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American Dream: a rude awakening

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Paul Pinkney heard of job openings at the General Motors plant in southeast Baltimore, he went there nearly every day for two weeks before being invited inside. Finally, on his ninth visit, he was taken to the assembly line and shown a greasy pit, with automobiles suspended above and sparks flying, where he would work.

That was nearly 40 years ago. Today, the filth and danger have diminished, but Pinkney, at age 63, remains. He has spent more than half his life in the 3.1 million-square-foot plant, so vast that it could house 50 football fields and workers use bicycles to get from one end to the other.

Many of his co-workers likely won't last so long.

"If you start in Baltimore now," Pinkney said, "ain't no way you're going to finish there."

The demise of the van factory on Broening Highway has been a topic of speculation for years. But the rumors became more real last fall when General Motors Corp. targeted the plant for possible closure by next year in a new contract with the United Auto Workers.

Sales of the GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro vans manufactured at the plant are dwindling. Experts say retooling the plant for a new model is unlikely.

So for the 1,100 GM workers at Broening Highway, fast receding, like an image in a rear-view mirror, is what they have now - a factory job that affords a middle-class lifestyle.

Jobs go overseas

In 1965, when Pinkney began at GM, one of every four adults in the United States worked in manufacturing. Now, it's barely one in 10. During Pinkney's time on the assembly line, the country has lost more than 2 million manufacturing positions to cheaper labor overseas and to technology gains - more than the population of West Virginia.

Disappearing manufacturing jobs have become a potent political issue in this presidential election year. Democrats claim President Bush hasn't done enough to stem a decline in manufacturing employment, while the president is emphasizing his efforts to shore up industry.

The debate reflects a sobering economic trend.

Service jobs are substituting for lost factory jobs, but with much lower salaries. Food-service workers earn an average of about $8.50 an hour; production workers today average about $15 an hour.

Pinkney, by comparison, earns $26 an hour at GM. Starting pay at many of today's manufacturing jobs is about a quarter of that, says Andrew J. DuBrin, an industrial psychologist and a professor of management at Rochester Institute of Technology.

"We're returning to the survival of the fittest, where only the wealthy people are going to have decent lives and the Paul Pinkneys are going to be working at Wal-Mart," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.

In the twilight of his career at GM, Pinkney knows he is one of the lucky ones. Had he been born a generation later, Pinkney acknowledges, it's unlikely he would have been able to land such a stable, well-paying job without a college education.

"These younger people, they're going to have to move or get other trades or something because, at the rate things are going, they can bring in two pieces of equipment and eliminate 10 jobs," Pinkney said.

Pinkney is planning to work for General Motors for two more years, when he's 65 and eligible for Social Security, or until the Broening Highway factory closes - whichever comes first.

Whatever the plant's fate, General Motors has been a driving force in Pinkney's life: He met his second wife there. The job allowed him to help provide college educations for four children. His four-bedroom house, from its big-screen TV for watching football to the deck he built out back, was bought with GM money.

Pinkney has worked at Broening Highway since he was 24. Born and raised in the city, he grew up in Cherry Hill with two brothers and a sister. In the mornings, he would run his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Butch, through the neighborhood. Summers included fishing, crabbing and cooking hot dogs and beans on camping trips in the nearby woods.

"It was like living in a dream world," he recalled.

Odd jobs and steel

By age 14, Pinkney was carrying shoppers' groceries home from the neighborhood A&P; for a quarter. After high school, he intended to take a job at the bustling Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant at Sparrows Point but got only as far as the locker room.

"The closer I got to Bethlehem Steel, the more ominous it got. Things just had this red look," he recalled. "Everything had iron or dust on it, and the noise. ... Something in me said, 'Don't do it.'"

Instead, he took a job at the London Fog coat factory in Baltimore, making $1.25 an hour to spread cloth through machines and cut out imperfections. He worked other jobs on the side, caddying at golf courses and cleaning downtown office buildings, to patch together an income, but it wasn't enough.

Pinkney wanted the same things from life as many people: a house, a car and enough money to comfortably support his family and, eventually, retire. But by his early 20s, Pinkney already had ulcers from the stress of working three jobs and living with three children in poverty. He described those days as "staying one step ahead of the roaches."

In 1965, he heard about well-paying jobs at GM. He went to the plant repeatedly to ask for work, to the point where the security guard recognized his face.

"I was desperate," Pinkney recalled.

It was 1 p.m. the day Pinkney made his ninth visit in two weeks, when a man came out of the plant and told him to come back at 3:30 p.m. to start work.

