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Near shuttered GM plant in Baltimore, retirees weigh automaker's comeback

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 10:46 PM

BALTIMORE - Late Thursday morning, a few General Motors retirees gathered at the Angle Inn, just a half-mile from the automaker's now-closed Broening Highway plant, to ponder their old company's newfound resurgence.

Dennis Hellmig, a 35-year GM veteran, sat in his usual spot at the end of the bar, sipping a can of Coors Light in a blue koozie and sizing up the $33 share price for new GM stock, which began trading Thursday morning.

"It seems like a reasonable price," Hellmig said. "It shows they're making a comeback. We were nervous before, but we had faith GM would pull out of it and come through."

Over the years, the Broening Highway plant churned out Buicks, Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, trucks and later minivans. During its heyday in the 1970s, it employed roughly 7,600 people. It closed in 2005, laying off its remaining workers. Now the old facilities are empty fields and warehouses.

Hellmig, 59, started at the company in 1970, making $4 an hour. He raised three children, bought a house, cars - all on a GM salary. He was among the last batch of employees there when the plant closed.

"GM kept food on my table for all of those years," he said as he stepped outside to smoke and look up the hill to where the GM plant once sat. "I had faith it was a strong company and it was going to come back."

Under GM's restructuring, retirees such as Hellmig have taken cuts in health-care benefits, but their pensions were untouched. The U.S. government, in Hellmig's opinion, "did what it had to do" to help the company survive.

"There's a time when big industries need a hand, so you give them that hand," he said.

Not every former GM worker at the Angle Inn, however, was as sanguine about the company's prospects. Wayne Lee Matthews Sr., who worked 19 years at the plant, shared his doubts with fellow patrons after lunch.

"I had faith in them when I had a job there, but now . . ." he said, pausing for a moment. "The [stock price] will stay stable for a while and then probably trail off."

Did he have any plans to buy the stock?

"No," he said, sipping his beer.

"It is not going to pay off in the long run," said Matthews, whose father and older brother also worked at the plant. "People are going to keep buying foreign cars."

At the United Auto Workers union hall, Fred Swanner, president of Local 239, said things seem to be looking up for GM. Swanner, who represents 4,000 Broening Highway retirees, said at least two dozen retirees at a lunch Wednesday said they planned to buy the newly issued shares.

He added that he hopes that the GM retirement fund - which has a 17 percent stake in the reorganized company - will eventually be able to sell its shares to cover some of the higher health costs that retirees had to accept when GM restructured.

"The higher that price starts, the better you feel," said Swanner, a 42-year company veteran. "I'm sure glad it didn't start at $1.33."

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