"Partnership" Takes a Hit at Saturn Rebalancing the Vision Team

It was a stunning blow to the world's best-known example of labor-management cooperation--Saturn, the "different kind of car company."

With a voter turnout of 85 percent, UAW members swept from office the caucus that had run their local union since Saturn was founded in the mid-80s. The incumbent "Vision Team" championed labor-management partnership, but many workers had come to see the partnership as benefiting only management and the hundreds of full-time appointed union reps who help run the Saturn system.

Jeep Williams was elected shop chairman over 12-year incumbent Mike Bennett by a 56-39 percent margin. Williams said the campaign slogan that caught on among the rank and file was "Rebalance them. On the line in '99."

"Rebalance" is Saturn's term for doing the same work with fewer people. "Them" refers to the Vision Team. And "on the line" means: put Vision Team members to work on the factory floor rather than in the quasi-management positions they currently enjoy.

According to rank and filers active in the campaign, the remarkable thing about it was the number of people who took initiative to get their points of view across. "It was your basic grassroots movement," said Kevin Dalton, one of a group of workers whose jobs were eliminated last summer. Dalton helped put out a series of leaflets titled "The Shop Rat."

Window installer Tom Hopp led a shoestring campaign a year ago to end Saturn's special contract and replace it with the UAW-GM national agreement; that proposal was voted down 2-1. But that campaign, according to Hopp, "created a climate that dissent was okay. It was okay to question the system." This year, "so many different groups and people started the tradition of writing letters and putting them out on the floor and signing them and making thousands of copies and passing them around.

"It was so different from your usual campaign--you get 15 or 20 officials that want to run, they make waves a few weeks before the election, then it's over," Hopp said. "Everybody had a place in this campaign."

Williams, the local's vice president, was the only elected official in the 1998 vote who supported switching to the traditional-style union agreement.

Richard Benavides, a veteran of two plant closings in California, said, "People I never thought would go out there on the line, we had ladies going around passing things around like mailmen, in every lunch room and break room, shoving them in lockers, putting them in the parts bins.

"YOU WERE RIGHT"

People who supported the special Saturn contract in last year's vote, Benavides reported, were saying, "Richard, it's time for a change."

"One person hated me so much," Benavides said. "He said, `For the past eight years I hated your guts. Now I'm on the same side as you are. I hate to say this, but you were right.'"

Williams is a former Vision Team member who had broken with Bennett earlier. He said his platform was to "give the union back to the people on the floor. Union leaders were making decisions and not getting the team members' input."

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Interviewed after the election, Williams was somewhat cautious about what changes he would press for. Rank and filers said his campaign platform included:

  • doing away with rotating shifts

  • either eliminating or electing "OMAs," a sort of foreman position jointly appointed by union and management.

ROTATING SHIFTS

One of the more contentious issues at Saturn is the rotating shift system. Employees work ten-hour days and most Saturdays at straight time, and switch back and forth from day shift to nights every few days.

Opponents call it murder on their health; the Vision Team supported rotation because it bypassed seniority. The "Saturn way" is to shun seniority, in favor of "merit," in job assignments, transfer rights, and the like. Scores of appointees, however, chosen jointly by management and Vision Team officials, work eight-hour days on day shift only.

"Vision was out of reach, out of touch with shop floor people," Benavides said. "The main thing people want is to see the Vision Team working. People that promoted that rotation is healthy and good--I want to see them doing it. All those people with appointed jobs that don't rotate, they want to see them on the line."

Williams said he would collect medical data on the effects of rotating shifts, along with quality and safety records, and give that information to the membership. Within a few days of the election, proposals for fixed shifts were already circulating on the shop floor. "Someone will lead that charge, without a problem," Williams said.

CAVE PEOPLE

Ken Duncan, defeated as a union trustee, was one of the original architects of Saturn. Asked why members voted his caucus out, he referred to "cave people--Caucus Against Virtually Everything." The winners' platform, Duncan said, included "a little bit of everything... A great number of the ones that won have no experience whatsoever in terms of negotiating or bargaining."

Benavides said the mood in the plant after the vote is "overwhelming. People are so moved. They can't believe it. My phone's ringing, they want to go.

"Some of them are waiting for Jeep to wave his magic wand. But politicians are always going to be politicians. If they're behind their desk with no one calling them and pestering them, they're happy. You got to show politicians the way to go."

The new leaders now face General Motors' demands for a 12 percent "rebalance." The company is insisting on those cuts before it will commit to building a new sport utility vehicle in Spring Hill.