled in schools.”
White said he would not be able to give an exact number for how many workers have relocated until they report to their new positions by the end of this month.
Barnas also did not have any data.
“At this time, we don’t have any additional information to provide regarding how many have accepted the opportunities or not,” Barnas said. “All have been provided job opportunities and relocation assistance provided they can relocate.”
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. bemoaned the closure and the relocation thrust on workers. The Democrat’s administration has tried to help workers who decide to stay to learn new skills and connect with other local employers.
“It’s disappointing to see any job leave the area, especially when they’re good paying, family-sustaining union jobs,” Olszewski said. “After having a presence here for generations, GM’s shuttering of this plant is sad and unfortunate.”