GM, state leaders to talk; Meeting to address future of company's Baltimore van plant; Auto industry


State officials and representatives of the General Motors Corp. will meet in Annapolis today to discuss the automaker's Baltimore assembly plant.

"The focus of the meeting will be the future of the van plant in Maryland," Daniel Flores, a spokesman for GM's Truck Group in Pontiac, Mich., said yesterday.

GM announced final plans last month to end the second shift at its 65-year-old Broening Highway plant in mid-July, eliminating up to 1,200 jobs.

Workers and state officials are concerned that the move may be a step toward closing the plant, the city's largest manufacturer.

GM has said it is committed to the continued production of the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans at the Baltimore plant only until the third quarter of 2003.

After that, the company said, the market for the aged vans, which have not undergone a major redesign since being introduced in 1984, will determine the plant's future. Sales of the two vans have been declining in recent years. Last year sales totaled 134,267, down from 174,815 in 1997.

State officials want to persuade GM to bring a new product to Baltimore. They were successful in getting GM's Allison Transmission subsidiary to build a truck transmission plant in White Marsh. The plant, now under construction, will employ about 375 hourly workers and could absorb some of the workers from Broening Highway's second shift.

When GM first disclosed its plans to eliminate the second shift last November, state officials said they would try to reverse the automaker's decision. But last month's announcement made it apparent that had not been successful.

Even at half the work force, closing the plant would be a blow to the Baltimore area economy. With its 2,400 employees, it pumps an estimated $1 billion a year into the regional economy and creates another 3,500 related jobs.

State officials were tight-lipped yesterday about today's session. Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, called it a "private working meeting to discuss GM's future in Maryland."

The seven-member GM delegation will be headed by Thomas J. Davis, head of GM's Truck Group, which has jurisdiction over the Baltimore plant.

He will be accompanied by Guy D. Briggs, vice president and general manager of the Truck Group, and David C. Prange, manager of the Baltimore plant.

GM will also have government relations people at the table, along with a human resource director and a public relations representative.

According to Flores, the state group will include Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes; Mayor Martin O'Malley; and Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, and David Iannucci, deputy secretary, are also to attend.

The state delegation does not include representation from the United Autoworkers Local 239, which represents the vast majority of the workers at the van plant. "I wasn't invited," said Charles R. Alfred, president of the local.

In an attempt to persuade GM to keep the Baltimore plant open and bring in a new product, the union renegotiated its local contract with the plant last fall to make it more competitive with newer assembly plant in other parts of the country.

Glendening has said that the state is prepared to offer GM a major financial incentive package to keep the plant in Maryland. Economic development officials have declined to elaborate.

The state's trump card could be Mikulski, who sits on a key committee that helps set fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and trucks made in this country.

Fuel standards, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAF), were established in the mid-1970s in response to the OPEC oil embargo. Since 1974, the government has been trying to raise the standards for light trucks, including sport utility vehicles. But every year Congress has rejected the move.

A member of the appropriations subcommittee on transportation, Mikulski is a key vote when it comes to CAF standards. In the past, she has voted in favor of GM's position not to raise the requirement because of its plant in Baltimore.

Capitol Hill sources said that if the Maryland Democrat changes her vote, she could take other votes with her, perhaps enough to implement an increase in the fuel economy standards.

"It's been talked about in Detroit," said one GM official, who didn't want to be identified. "The senator is a very influential person."

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