Flint Strikes Settled, But Issues Go Unresolved
In Flint, Michigan they're calling the 54-day strike against General Motors' Metal Fab Center and Delphi East plants "The Big One." It was the longest strike at GM since the 1970 national dispute. It cost the company almost $3 billion in lost profits and $12 billion in sales. It closed 27 of GM's 29 assembly plants and over 100 parts plants in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.
If ever there was a demonstration that workers still have clout in today's international, lean just-in-time production systems, this was it.
The working public loved it. Polls in Flint found 67 percent favoring the strikes. An ABC Internet poll found 74 percent across the country siding with the strikers, while a CBS poll showed 46 percent pro-striker and 37 percent pro-company. As in the UPS strike last year, more and more working people see their own issues in these strikes.
The strikes by 9,200 members of UAW Locals 659 and 651 showed something else. Their clearest gain came over the one matter GM said it would never let the union dictate: investment. GM returned most of the dies it had removed form its Flint Metal Fab Center, setting off the strike there on June 5. And it agreed--once again--to invest the $180 million in the Metal Center it had previously reneged on.
GM also agreed to invest $20 million in the Delphi East plant.
A lesser gain for the workers was GM's agreement not to spin off the Delphi plants in Flint and Dayton before January 2000. It also agreed not to outsource any products currently made there. This does not mean no job loss at Delphi East. Two hundred thirty-nine jobs will disappear--less than the 700 GM wanted, but another 400 workers will be pressured to take early retirement.
GM agreed to withdraw both a grievance and a lawsuit it had filed accusing the UAW of waging an illegal strike. The UAW-GM national agreement allows mid-contract strikes over health and safety and production standards grievances, but not over issues such as company investments and plant closings.
Though GM ended up settling on these issues, union leaders were apparently worried about losing the grievance, which was before an arbitrator as the strike ended. Losing the grievance would have hurt the union's ability to wage future mid-contract strikes, and it could have made the UAW liable for some of GM's losses in the Flint strike.
Given the length of the strike and the fear of job loss deeply felt across the auto industry, it was not surprising the workers heavily ratified both agreements, voting 90 percent in favor at the Metal Center and 76 percent at Delphi East.
Settlements were also reached at several plants that were not on strike: the Flint Buick City complex, the Grand Blanc, Michigan Powertrain plant, two Dayton, Ohio brake plants, and a stamping plant in Indianapolis, all of which had their own disputes with GM.
The settlements contain concessions. The controversial "pegged rates," which allow a few hundred workers to stop work early if they meet their quotas, will be preserved, but the quotas are jacked-up 15 percent. This is a significant speed-up that will reduce any extra break time these heavy, dirty jobs might allow.
At the Delphi East plant the union agreed to continue working with the company to increase productivity.
GM and the UAW have agreed to set up yet another high level joint union-management committee "to ensure that we can resolve things before they reach a crisis," said UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker. But company and union officials already meet periodically and have been unable to bridge disagreements that produce factory-level strikes almost every year.
There will also be local joint committees to work on finding new products for the Metal Center, negotiate productivity for Delphi East, and deal with sourcing issues at Buick City.
As Jerry Tucker of New Directions Education Fund quipped, when jointness isn't working, you negotiate more jointness.
Local 599 executive board member Dean Braid said people are afraid the new joint committees just give more power to the appointed jointness reps that already roam the plants with their clipboards, promoting company goals. Now the clipboard people will have a whip and a gun, he reports workers in Buick City are saying.
While the Delphi plants in Flint and Dayton will remain open into the next contract, giving them a stronger position in next year's negotiations, the reprieve for Buick City lasts only until the expiration of the current contract.
In exchange for a pledge not to sell two Dayton brake plants, the union has agreed not to strike these facilities until 2000.
GM claimed the UAW had given it a handshake across-the-board no-strike pledge. The UAW insists the no-strike agreement applies only to the Dayton plants, where the pledge is in writing.
