The earthquake in the Detroit boardroom of General Motors is causing tremors at the GM plant on Broening Highway. With the ouster of chairman Robert C. Stempel, a boss popular with the rank-and-file, tough-minded outside directors are now in charge, their eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line.
Not that the Baltimore operation seems to be in immediate danger; its mid-sized vans remain one of the more popular vehicles on the market. Last December, Broening escaped the first hit-list as Mr. Stempel launched a national campaign to close 21 plants and eliminate 74,000 jobs. But there is no telling how Draconian the new regime will be.
GM's 1984 decision to upgrade the Broening Highway facility and make it the sole source for its Astro-vans was one of the happiest occurrences in Baltimore's automotive history. More than 3,000 workers have had steady, high-paying employment -- often receiving overtime -- that has materially buttressed the Baltimore economy.
But nail-biting time may begin soon enough. Even before one of the largest shake-ups in U.S. corporate history rumbled General Motors, it was clear the Astro-van line would not last forever. The company had approved continuing production only through the 1995 model year and, after that, it was believed Baltimore would have plenty of competition for a somewhat larger follow-on vehicle.
Of course, what happens at Broening is only a blip on the charts of a mammoth company with 750,000 people on its payroll -- a number comparable to the entire population of Baltimore City. But it means a lot here, and to keep a major auto assembly operation going will require the cooperation of local management, unions, government officials and the business community.
That GM is a big corporation in big trouble is well recognized. Charles Wilson's famous pronouncement that what is good for General Motors is good for America has been turned upside down. With foreign competition grabbing more and more of the U.S. market, it is now recognized that what is bad for GM is bad for the nation.
And the bad is writ large in multi-billion-dollar losses. Mr. Stempel's well-meaning efforts to turn things around while easing the pain for GM employees found little favor among outside directors anxious to boost profits. So he has been ousted in a palace coup that has left the company in chaos. The crown is likely to pass to John C. Smale, an outside director who as chief executive at Procter and Gamble proved he could sell soap. Whether he can sell GM vans made in Baltimore by Baltimoreans is what Marylanders want to know.