General Motors Corp. said yesterday that it will shut its 70-year-old van factory in southeast Baltimore next year, confirming a closure that some 1,100 workers have long expected but that state officials had hoped to stave off.
The announcement spells the end of one of Maryland's biggest manufacturing facilities and further chips away at the old blue-collar jobs base in Baltimore. Employees who gathered in the plant's receiving area yesterday morning said they were surprised only that the company didn't give an actual closing date. Executives said GM will let van sales determine how long to keep up production next year.
The plant on Broening Highway, built by Chevrolet in 1934, has been cranking out Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans since 1984. Those models had peak combined sales of 177,367 in 1994, according to WardsAuto.com, but last year sold only 51,000 and are on track to sell even fewer this year, the company said.
"That is not a sustainable number for a full plant," GM spokesman Stefan Weinmann said, noting that most new GM facilities produce on the order of 270,000 vehicles per year.
The plant's closure had been rumored for years, and last year GM negotiated an option to shutter the factory in its latest contract with the United Auto Workers union. Maryland and Baltimore officials had been in contact with the company about preserving some kind of work at the factory, but yesterday GM put those hopes to rest.
"This day is not unexpected, but it is a very difficult day for me," Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said at a news conference in which he reminisced about the role manufacturing played in building a part of Baltimore that he once represented in Congress. He vowed to put the factory site to good use and said he has asked GM to give the land to the state as a gift.
Company officials delivered the news to Ehrlich in person and said they had exhausted all possibilities. "We looked internally at a number of potential options, but . . . we just didn't have any viable option to keep it running," Weinmann said.
The company has yet to come up with a plan for how many employees will be laid off and how many will have the option of transferring to other GM facilities, Weinmann said.
Either way, the UAW contract requires GM to pay wages and benefits to all union employees through the end of the current labor agreement in 2007, and more than half of the hourly workers at the plant are at or near retirement age, said Walter A. Plummer, president of UAW Local 239.
That didn't stop employees from suffering over yesterday's announcement, said Plummer, who has worked there 36 years. "It's always an emotional thing when you talk about a plant closing," he said. "It's heartbreaking. You could see it in the faces of some of the employees."
The factory is one of GM's oldest, and though it has been modernized over the years, its basic structure worked against it. While new auto factories are sprawling, one-level complexes built for "just-in-time" delivery of parts, the Broening Highway plant has an old-fashioned two-story layout that experts say is inefficient by comparison.
Ultimately, though, it wasn't the age of the factory that sealed its fate, Weinmann said; it was the waning popularity of its products. The Astro and Safari vans have languished as the public swung to minivans and sport-utility vehicles that are smaller and more car-like. Both models will be discontinued sometime next year.
"It's been a good product, and good for us," Plummer said. When GM officials yesterday declined to set a firm date for the end of the line, employees were exasperated but did the only thing they knew to do, he said: "They just went on back to work."
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.