Uncertain future lies before GM's Broening plant A giant strains to turn around

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To the rhythmic clang of metal striking metal and great showers of sparks from robotic welding machines, sections of steel slowly take the form of Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans as they move along the miles of assembly line at the sprawling General Motors Corp. assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore.

For nearly 60 years, Baltimore has played an important role in making GM the world's largest producer of cars and trucks. But for the second time in the past three years, and the third time since 1982, there are serious questions about the future of the Broening Highway complex.

While General Motors declines to discuss its long-term plans for its plant here, United Auto Workers union officials say there is a chance -- perhaps even a strong one -- that it will be closed at the end of the decade.

"There is no guarantee that we will have a product at that time," said Rodney A. Trump, president of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers, which represents more than 3,000 hourly workers at the plant.

"The mayor and the governor have already been alerted to the threat," Mr. Trump said, noting that it will be their successors who will have to deal with the potential loss of the city's largest manufacturing employer.

Mark Wasserman, secretary of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, said he is aware of the issue and is maintaining a close relationship with the company.

GM has a "momentous decision" to make and the state is prepared to intervene with any assistance DEED can give to help secure the future of GM in the city, Mr. Wasserman said.

Jeffrey S. Kuhlman, a spokesman for GM's North American Truck Platforms in Pontiac, Mich., which oversees the operation of the Baltimore plant, would say only that the company has plans for the production of the vans here until the end of the decade. "I can't speculate beyond that," he added.

James Perkins, president of GM's Chevrolet division, said GM is planning to completely redesign the Safari and Astro vans for the model year 2001. "We will be tearing up the van and starting over," he said.

During that process, Mr. Trump said, the plant and its employees "could be in the same position we were in 1982," referring to a period when the plant faced the threat of closing as GM eliminated the large front-wheel-drive car it had planned to make here.

Several factors will be involved in GM's decision on whether to build the new van in Baltimore: "productivity, cost of production, quality, environmental concerns," Mr. Trump said.

In Baltimore's favor, he said, "We have the experience of building the midsize van and we continue to build the quality that this plant has been known for since 1935. GM will be hard-pressed to produce the new van elsewhere." Loss of the plant would be a serious setback to the area. The company has previously said that the plant pumps more than $1 billion into the region's economy in wages and purchases from local suppliers.

The economic impact would be shared by at least half a dozen other companies, such as Monarch Manufacturing Inc. and A. O. Smith Automotive Products Inc., both in Belcamp, and Marada Industries Inc., in Westminster, that supply parts to the GM plant on a just-in-time inventory basis.

GM's ties to Baltimore date back to March 1935, when a bulky black Chevrolet Master Deluxe rolled off the assembly line at GM's state-of-the-art plant.

Over the decades, the local plant has turned out more than 10 million vehicles with nameplates such as the Chevrolet Impala, Biscayne, Monte Carlo, Malibu and Chevelle; Pontiac Tempest, Bonneville, Grand Prix, LeMans and GTO convertible; Buick Skylark; Oldsmobile F-85; and more recently the Safari and Astro.

Up until 1981, the plant served double duty as a manufacturer of cars and pickup trucks. In 1978 it employed as many as 6,500 people. Some of these workers followed their fathers and their grandfathers into the factory.

The first big threat of a shutdown came in the fall of 1981, just 16 months after city and state officials celebrated GM's decision to invest more than $270 million in a major renovation of the Baltimore plant that was to make it one of the most modern and efficient in the world.

But a year after announcing its upgrade, the situation at GM took a sharp turn for the worse. Car sales had gone into a deep slide and GM had suspended production at a number of plants. More than 160,000 workers across the country were on indefinite layoff.

GM halted renovations in Baltimore in September 1981, and two months later a GM executive wrote Mayor William Donald Schaefer to say the company "cannot determine when -- or if -- we can resume this or other construction projects that also have been delayed."

Without a commitment from GM, the federal government withdrew a $9.1 million Urban Development Action Grant it had awarded to the city for public improvements related to GM's factory renovation.

During this time Baltimore was mentioned as a possible site for GM's joint venture with Toyota to produce a small car in the United States, a project which eventually went to a plant in Fremont, Calif.

Eventually, the Baltimore plant won the right to build the Astro and Safari vans and work on the renovation was resumed.

Another scare came in January 1991 when GM revealed that it would make major style changes in the Astro and Safari vans in 1996 for the 1997 model year. Kari Halsey, a GM spokeswoman said at the time that, "Baltimore is high on the list of contenders" to build the restyled van, but cautioned that the company would also consider other sites.

For 2 1/2 years workers were left wondering about their future. "It ++ was like living under the gun," said Henry Bert, an assembly-line worker who then gave the plant only "a 50-50 chance" of surviving GM's corporate restructuring.

GM ended the suspense last summer when it said it would continue to produce its vans here at least until the year 2000.

The Astros and Safaris have been popular with consumers and in recent years workers have worked overtime to keep up with demand.

Mr. Kuhlman said the plant has been operating two 10-hour daily shifts for some time in addition to some Saturday production.

In October, the plant also increased its assembly line speed by three vehicles per hour to a production rate of 50 per hour, he said. Still, the plant has difficulty meeting demand.

GM is looking at ways to add even more production, including the possibility of a third shift.

"We are watching the market closely and will determine what actions to implement when we determine that the demand is significant and sustained," Mr. Kuhlman said.

GM is also looking for ways to boost productivity at the plant. According to a recent study by Troy, Mich.-based Harbour & Associates, the facility ranks 25th out of the 36 truck and van assembly plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The automotive research group concluded that it takes 40 percent more workers for GM to build a van in Baltimore than it does for Ford to assemble a van at its plant in St. Louis.

But Mr. Kuhlman said the Baltimore plant has boosted its productivity by 5 percent since 1992.

Gains in productivity frequently come at the expense of jobs. The local plant has only about half the workers today that it had 16 years ago when 6,500 workers built the Pontiac GTO and LeMans, Chevrolet Chevelle, along with the Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks.

The company eliminated 1,400 jobs in 1981 after the last pickup truck rolled off the assembly line. And another 1,200 jobs disappeared as part of the plant renovation in the early 1980s.

Broening Highway currently employs about 3,200 people. While their jobs seem secure for at least the next six years, they are left wondering whether the plant will be in existence for another generation of workers to come.

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