GM strike finds little sympathy for tightening laws against labor

The Outlook

March 17, 1996|By Ted Shelsby

The strike by 3,000 members of United Auto Workers Local 696 against two General Motors Corp. brake plants in Dayton, Ohio, has nearly halted the world's largest automaker's North American vehicle production.

The strike has forced the shutdown of 24 of GM's 28 active assembly plants, including the one in Baltimore,where the VTC company makes its Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans.

The strike also has resulted in the layoff of 124,700 GM workers, including about 2,600 at the Baltimore plant.

A number of the Broening Highway plant's suppliers, such as Marada Industries Inc. in Westminster and Monarch Manufacturing Inc. in Belcamp, have been forced to curtail production and now face the possibility of layoffs.

Should labor laws be changed to limit the widespread impact of a strike?

Marley Weiss

Associate professor, University of Maryland School of Law

I think the law should not be changed at all.

I think that, right now, the law gives unions certain weapons against employers and employers certain weapons against unions. The fact that the union, in this instance, has some economic leverage against the employers is a consequence of not only the union's right to strike, but the way that General Motors has chosen to organize its production.

It has chosen to organize its production in a fashion that makes it dependent on harmonious labor relations and, obviously, that has not panned out for them at the moment. But the fact that closing down one facility can lead to a much larger closure means that this is one of the relatively rare remaining instances in our economy where a labor movement can effectively exercise its right to strike.

There are no longer a lot of situations where unions are in a position to effectively exercise the right to strike.

The real balance of power in current labor law, in most cases, is heavily in favor of the employers rather than workers and their unions.

I would oppose a change that would limit the ability of unions to do this kind of strike. Until the early 1980s, employers didn't try to operate with replacement workers and the strike was a very effective weapon.

Since about the time of the air traffic controllers' strike, both the .. economy and employers' competitive needs have changed along with labor-management relations. What is more common today are strikes, like the Caterpillar Inc. strike, where the employers are able to break the strike by offering to hire replacements and thousands of applicants show up over night.

So the strike is really an effective weapon now only in situations where replacement of workers is not very feasible.

A. Samuel Cook

Senior member of the labor law department at Venable Baetjer and Howard

Although I am a management attorney, I do not believe a restriction should be put on a labor organization's right to engage in a legitimate economic strike. I also firmly believe that the employer should continue to have the right to permanently replace striking workers at the plant of origin. I don't know how you can say to either the union or the company mainly the union "Mr. Union, if your strike hampers production at another plant you can't do it."

For 45 years companies in America have had the right to permanently replace strikers with what the union calls scabs, nonunion workers. If they can do that, how can you limit the

power of unions?

A limit on the union's ability to strike would be unfair to the balance of power in labor-management relations.

Richard Sampson

Head of the labor department at Semmes Bowen & Semmes

That's a tough question.

Basically, the issue has to do with the economic bargaining power.

What the law does and what the National Labor Relations Board is supposed to do is be right in the middle. They are not supposed to take sides between labor and management.

The National Labor Relations Act is designed to allow companies and unions to use their own economic power to fashion agreements in the collective bargaining process.

Over a period of time, unions have lost favor. People don't join unions as much today and they are representing fewer and fewer percentages of the work force.

Even though the power of unions has been declining, there are certain industries, like the automotive industry, where the UAW is still very strong. So do I think the law should be changed?

No. I think what has happened in this particular situation is that the union has a little bit more power than the company at the present time. From the union's side this is an issue of work preservation.

I don't think we should change the law and upset the apple cart at the present time.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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