Lessons for Baltimore GM Workers

September 08, 1992

Workers at the General Motors assembly plant on Broening Highway celebrated Labor Day knowing they will be returning to their jobs after settlement of a nine-day shutdown in Lordstown, Ohio, between GM and the United Automobile Workers Union. Just who won and lost is of less importance than what the Lordstown dispute portends for next year's industry-wide negotiations.

Of the Big Three automakers, GM is the most cumbersome and the least competitive, paying the highest wages and benefits of any major company in the nation. It has invested billions in new plant only to lose more billions ($7 billion just last year) in its North American car-making operations.

So why are its top-heavy management and status-quo union leaders heading for a showdown that can only hurt both? The answer is not reassuring.

GM management allowed its problems to grow so gigantic that, under pressure from outside directors, it vowed last February to close 21 plants and eliminate 74,000 jobs by mid-decade. This hardly promotes a sense of security among its work-force. So UAW leaders recognized a need to buck up their troops and promote a sense of militancy to gain credibility for the demands they will make next year. Knowing that GM inventories were being kept lean, they turned this belated example of good management into a lever for striking at Lordstown.

The result: another set-back for GM, as only 240 workers showed they could halt 14 car assembly plants; and a dubious achievement for the UAW, which delayed closure of a tool-and-die shop for a year and saved some Lordstown jobs at the probable expense of workers elsewhere.

What was most notable about the Lordstown dispute was the way it cut across the better interests of both management and labor -- especially at the new GM Saturn plant in Tennessee. Unlike the hierarchical management and rigid job classifications seen in most GM operations, the Saturn plant borrows from Japanese techniques to shift responsibility to workers, draw out their talents and cut them in on profits. The scheme seems to work. Saturns are the hottest GM model on the market, selling at a price competitive with small imports.

Although the Lordstown dispute was cast as an attempt to protect job security and prevent GM from subcontracting to non-union suppliers, the shutdown was denounced by the head of Saturn's UAW local. "We can't continue to remove wages from competition in the international economy," he said. Compare that to an Ohio UAW official who said: "I am sure that as General Motors continues to work at becoming more efficient and cost effective, many local unions at other locations will have to repeat the lessons we taught GM here."

What lessons? For the sake of keeping a flourishing plant operating on Broening Highway, we hope Baltimore workers (and management) will learn their lessons from Saturn, not Lordstown.

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