For eight weeks the hulking General Motors White Marsh Powertrain Plant has sat idle, empty and eerily quiet, with no one in sight but a security team making sure the premises were safe.
But Tuesday the plant came back to life as 200 hourly and 40 salaried employees streamed back to work for the 6 a.m. shift.
After a short employee meeting, the machines were revved up and the first transmissions in months began rolling through the assembly line.
The plant had been shut down since May 8, the longest ever for the plant, which opened in 2000. It was forced to close after financially troubled General Motors temporarily shut down 13 assembly plants, including several served by the White Marsh facility, to bring inventory levels into line with demand. The closures included a shutdown of two weeks that occurs at GM plants every summer. White Marsh makes transmissions for trucks and sport utility vehicles assembled in Texas, Michigan and Mexico.
Since the closing, General Motors has filed for bankruptcy and announced it was permanently closing several plants and eliminating thousands of jobs. The White Marsh plant wasn't among the ones to be permanently closed, but a Wilmington, Del., plant that has workers who live in the Baltimore area will be shut down at the end of this month.
The carmaker expects to spin off its better-performing assets to create "new GM," a venture in which the federal government will be the largest owner. It has announced it will sell off its Hummer, Saab and Saturn brands and stop making Pontiacs.
White Marsh plant manager Tom Gallagher said he expects the White Marsh plant to be a strong player in the new GM.
"The fact that we remained open, I think speaks to our future," Gallagher said while at the plant yesterday.
He said there is no additional downtime scheduled at the plant for at least the next three months.
The plant still has 100 employees who have been on permanent layoff for more than a year. Gallagher said those workers would come back only if demand for cars increased.
Gallagher took reporters on a tour of the plant yesterday but didn't allow interviews with employees. Fred Swanner, president of the United Autoworkers Local 239, which represents workers at the plant, did not return calls yesterday.
About 40 employees in the maintenance, reliability and materials teams came back to work Monday to prepare the plant for full production Tuesday.
An electronic billboard hanging from the ceiling read, "Welcome Back. Make it a Safe Day."
Employees worked at various stages of assembling the transmissions; it takes about 90 minutes to complete one. A woman lubricated part of a rear cover and then put bolts in place. A man scanned the serial number of a completed transmission after inspecting it. Somebody else sent the transmission through what looked like a miniature car wash.
By midafternoon, 179 A-1000 transmissions had been built, while six hybrid transmissions had been completed. The plant makes about 20 hybrids and 300 A1000 transmissions a day.
Gallagher said there would naturally be some anxiety among employees, but there was also some relief about being able to come back to work.
"People are really charged up and excited to be back," he said.
John Raut, communications manager at the plant, greeted workers yesterday. "Welcome back," he said to one man.
"Glad to be back," the man responded.