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Future dimmer for local GM plant

After 35 years of working at the General Motors Corp. factory in Southeast Baltimore, Phillip Youngman has heard plenty of stories about its eventual demise - but this time sounds different.

"It seems a lot more real this time," Youngman, who works in quality control, said yesterday afternoon as he left the only line shift that remains at the plant on Broening Highway.

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The Baltimore plant, with 1,100 employees, is the only major factory scheduled for closing under the tentative four-year contract agreed to last week by General Motors and the United Auto Workers. A power train plant in Saginaw, Mich., with 378 employees and offices in Detroit, is also in jeopardy during the contract's term, according to the Associated Press.

The company has made a verbal commitment to keeping the Baltimore plant open through most of 2005, but the latest contract would make it easier for the automaker to close the plant. That could be another nail in the coffin of a major local employer that for many is one of the last symbols of Baltimore's industrial roots.

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The old contract contains a clause prohibiting the company from closing any plants.

The newest contract - though it stops short of officially announcing a plant closing - is the latest factor weighing on the 68-year-old plant, workers said. Among others, the company has been offering rich incentives for employees to transfer to other plants, the Broening Highway operation is down to one shift, and General Motors opened a facility in last year to build Allison transmissions in nearby White Marsh to siphon off some workers.

The company and local union officials maintain that sales of the vans built in Baltimore - the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari - will dictate whether the plant survives until or possibly beyond mid-2005. But dwindling sales of those models make prospects dimmer.

The language in the new tentative agreement could be voted on by union members as early as this week.

"We're still slated to close November 2005. We're just taken off protective status," said Walter Plummer, president of UAW Local 239 in Baltimore, who was briefed Sunday by union leaders in Detroit. "Right now, as long as sales dictate it, we'll stay open until then. It's possible we'll stay open longer."

GM spokesman Dan Flores said, "The plant is assigned production into the summer of '05, and we have not made a decision yet beyond that."

Flores said the market will have a "significant impact" on the company's decision about the Baltimore plant after the summer of 2005.

Sales of the vans made in Baltimore dwindled to 29,300 Astro and 7,600 Safari vans from January through August this year from about 38,500 Astro and 10,400 Safari vans during a comparable span last year.

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The plant produced about 1,600 Chevrolet Astro vans and 500 GMC Safari vans last month. From January through August, it made about 23,900 Astro and 8,300 Safari vans.

This summer, GM cut production by one-third and extended by three weeks its regular two-week summer shutdown because of weak van sales.

Area political leaders remain hopeful that GM will begin manufacturing a new product at the Baltimore plant or find another way to keep it going, but that is unlikely given the multimillion-dollar cost of retooling the plant, industry analysts said.

"Every time there is talk of the plant closing, I fight to keep it open and keep good jobs in Baltimore. I have worked with state and local government, and with the men and women at the plant, to show GM how valuable Broening Highway is," U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said via e-mail. "The workers of Broening Highway are well-trained and dedicated. It is their hard work that makes the plant one of the most efficient in the country.

"Just last year, I fought to get a commitment from GM to keep the Baltimore plant open through 2005," she said, pledging to keep fighting to save the jobs at Broening Highway.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said, "They're a skilled work force, and that's a lot of jobs in the city of Baltimore. The state has always taken the lead in terms of negotiations with GM, and we have been part of that team, trying to do everything we can to make sure we keep the plant open. We have all been waiting and hoping for new product and calling the GM people periodically to bug them."

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Automotive experts sounded much less optimistic.

"It looks like after the end of this product, Baltimore will be closed," said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "But, like anything else, it's not over till it's over. And if something happens, that could change. But in this case, I doubt it."

Cole thinks the plant is likely to close because it is so far from GM's supply chain and because a factory in Missouri could pick up Baltimore's work. Also, with a smaller work force than it once had, and with many workers near retirement, the Baltimore plant would be relatively inexpensive to close, Cole said.

The mood outside the factory yesterday was more matter-of-fact than funereal, however.

"We really haven't found out when they're going to close the plant; they are still forecasting 2005," said George Ganzzermiller, a dashboard line worker.

Plummer, the local union head, said, "I started here in 1968, and they've been closing our plant since 1968."


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