"I got greasy and dirty and worked hard. I've been working hard for 14 years," said Ron Metzger, who went to work in the General Motors Corp. assembly plant here straight out of high school. "As far as giving anything back, I say no. I can lose my job, but not a penny back. They never gave us a bonus when things were booming."
Metzger lost his job in June, laid off along with 1,800 other auto workers when GM closed down a truck assembly line at its huge Broening Highway plant, a landmark on the industrial horizon that stretches eastward into Dundalk from the Harbor Tunnel.
Another 2,000 autoworkers were sent home two years ago, when GM eliminated the second shift of automobile production at Broening Highway. The remaining 2,300 autoworkers who work the first shift still have their jobs, but have been out of work since Christmas when the plant shut down for a week that turned into four weeks, a shutdown that ends tomorrow. How long they remain at work depends on car sales--now at the lowest levels in 20 years or more.
A powerful company and a proud union have taken a long, hard fall during the industry's three-year collapse, and the way back appears blocked by a bitter disagreement over the wages and benefits GM pays the autoworkers. GM says it can't recover its profitability and competitive strength unless the UAW accepts significant reductions in fringe benefits and holidays. The exact demands have not been disclosed, but union leaders say the company has asked for too much and the talks between the two ended in failure on Jan. 28.
Interviews with the leaders of the Broening Highway UAW local and a dozen members reveal little sympathy for concessions--even though the remaining jobs at the Broening Highway plant depend on GM's recovery.
Twice, at meetings in September and December, the general membership voted against concessions, and the union local's leadership is adamant against them. So are at least some of the rank and file, frustrated at their plight and bitter at being tagged as a prime reason for the company's financial crisis.
"Do you feel a little lower than the middle class?" Jimmy Lee asked a fellow worker. Both men were laid off last June. "It's not just the money--it's sitting at home." Lee watches television late into the night, hoping to sleep soundly for just one night. He tosses and turns and wakes up in the morning when he hears the neighbors who still work starting their cars.
Allan Kerbe, laid off in June, has a wife, two children and a mortgage. He worked for GM for nine years, which makes him one year short of vesting in the pension. "I told my wife if I find something comparable, I don't care if I throw nine years away--I can't take this on and off, on and off," he said last week as he waited for the unemployment office to process his claim.
Kerbe was laid off in 1975 for two months. In 1979, when work was cut back for the second shift, he was off again for eight months, then back for nine. In June, he was laid off again.
"You might as well say, you gave your life to GM, and they just laughed at you." Kerbe, who faces leaner times if benefits run out before he is recalled, has already gone through $600 in savings trying to keep up.
Kevin Bellejewski has been laid off two years. A former replacement operator making $9.33 an hour, he works at McDonalds, doing maintenance, for $3.83 an hour now. His wife works at the same MacDonalds training new hires, and a friend looks after their 14-month-old daughter Rachel Lynn.
"It's not the best job in the world, but we kept the house," said Bellejewski. "Right now, the way it looks, I just wonder if I'll ever get back," said Bellejewski, a five-year veteran of GM. "You've got to have hope."
Rachel Lynn was born shortly before Bellejewski lost his insurance coverage. "It's scary. We just came to a problem where we thought my daughter might need an operation. The fear was there. We just kept praying. That was all we could do."
Bellejewski is more favorably inclined toward concessions than some other workers. In general, those who have been off longer see concessions more favorably.
"Some things I don't think should be cut," said Bellejewski. "But somewhere along the line, something has to give. Something has to break. If it would give me my job back, I'd be willing to take that cut--just to have that security in a job I have some seniority in."
"If it'll get me my job back, I'll give in," he said. "But what will they give?"
There is no guarantee that concessions would restore jobs at the Broening Highway plant.
What has happened there mirrors the depression throughout the U.S. auto industry. In 1979, the last good year for U.S. automakers, the plant turned out 235,675 passenger cars--mid-sized Chevrolets and Pontiacs. In 1980, car production dropped to 133,517, as car buyers turned their backs on the plant's Malibu and Monte Carlo models, and the second shift was sent home. Car production last year dropped to 104,129.
