GM's buyout on their minds


For the past two months, Chip Long pondered what it would be like to have a $70,000 check in his pocket.

That is what his employer, General Motors Corp., is willing to pay him to leave the company. The trade-off: give up health insurance and other benefits - and any chance for ever again working for the automaker.

It might seem an easy choice for a skilled millwright who likely would soon find another job. But for Long, 43, the chance of snagging a coveted spot at GM's Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh is a powerful magnet.

"My biggest fear is I take the buyout, sever my ties, and Allison booms and I could never go back," said Long, who lives about a mile from the White Marsh plant.

Rick Siegert, 39, of Dundalk also qualifies for the $70,000 payout. The money could help him build his part-time auto body business, which he runs at night out of a leased space on North Kresson Street, into a steady livelihood. That way, his fate would not be up to "some guy in a suit." But with a wife and two young daughters, walking away from wages and health care benefits that are among the most generous in the country is not easy.

"There's no place that's going to replace GM," Siegert said.

David Van Pelt, 48, of Dundalk, followed family members into several area manufacturing jobs, including at Martin Marietta and Bethlehem Steel. They persuaded him to apply at GM. "They said, 'If you come down here, this company will take care of you for life,'" he said. "I did, and they were wrong, God love 'em."

Long, Siegert and Van Pelt are among the 113,000 hourly GM workers who have received buyout offers worth as much as $140,000 and early retirement incentives worth $35,000. All three were laid off from GM's van assembly plant on Broening Highway last year.

Since then, they have since been part of GM's job bank, where they collect wages and benefits while waiting for jobs to open up at Allison Transmission or another GM plant. They can use work hours to volunteer for a community organization or attend school.

But the union contract that established the job bank runs out next year, and there is a chance that the embattled automaker could move to eliminate the costly program as it undergoes an extensive restructuring.

The clock is ticking. Workers have until June 23 to decide, with a seven-day window to change their minds if they accept.

GM is not saying how many workers have opted to leave, but analysts and union officials estimate 20,000 workers have signed up. The company's goal is 30,000 workers, but has signaled it would accept more.

Locally, 100 of the 820 eligible workers have signed up, including 25 from Allison Transmission, said Fred Swanner, president of United Auto Workers Local 239. Many more are still wrestling with the offer, he said.

Hundreds have dropped by the Oldham Street union hall since they received the offer April 4 to discuss their options with union officials. Often, they ask Swanner what they should do. Swanner tells them: Do what's best for you and your family.

"There will be people waiting up until the last day to make up their mind," Swanner said.

For Siegert, one of eight children, the importance of a steady paycheck was ingrained by his father, who worked for 40 years at Western Electric Co. in Southeast Baltimore before being forced to retire when the plant closed.

"Anytime I make a financial decision or a job decision, I think how my father thinks," said Siegert, wearing a UAW Local 239 T-shirt.

Before going with GM, he worked at a number of small auto body shops and liked the freedom of being able to choose what he wanted to do. But after getting married and starting a family, he decided he needed something more stable.

He went to work installing drive shafts in GM vans in September 1997. Though he wasn't thrilled about working on an assembly line, he liked the benefits and made good friends.

Then the plant closed - as did the plant of his late father.

Blames company

While he is grateful to be still collecting checks from GM, he blames the company for failing to redesign the plant's products - the GMC Safari and Chevy Astro - for more than 20 years, and not putting its marketing muscle behind them. When a two-page newspaper spread GM bought to tout its vehicles failed to include the locally made vans, "people ripped out the ad and posted it up all over the plant," Siegert said.

For Chip Long's wife, Terri, the decision is all about being practical.

"You just got to do the best you can for your family," she said.

She and her husband calculated and recalculated the math, the pros and cons. The buyout would give them a nice amount of cash to put in the bank and he could get work through the union. But he would have to work weekends, and the pay and health insurance would not be as good.

If he stays in the job bank, he will continue to earn nearly his full wages, keep his benefits and work toward a degree in occupational health and labor law. They could afford to keep their first-grader in an after-school program, where she is thriving.

If the job bank is dissolved, he will have no paycheck, no health care and no cash buyout to fall back on.

Terri Long advised her husband to stick it out with GM, but left the ultimate decision to him. She rushed surgery for her carpal tunnel syndrome before the buyout deadline, just in case.

"I said to myself, I'd better do it while I have it," she said, referring to the insurance.

For now, Long has decided to gamble on sticking it out. He and his fellow workers from the van assembly plant have seniority for other GM jobs and he is prepared to move if he has to. "If I change my mind, it will probably be at the last hour."

With nine bolts in his back, which he blames on the years he has worked in manufacturing, Van Pelt is not returning to an assembly line. Last month, he received his associate's degree in labor studies from Community College of Baltimore County, a degree which he started working toward several years ago but was finally able to finish thanks to the jobs bank. He wants to find a job in union organizing, which he considers his "calling."

Having put in 11 years at GM, Van Pelt qualifies for the $140,000 buyout package. After taxes, he hopes to have enough to be able to pay cash for a small home in Western Maryland.

'A step forward'

"For me, I'm not looking at it as a step backward, I'm looking at it as a step forward," Van Pelt said.

Siegert, like Long, has decided not to take the buyout. He looks around his Dundalk neighborhood and figures he'll find something if the job bank closes. After he considered the buyout offer, he decided he would be better off earning his regular pay at the job bank, even if it is only for one more year.

"If you worked anywhere else, they'd say, 'Here's two weeks' severance. Goodbye.'"

GM's offer

Here is what General Motors is offering hourly workers to give up their jobs and benefits:

10 years or more at GM: $140,000

Less than 10 years: $70,000

GM is offering a $35,000 bonus for early retirement to:

Workers with at least 27 years of service but less than 30. They get 85 percent of their benefits until the 30-year mark, then full benefits

Workers at five closed plants - including Broening Highway - can retire with 26 years of service.

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