With less than three hours to spare and only $1.27 in his pocket - not enough time or bus fare to go home and back - Pinkney walked up and down nearby Holabird Avenue until it was time to go to work.

When he arrived at the factory, Pinkney was escorted to a pit about 30 feet long, 6 feet wide and deep enough for men to stand in as they welded the bottoms of cars suspended on the assembly line that moved above them.

"See that job down there in that hole?" the foreman asked. "You learn that job in three days, and you're hired."

Work, pay and pain

A burly 6-feet-2, Pinkney squeezed into the coveralls issued to him, even though they were made for a man about 5 inches shorter. He descended four rungs of a ladder into the pit. Sparks from the welding lit the hole. But for $2.54 an hour - more than double his pay at London Fog - Pinkney wanted the job.

He was no stranger to factory work. His father worked at Baltimore's Lever Bros. soap factory for 41 years, on the receiving docks, in production and as a foreman. His grandfather worked at Bethlehem Steel, in the tin and wire mills, for 37 years. But the GM job came with pain Pinkney had never known.

In the body shop, sparks burned his feet and hands. He worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, helping to build more than 400 cars nightly.

At the end of his shifts, Pinkney would run hot water over his hands to get them moving again. In his early weeks on the job, he would wake up in the morning to find his arms frozen above his head - in the same position with which he used them in the pit during the day. Even today, Pinkney cannot lift his right arm straight up without using his left arm to support it.

The region's famously humid summers were especially grueling in the factory, before GM installed fans and took other steps to improve working conditions, such as installing air-conditioned break rooms.

"Everybody suffered," Pinkney said. "When you're working in production in the factory, the only thing friendly is the money."

In the 1960s and '70s, when manufacturing jobs peaked in the United States at more than 19 million, plenty of factory money coursed through the economy along Baltimore's waterfront. Restaurants and bars dotted the highway near GM and other plants, pulsating to the rhythm of shift change.

The steady paychecks afforded Pinkney a nice, gray house on a quiet street in Laurel and all the amenities to fill it - down to a glass case of model cars he collects in the basement. Pinkney's salary has been enough to buy him the American Dream and enough to buy GM loyalty from one of its longest-serving employees.

"I am General Motors," Pinkney sometimes says. "General Motors is what made me."

Pinkney has done welding, metal finishing and metal repair, fixing the dings on new cars that come off the line with metal damaged during shipping or production. His hands have put together Chevrolet Monte Carlos and El Caminos, among other models. He has gone on strike a total of four times, once in the 1970s for as long as four months.

Now, all of Pinkney's children drive GM cars. One is a sergeant in the Air Force, the other three work at white-collar jobs. A widower, Pinkney also met his second wife at the GM plant in the 1980s. Brenda G. Dawson worked in the trim department, installing armrests and mirrors.

Pinkney made lifelong friends at General Motors. The camaraderie was fostered by long days of tedious labor at a place where people worked for decades, often with two or more generations from the same family.

"We've all been through it," Pinkney said. "Separation, children dying, the whole nine yards. Wives getting sick, parents passing. You could say we're one big happy family."

They took their wives to credit union dances, their sons to Little League games. They played softball after work. During hunting season, some brought in deer and rabbit meat from their weekend kill for co-workers.

Life is much different today, inside the plant and out. The pits are still used for inspections, but they are no longer a part of the production line, Pinkney said. Instead, chassis move on elevated tracks lifted above workers' heads. Robots with long arms for welding assist some workers, and replace others.

Maintenance duties

Pinkney now has what is deemed one of the best jobs in the factory. He is in maintenance, considered prime work because it doesn't involve the tough repetition of the assembly line and is more loosely supervised than other plant jobs.

Pinkney cleans locker rooms, wipes down the fans that cool the factory and sweeps the floors - a job that takes two shifts because of the size of the plant. When it snows, Pinkney comes to work at 3 a.m. to clear the parking lot and salt the steps.

The plant is down to one shift from two, and the number of workers has shrunk to 1,100 from more than 7,000 about 30 years ago. Some workers have taken incentives to move to other cities and work at GM facilities with greater job security.

Others place their hope in a new product for the plant or an expansion of Allison Transmission, the transmission factory that GM opened in White Marsh in northeastern Baltimore County three years ago. Many believe GM built it to offset job losses on Broening Highway and assuage some of the pain for a community that long did well for it.

"Some people went in that plant, worked the same job 'til they retired," Pinkney said as he stood outside the GM factory one recent cold afternoon. "No more of that."

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