Local plant wants ride in new vans

When General Motors Corp.'s replacement for the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans begins rolling off the assembly line sometime near the end of the decade, workers at the company's Broening Highway complex are hoping they will be stamped "Made in Baltimore."

GM has scheduled a totally redesigned midsize van to hit the showrooms in the year 2000 or 2001, but it has hedged on its decision on where the vehicle will be built.


Production could remain in Baltimore or it could be assigned to another GM site elsewhere in the nation or even beyond U.S. borders.

The 3,400 workers at GM's Broening Highway plant -- the city's largest manufacturing employer -- may not have to wait too long before they get an answer to the question on most of their minds.


GM has begun the process of determining where it will build its new van, code-named GMT-700, according to industry sources.

A delegation from GM's North American Truck Platforms division in Pontiac, Mich., which oversees the Baltimore plant, is scheduled to visit the Broening Highway plant next week.

Explanations of the exact nature of the visit vary.

Jeffrey S. Kuhlman, a spokesman for GM's truck division, said the meeting is one in a series of periodic sessions where the senior management looks at the manufacturing processes at the Baltimore plant to determine where improvements can be made. "It is not to decide the future of Baltimore," he stressed.

But a union official asked by the plant's management to be the co-host for the visitors said it is his understanding that it's the beginning of the process of determining what upgrades or other changes would be needed at the local plant to produce the new van.

Rodney A. Trump, president of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers, which represents the hourly workers in the Baltimore plant, said "GM will be trying to determine if the Baltimore plant can accommodate the new product.

"They will need to find out how much money they will have to spend to make changes in the plant," Mr. Trump said. "They will need to know if the work force here is committed to building a quality product. Can they get parts in? Get the product out? They need to know about taxes, the cost of electricity and if there is an adequate water supply."

In the past, GM has expressed concern over the need to install expensive air quality equipment at the plant to reduce emissions in the metropolitan area, which does not meet federal clean air standards.


But emission requirements should not be considered a threat to Baltimore's 60-year-old relationship with GM, according to an state environmental official. "If they come to us with a plan saying 'We're going to be producing X number of vans and us

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ing X amount of paint,' I feel confident that we can work with them" to keep the plant in Baltimore, said Frank Courtright, administrator of the state's Air Quality Enforcement Program.

Mr. Courtright said GM has talked to the state in general terms about its future production in Baltimore, but the automaker has not submitted a specific plan.

Mr. Kuhlman declined to acknowledge that GM is even planning a replacement vehicle for the van made here. He said the company does not talk about future products and declined to address any question related to future production here.


James Perkins, president of GM's Chevrolet division, was not as bashful. In an interview with The Sun last summer, he said the company "will be tearing up the van" now made here and "starting over" with an entirely new product in the year 2000.

Mr. Kuhlman described the delegation coming from Pontiac, Mich., on Feb. 7 and 8 as members of "the product team. These are the folks that direct the overall manufacturing, design and engineering of the M-van," the company's designation for the Astro and Safari.

He said the team would include John Gay--, the platform manager who is "responsible for bringing together all the elements for the production."

Concerning his role in the up-coming meeting, Mr. Trump said, "I'm here to assist the local management in its efforts to secure the new van for Baltimore." He said he was asked by plant manager Robert R. Rieman to participate in a joint effort to convince GM's top management to keep its midsize van production in Baltimore.

The union executive is credited with performing a key role in persuading GM to build its van in Baltimore in the early 1980s when the automaker was considering closing the local facility.

Mr. Trump, who is scheduled to retire in June of next year, said he did not expect to be involved in the process of securing the Baltimore plant's future once again. "I didn't think this process would start until after I left office," he said, "but they seem to have moved everything up."


"I'm going to give it everything I've got," he said of his cooperation with the plant management to secure the right to make the new van. "I've got to. If GM discontinues its operation in Baltimore, it will be devastating. This plant contributes a lot more to

the metropolitan area's economy than most people realize."

In past years the plant has reported that it pumped more than $1 billion into the Baltimore-area economy annually in wages and purchases from local suppliers. The economic impact would be shared by at least a half-dozen other companies, such as Monarch Manufacturing Inc. and A. O. Smith Automotive Products Inc., both in Belcamp in Harford County, and Marada Industries Inc. in Westminster that supply parts to the GM plant on a just-in-time inventory basis.

GM is looking at its own financial situation as it seeks to boost production of trucks, the fastest-growing segment of the market. There has been speculation that if the company shifts its van production elsewhere it would leave Baltimore vying against other GM plants to produce a small pickup truck.

"I'm only thinking van," Mr. Trump said, noting that the production of a small pickup would involve a significantly smaller work force. "The van has been a good product for us. We were the last plant to feel the impact of the recession and the first to realize the good times.

"This van has brought this plant through some hard times. You don't trade a winner."