Future is bright for local GM unit

The Baltimore Sun

General Motors Corp.'s proposed labor contract appears to offer good news for its White Marsh transmission plant.

The deal calls for production through at least 2012 at the three plants the facility supplies with transmissions, the United Auto Workers said yesterday. The plants are in Flint and Pontiac, Mich., and Arlington, Texas.

"It's going to directly affect us on a positive side -- we're going to have longevity just like they do," said Fred Swanner, president of UAW Local 239, which represents nearly 370 White Marsh workers. "I believe we're as safe as anyone in the auto industry."

Bruce M. Belzowski, with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, said the local union has good reason to be pleased. "It's not an absolute guarantee, but it's pretty close," he said.

Not all plants would fare well under the proposed four-year agreement, which Local 239's members will vote on Friday. GM's plant near Newport, Del., west of Wilmington, would see the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars it produces moved to a Kentucky plant in 2012, Swanner said.

The agreement does not call for other models to replace that lost production.

According to Bloomberg News, under the tentative deal GM is committing to new products at about 55 of 82 U.S. facilities in the next several years, but it also plans to re-evaluate or close more than 20.

The facilities that would have their futures studied include a transmission plant in Fredericksburg, Va.

GM declined to comment on details of the agreement, noting that UAW members had yet to ratify it.

The deal would also shift billions of dollars of retired workers' health-care costs to the union via a GM-financed trust and give employees bonuses in lieu of wage increases, the UAW said. GM, which has big retiree health expenses, is trying to gain ground in the competition with Toyota Motor Corp. and other foreign carmakers.

The Baltimore area has felt the pinch of those pressures. GM's old Broening Highway van assembly plant closed two years ago.

But the White Marsh facility's prospects look better. Not only does it supply plants that have some guarantees in the proposed contract, but it also was picked to manufacture the industry's first hybrid transmission for light trucks. Company CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. traveled to White Marsh last year to make the announcement.

In an effort to make inroads against Japanese competitors with more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, the company is rolling out a fleet of models with White Marsh's two-mode hybrid transmission. GM said in August that in addition to the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, the hybrid transmission would go into the Cadillac Escalade, GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado next year.

The White Marsh plant will mark the launch of full production on the hybrid with a celebration Oct. 29, said John Raut, a spokesman for the facility.

"Nobody can really predict what the economy does, but as long as the economy stays healthy, we'll be healthy," said Local 239's Swanner.

The future is much less certain for the Delaware workers, including a sizable contingent who used to be at the Broening Highway plant. Close to 375 Baltimore GM employees transferred there over several years, before and after the local plant closed, Swanner said.

The proposed contract language isn't necessarily the death knell of the Delaware plant, but it's "not a good sign," Belzowski said.

"It's not the absolute end, but it's not good ... especially when they're laying out plans for all these other plants," said Belzowski, adding that there's a small window of opportunity for union leaders to work with management to chart another course.

Swanner is more optimistic the plant will get a replacement vehicle to produce before 2012 arrives.

"Anything could end up there," Swanner said. "And believe me, the UAW will be working in order to rescue them."


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