Living with uncertainty is nothing new for 1,100 people who earn a living at General Motors Corp.'s factory in southeast Baltimore.
The plant, nearly 70 years old and producing van models with diminishing sales, has been threatened with closure for decades. But the loss of a clause in the workers' new contract may drive another wedge between them and their present job security.
General Motors and the United Auto Workers reached a tentative agreement on a four-year contract Thursday. But it is unclear if the new agreement retains a clause from the old contract that prohibited the company from closing any plants.
Details of the tentative agreement were not released, pending ratification. The vote by union members is expected to take a week to 10 days. The UAW also reached agreements this week with Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group and supplier Visteon Corp.
"It could change things at the plant if [the clause is] not in the new contract, I believe, by accelerating the closure. If it is in, the plant then is protected in some form until the expiration," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, who has taught a class to workers at the GM plant for more than five years.
GM a year ago committed to building the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans in Baltimore through the summer of 2005. No plans have been made past that expiration date, the company said.
"We're going to run production through the summer of '05, and then beyond the summer of '05 we have not made any decisions yet," said Dan Flores, a GM spokesman.
GM workers have long known that the plant's future is unknown after mid-2005. If the protective language has been removed from the new tentative agreement, the company would not be required to keep the facility open for another two years, although GM has already verbally committed to doing so.
Contract language aside, both the company and union say the future of the complex on Broening Highway will be determined by the demand for the vans made there.
"Sales dictate how long we're going to be there," said Walter Plummer, president of the United Auto Workers' Local 239 in Baltimore.
Sales for the vans made in Baltimore have been declining, however.
GM sold about 29,300 Astro and 7,600 Safari vans from January through August this year, down from about 38,500 Astro and 10,400 Safari vans during a comparable span last year.
The plant produced about 1,600 Chevrolet Astro vans and 500 GMC Safari vans last month. From January through August, about 23,900 Astro and 8,300 Safari vans were made there.
This summer, GM cut production by one-third and extended by three weeks its regularly scheduled two-week summer shutdown because of weak sales of the Safari and Astro.
"The future of the plant, to a certain extent, is based on the future of the products," Barry said.
The Baltimore plant, in the long run, now relies on internal decisions about advertising and redesign of the vans, reassignment of a new product line or a costly retooling of the plant.
Some of the workers have already accepted lucrative GM transfers to other parts of the country. About 70 percent of the plant's employees are eligible for retirement with more than 30 years of service, Barry said. Still, Barry said, many of them are watching closely to see if the new tentative agreement offers any more protection.
Said Barry, "It's become almost second nature to them to have this hanging over their head."