The chairman and chief executive of General Motors Corp. is due to make an announcement tomorrow at the company's transmission plant in northeast Baltimore County that could mean jobs for an undetermined number of workers who were displaced when the company closed its van manufacturing plant in Southeast Baltimore last spring.
That would be welcome news locally for a company that posted a sizable annual loss last week and whose struggles, along with those of "Big Three" brethren Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChysler AG, have stirred broad concern about the future of the American auto industry.
Though details are scarce, local labor leaders say they have been told the company is going to produce a new transmission at the 400,000-square-foot plant, which currently employs about 380 union workers.
The new product will be produced alongside the heavy-duty truck transmissions the plant already makes, but the company has not said how many jobs might be created, said Fred Swanner, president of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers union.
In a possible sign of the project's magnitude, GM is sending its chairman and CEO, G. Richard "Rick" Wagoner Jr., to White Marsh tomorrow to reveal details of the plan at a news conference. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, state economic development officials and other dignitaries are expected to attend.
A General Motors spokeswoman declined to provide further details yesterday.
"Hopefully, it means jobs for us," said Brian Woollen, a former electrician at the Broening Highway plant and one of the tens of thousands of GM workers who are on a waiting list for jobs elsewhere within the company. "I think a lot of us feel like we're in limbo."
Rumors about an expansion of the Allison Transmission plant have been circulating for days among hundreds of GM workers who lost their jobs when the Broening Highway plant closed in May. But most have been skeptical of news that GM will bring new jobs to Maryland.
Many say the prospect of more jobs seems at odds with recent headlines pertaining to the U.S. auto industry. GM and Ford recently announced plans to eliminate a combined 60,000 workers and demolish dozens of unprofitable assembly plants to cut costs in the face of competition from foreign automakers.
On Friday, GM reported a larger-than-expected $8.6 billion loss for 2005 as sales of its popular sport utility vehicles plunged. The loss is the automaker's largest since 1992, when the company was in the red by $23.5 billion.
The same economic forces have buffeted the White Marsh truck transmission plant since GM began production there in March 2001. Maryland lawmakers and then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening said they had assurances that the plant would double in size, perhaps as early as 2002.
The state and Baltimore County earmarked $3.2 million in incentives to finance the expansion, it was reported at the time.
But those promises were linked to expected growth in market demand, which didn't materialize. Industry analysts said the heavy truck business fell off as buyers postponed purchases in the face of a slowing economy.
Conditions have since changed, industry experts say. Businesses that rely on big trucks are finally replacing their aging fleets, and higher gas prices also are helping sales of newer, more fuel-efficient trucks.
"There's a lot of growth in the heavy truck business and, therefore, it's a time when you make hay," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Allison Transmission has a global list of customers and is among the more prosperous divisions in GM, Cole said. He wouldn't be surprised to see Allison form a partnership with a competitor.
"They are one of the dominant producers in the world [in the truck area]," he said.
Cole said Wagoner is making himself more visible as GM struggles to restructure its business plan and stanch the red ink. But if he's coming to White Marsh, it's a safe bet he's going to announce a significant investment in capital and jobs, Cole said.
For GM workers who lost their jobs in May, it could mean the difference between uprooting their families to chase a job across the country and staying in Baltimore. Many of the displaced workers have left for jobs with out-of-state GM plants. Others are waiting and hoping for new work. The union contract gives local workers preference for any new jobs at the transmission plant.
"It's going to allow a thousand people to reassess what they're going to do because now they will have an opportunity to stay within the contract and GM and not leave the area, and those were not thought to be options," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies for Community College of Baltimore County. "It's a new, promising possibility for a lot of them."
Jump at chance
Bruce Kendall, 55, a welder who worked at GM's van assembly plant for 16 years, says he'd jump at a chance to work in White Marsh. "The bad part of losing your job is having to move to another plant," he said.
Kendall is pessimistic that he has enough seniority to land a job at the plant, assuming it does expand. "But that would probably be the greatest news anybody could hear," he said.