Battle for control of union shakes Saturn

March 24, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Outside, Saturn Corp.'s future appears as bright as th dogwoods that will soon blossom in the Tennessee spring. For the first time, Americans last month bought more Saturns than Honda Accords. The company is hiring 1,000 workers for a third crew to start in June. The president of Saturn, General Motors Corp.'s $3.5 billion small-car venture, predicts that the subsidiary will break even by the end of the year.

But inside Saturn's complex in Spring Hill, Tenn., three dissident groups are trying to unseat Mike Bennett, president of the United Auto Workers union local. The campaign, to be decided tomorrow, has divided Saturn's 5,700 workers, raised thorny questions about union democracy and shaken Saturn's usually collegial labor-management atmosphere.

At least two of Mr. Bennett's challengers say they have been escorted from the plant merely for talking to co-workers about the election. In addition, members rejected a $3.5 million union hall that some had regarded as a "monument to Mike."

"Union campaigns are always very dynamic, and I think we're upholding that tradition," said Mr. Bennett, who has been anything but a traditional UAW leader.

An ambitious, sometimes prickly advocate for Saturn, Mr. Bennett said in January that he might not seek re-election because "profiteers" in GM are withholding resources needed for Saturn to grow.

At the same time, he scolded UAW leadership in Detroit, contending that the union's national leaders regard Saturn as just another plant, rather than as a crucial test of whether an American automaker can build a small car profitably in the United States.

He has collaborated with two professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a study of the Saturn-UAW partnership.

"The days of table-pounding grievance handlers are over," Mr. Bennett said this month in a letter to members after he decided to run. "Union leaders must win arguments as advocates, not adversaries."

Many Saturn workers say they wish he would be more of an advocate for them.

"He's completely out of touch with the membership," said Jack Smith, a Saturn worker who is no relation to the GM president of the same name. "He's never on the floor, and he talks down to the membership. Diversity is what this union was built on, but with him, it's got to be his way or the highway."

Mr. Bennett's challengers do not favor a revolution or a return to the combative labor relations many faced at their former GM plants.

They say they are as committed to quality and efficiency as Mr. Bennett is. Curiously, few have anything negative to say of Saturn's president, Skip LeFauve, or his management team.

"We're not advocating going back to traditional, but there are things people don't like here," said Bobby Hoskins, the presidential candidate of Members for a Democratic Union.

Among the issues are:

* How many union representatives should be appointed by Mr. Bennett, or his successor, and how many elected by the rank and file.

* Pension and health benefits for workers with less than 10 years at GM are defined differently from benefits for those with more than 10 years.

* Rotating work schedules and overtime, under which many workers alternate between days and nights from one week to the next on a 50-hour-a-week schedule. Their workweeks will shrink to 40 hoursthis summer, when a third shift is added, but workers will change shifts in the middle of the week.

* Mr. Bennett's proposal to spend $3.5 million on a new union hall just outside the plant. Union members rejected the plan last month.

* Lack of cooperation between Mr. Bennett and UAW leaders in Detroit.

The three dissident slates call themselves the Mission team, the Clear Vision team and Members for a Democratic Union. A fourth group, Citizens for Equal Justice, wants more black workers promoted, but it has aligned itself with Members for a Democratic Union for the election.

The reservoir of discontent may be too small for any faction to unseat Mr. Bennett. In January, union members voted 71 percent to 29 percent to retain a modified version of their original contract, which pegs earnings partly to improved quality and profitability. That vote was regarded as a rejection of traditional labor-management relations.

Some who support Saturn's innovative contract say there are more effective people than Mr. Bennett who can raise the partnership to a more competitive level.

"My goal is to get our good people more involved in the decision-making process," said Robert "Jeep" Williams, the Mission team presidential candidate. "We have a lot of room to grow."

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