Walkout at GM forces suppliers to slash production


WESTMINSTER -- These are tough times for Maryland's auto production industry and the hardship extends well beyond the perimeter of the idle General Motors Corp. Broening Highway minivan assembly plant.

The economic ripples of a strike by 3,200 Auto Workers has had a dramatic impact on Marada Industries Inc., a GM parts supplier located just a few miles north of this picturesque Carroll County town.

Marada produces steel structural components that go into the GM van, and its big factory was nearly vacant yesterday. Only one of its four giant metal press machines was operating. The roll mill line, which would normally be a clatter of activity as it banged out a bumper every five or six seconds, was sitting idle.

A line of robotic welding machines, which should have been sending out its own form of Fourth of July fireworks, was also dark and motionless.

John Kemper, an employee who would normally be operating the mill, was strolling about yesterday morning with a plastic spray bottle of cleaning fluid and a rag, washing down the hand railing around the mill.

Dan L. Quickel, Marada's assistant general manager, said that about 60 percent of the plant's 190 workers were on vacation yesterday because there was not enough work to keep them busy.

Marada is one of a number of area GM suppliers caught up in the labor dispute of Baltimore's largest manufacturing company.

Monarch Manufacturing Inc., a Belcamp company that produces the --boards and another plastic structure that includes the minivan's glove box, a cup holder and ash tray, shut down the day after the GM strike began.

Jeff Testerman, Monarch's manufacturing manager, said the plant's 75 production workers have been laid off. The dozen salaried employees are keeping busy doing paperwork and cleaning the plant but they face layoffs in the near future.

Mr. Testerman pointed out another major dilemma for Monarch. He says the Baltimore GM plant will change models in early August, switching from production of 1991 model vans to 1992 models.

While the van will not change a lot, the components made by Monarch will, "and we are not sure if GM will pay for any left over inventory or if we will have to eat it," Mr. Testerman said.

"It's a big chunk of money," he added, estimating that it could amount to $250,000. The parts cannot be used on the new vans, he said.

At the Johnson Controls Inc., another Belcamp company that produces the seats that go into the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, Dennis Sisolak, manager, declared: "The strike has had a quite dramatic impact on us. We've lost about 85 percent of our sales."

Johnson also produces some seat cushions that are shipped to other Johnson plants for use in other GM cars, but the automaker's Baltimore plant is its biggest customer by far.

To adjust for the sharp drop in business, Mr. Sisolak said that only about a third of the company's 175 workers were on the job yesterday. Another third, he said, had taken vacation and the remainder were on voluntary layoff.

He declined to say how much the strike has cost the company in lost business, but stressed that "it's been very, very costly."

As part of a $270 million renovation of its aged Baltimore plant in the early 1980s, GM adopted a just-in-time inventory system. It has companies such as Johnson, Monarch and Marada sending parts to the Southeast Baltimore plant just as they are needed for the assembly line.

While this reduces the amount of money GM has tied up in inventory at its assembly plants across the country, it puts suppliers in the precarious position of feeling the impact of a work stoppage almost immediately.

On Friday, June 21, Marada officials had to decide whether to order another shipment of steel for delivery over the weekend or wait until June 24, the date that Local 239 of the United Auto Workers Union had set for a walkout if an agreement could not be reached with GM.

Marada ordered the steel and the big rolls, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, are still piled up at the plant. Workers are wiping them down with a light oil to keep them from rusting in the humid weather. When production is proceeding on a normal schedule, Mr. Quickel said, rolls of steel that arrive at the Marada plant in the morning are made into bumpers and are being installed on the vans in Baltimore that same evening.

"We think we can make it through the end of July with no layoffs," Mr. Quickel said, "but we sure hope this strike ends soon."

The United Auto Workers at the GM plant went on strike June 24. The union claims that employees are being overworked as a result of the company's decision in February to eliminate about 400 jobs, and that this is showing up in increased injuries at the plant.

The company has challenged the union's claim, saying that there has been only a slight increase in work-related injuries during the first five months of this year compared to the same period of 1990.

The two sides have been meeting on a daily basis with little to report this week. After yesterday's talks, the United Auto Workers local president, Rodney A. Trump, reported slight progress.

Negotiations have been suspended for the Fourth of July and the two sides are scheduled to meet again at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

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