In an unusual move, the union representing production workers at General Motor Corp.'s plant in Baltimore has offered to negotiate a contract -- years ahead of schedule and with concessions -- in exchange for a promise that the van-assembly facility will remain open.
The company, however, has declined to agree to talks involving the future of the plant, where Chevrolet Astros and GMC Safaris have been assembled since their introduction in 1984.
"We want to secure the future of Baltimore," said Charles R. Alfred, president of United Auto Workers Local 239.
"The UAW's goal is to keep this plant open well into the next century."
GM plans to introduce a completely redesigned van in 2004, and announce, probably in late 1998, where the vehicle will be assembled.
But with the jobs of its 3,100 members at stake, the union does not want to wait before trying to persuade GM to retain the sprawling plant on Broening Highway.
In an attempt to show that the union is serious, Alfred recently offered to negotiate a future agreement with the local plant.
"We are more than willing to do that if they will only tell us we have the future product," said Alfred, who succeeded Rodney A. Trump as president of the UAW local in June. "We will give them an agreement that will make their heads spin -- providing Baltimore gets the announcement."
He said the Baltimore plant is still in the running for the new van, but he doesn't like the odds. "My guess is that we have a 50-50 chance of winning the new van," code-named GMT-700.
Alfred said he believes that the strongest competition will come from assembly plants in Flint, Mich., and Arlington, Texas. GM's assembly plant in Wilmington, Del., which was recently selected to build a midsize Saturn, is another possible candidate for the van program, he said.
"Delaware is not out of the picture," Alfred said.
To boost Baltimore's chances of retaining the work, Alfred said the union "is ready to negotiate a tentative agreement with GM and lay it on the shelf. At the point of the announcement [that Baltimore is selected to build the overhauled van], we would put it into effect."
Alfred would not provide specifics on what the union is willing to give, but said they would be aimed at making the plant more productive and profitable.
Management of the local plant wants an agreement that will make the factory more productive with fewer workers, but GM is not ready -- at least not now -- to guarantee the plant's survival, Alfred said.
"They want us to give up a lot of things," he said, "but they are not ready to make any promises."
No comment from company
Jeffrey S. Kuhlman, a spokesman for the Baltimore plant, declined to discuss the factory's future. He said that as a matter of policy the company does not talk about future products.
GM had previously planned for the new vans to hit the showrooms in 2001. That was then extended one year, and now the introduction has been delayed until 2004, industry experts believe.
Kuhlman said, however, that the future of the Astro and Safari could be influenced by Ford Motor Co.'s move to eliminate its rear-wheel-drive Aerostar van -- a direct competitor to the two GM products.
David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, said it would be a boon to Baltimore if Ford halts production of the Aerostar.
Although dealers have encouraged Ford to retain the Aerostar, the van is scheduled to be eliminated at the end of next year.
State officials, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, are aware that GM faces a major decision on the future of its Baltimore assembly plant and that there is competition from other plants for the new van, said Chuck Porcari, a spokesman for the state Department of Business and Economic Development.
He said the state is assisting the plant in retraining production workers and is prepared to help in any way possible to keep the plant -- Baltimore's largest -- in the city.
The Maryland Department of the Environment is also involved. ++ Spokesman Quentin Banks said officials have visited the plant and met with top GM officials in Baltimore and in Detroit to try to solve any environmental problems that would threaten the plant's future.
"Whatever business decision GM makes," Banks said, "it is not going to be because we were beating them on environmental regulations. They are in compliance, and we are working very closely with them on any outstanding issues."
Earlier this year, Michael Conte, director of the Regional Economic Studies Program at Towson State University, estimated that GM's van plant pumps about $3 million a week into the area economy in salaries alone.
The economic impact of a closure of the plant would be felt by at least a half-dozen other companies that supply parts to GM here.
Jeff Testerman, manager of the Monarch Manufacturing Inc., Belcamp-based supplier of dashboards and consoles for the vans, said the plant is its sole customer.
Monarch, which has 118 workers, has been supplying parts for the GM vans since their introduction. Testerman said the senior management of the company has already made plans to convert the factory to other products if GM closes its Baltimore plant.
GM's ties to Baltimore date 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 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.
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 had followed their fathers and their grandfathers into the factory.
First threat of shutdown
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 the announcement of the upgrade, the situation at GM took a sharp turn for the worse. Car sales had gone into a deep slide, and GM suspended production at a number of plants and halted work on the Baltimore renovation.
Eventually, the Baltimore plant won the right to build the Astro and Safari vans, and work on the renovation was resumed.
Alfred hopes the plant survives its latest threat, and he said the UAW is prepared to do whatever is possible to achieve that.
Pub Date: 9/08/96