A report in the Wall Street Journal backs management's side of the story. "General Motors Corp. emerged from its two-month labor confrontation in Flint, Mich., apparently positioned to restructure its business with the freest hand it has had in years," the paper said, citing "individuals close to the situation." "GM got senior leaders of the United auto Workers to suspend the union's practice of authorizing and staging strike after strike at the local level."
Even if the settlements had been better, they leave unresolved the most basic issues facing auto workers today: speed-up, increased workloads, outsourcing, and the company's constant violation of the 1996 agreement to preserve 95 percent of the workforce over the life of the contract. The GM hourly workforce has dropped at least 10 percent, from 220,000 in 1996 to slightly under 200,000 in 1997.
For decades, UAW leaders have viewed speedup and contracting out as local issues, leaving it up to the local unions to deal with them. But today it is the Big Three's national--indeed, international--restructuring plans that are causing the pain felt at the plant level. The union needs a coordinated national and international strategy for dealing with these issues. Members of the reform New Directions group have raised this approach, as have others in and out of the UAW's leadership caucus.
But the union has let each of the 17 local unions that have struck since 1994 go it alone, even when they close down the company's whole operation. Some of these strikes have won gains, but as one local president said, even when they get an agreement they have to fight to make management live up to it.
This was a "lost opportunity," says Braid. "We should have gotten better results considering the position we put GM in."
The union's strategy also needs to be North America-wide. Greater coordination with and, perhaps, emulation of, the Canadian Auto Workers would be a good start. The CAW has moved toward shorter worktime and workforce level guarantees from GM in its last two contracts.
Unlike the Teamsters in last year's UPS strike, the UAW seemed to avoid mobilizing the vast public sentiment in support of the strikers. One network reporter complained that the UAW refused to return calls and seemed uninterested in getting its case out.
Several UAW rallies during the strike also gave the impression that outreach was not a high priority; there was an almost-complete absence of anyone at the rallies from other unions or from the Flint community.
GM, for its part, missed no opportunity to address its public, mainly Wall Street, or rally the media to the cause of downsizing and competitiveness.
Braid insists that something good came out of these strikes because the workers showed they had power. "It was a real education for the younger people," he said. "People still believe in solidarity even after years of this jointness crap."
The strikes are over for now, but the issues remain unsettled across GM. Strikers said they expect another serious conflict and perhaps a long strike when the national contract expires. They may be right, but the big question is whether the UAW leadership will depart from its long-held jointness policy and put these challenges to company strategies on the national table.
The other question is whether the union will draw on the enormous good will that is out there today to help auto workers win this struggle.
A Settlement...Then A Kick in the Teeth
Only a few days after the United Auto Workers and General Motors agreed to work together and to conduct high-level consultations to try to avoid a repeat of the 54-day Flint strike, GM served the union with a good kick in the teeth.
On August 3, the company announced that it would spin off its Delphi parts unit, ridding itself of about one-third of its workforce world-wide, including 50,000 UAW members.
GM said it hopes to have the sale completed by the end of next year.
Along with the rest of the auto industry, General Motors has been moving for years towards ridding itself of its parts-making operations. The company thinks it can get parts more cheaply by buying them from independent suppliers, rather than making them itself. This is especially so since the auto parts industry has become largely non-union over the last 20 years, with many parts workers making only a fraction of what unionized Big Three workers earn.
While GM has clearly been preparing for several years to spin off Delphi--by reorganizing it as a separate GM unit and building a separate Delphi headquarters in Detroit's northern suburbs--timing the announcement just after the end of the strike reinforced many workers' belief that the strike did not settle anything and that it won't be long until the same issues will have to be fought out again.
But the Delphi sale wasn't GM's only announcement. Two days later, GM Chairman John Smith delivered another kick in the teeth, announcing that the company will build a series of new assembly plants that will require substantially fewer workers than traditional plants. The new plants will rely on outside suppliers to assemble large parts of the vehicle, which will be delivered to the assembly line. As many as four traditional assembly plants will be closed.