Despite these trends, the plant's future seemed secure until the end of last year. GM had announced a $220 million modernization program intended to make the 47-year-old plant "one of the most modern and efficient" in the world, according to plant manager Walter J. Gregonis.
The modernization would have equipped the plant to produce a new, front-wheel-drive intermediate-sized car to replace the Malibu and Monte Carlo, a commitment that could have provided jobs for both the first and second shifts for many years ahead, union men say.
"We felt that was the future," says Jack R. Summers, personnel director for the Baltimore plant. In November the project was stopped in a company-wide slowdown in plant modernization caused by shrinking sales and cash reserves. GM says it doesn't know whether it will ever be resumed. "We were tremendously disappointed," says Summers.
Summers says he is optimistic that Chevrolet officials will continue to need the Broening Highway plant to produce the intermediate-sized Malibu and Monte Carlo cars, particularly since GM has begun equipping them with diesel engines to extend their driving range.
The Baltimore autoworkers are among the best the company has, says Summers, who has worked in four other GM plants. Many of them followed fathers and grandfathers into the plant, he added. "There is a loyalty to the plant. We have our adversarial relationships, but we're able to sit down and work them out without pulling hair." At a "problem" plant, the number of separate labor-management disputes over work rules, discipline and other issues can reach the thousands. At the Broening Highway plant, the number is several hundred.
"We've learned to trust each other much better than in many of the other plants I've seen," says Summers.
That trust doesn't reach between the union members and the company management in Detroit, says Al Stockton, president of the Baltimore local.
Stockton and other union members also complain bitterly about what they feel are unfair trading practices by the Japanese, and unfair comparisons of Japanese and American autoworkers.
The answer, says Stockton, is new legislation requiring that cars sold in the United States be built primarily with American-made components and American labor. But he admits that there is little support in Congress for such protection.
Tom Cottrell, a 15-year veteran at the Baltimore plant, says the concessions will be useless as long as the economy is being hit with high interest rates and recession. "GM is just working this recession to their benefit by trying to scare us into making wage concessions. Whatever we give up is going to mean more profit for them when the country comes out of the recession. We'll be 10 years trying to get it the concessions back."
Cottrell is angry at becoming a personal target of GM's campaign for concessions. A neighbor who knows that Cottrell works for GM stopped him recently--after a local newspaper ran GM's comparison of the wages of American and Japanese autoworkers. "He said, 'My God. You're making $20 an hour. That's why I paid so much for my Buick.' They think I'm a horrible person."
His pay--aside from benefits--is $11 an hour, not enough to afford many of the new cars GM makes.
Autoworker Dan Sheets, who shares Cottrell's anger, says there could be a compromise on concessions if autoworkers were convinced that GM was sacrificing equally. The company can't recover until American consumers show some loyalty toward American-built cars, he says.
A few miles from union headquarters is Legum Chevrolet--or so it used to be until last September. Now it's Legum Datsun-Chevrolet. Wakeman S. Bevard, the agency treasurer, can't hide his irritation with Chevrolet, particularly the pricing policies that he says have left many new Chevrolet Celebrity and Cavalier compacts priced well above comparable Datsuns in the same showroom. Even the new GM rebates of $500 and $750 don't close the gap, said the agency's general sales manager, Bernie Shaw. "We're just not going to stock as many Chevrolets," says Bevard. Picture 1, Ron Metzger was laid off in June along with 1,800 others; Picture 2, The parking lot of GM's Broening Highway plant will remain empty until Monday when 2,300 workers on extended Christmas layoff will return to work; Picture 3, Autoworker Thomas Cottrell, left, feels concessions are useless. Dan Sheets, right, shares Cottrell's anger. Photos by Frank Johnston--The Washington Post; Picture 4, Bumper stickers seen in the Baltimore area reflect the hard fall the UAW has taken during the auto industry's three-year collapse. Photo by Frank Johnston--The Washington Post; Picture 5, Pat Abramczyk, right, and Peggy Uhl, center, sort GM workers' unemployment checks. Photo by Frank Johnston-The Washington Post