In Showcase of Labor-Management Teamwork, Workers Choose the Old Way

Last year was a very good year for the 7,200 workers, members of UAW Local 1853, at Saturn's Spring Hill, Tennessee manufacturing complex. A string of victories was capped by the late December ratification of a new contract. This contract closely mirrors the master agreement in place at every other General Motors facility. Before, GM's Saturn plant was the poster child for labor-management cooperation, or team concept, in place of negotiated rights.

But the contract was just one in a string of victories during 1999:

    February 25: All of the union representatives, known as the cooperative Vision Team, who had been in office since Saturn's 1990 inception, were thrown out by a two-to-one margin. The workers elected a group of "get tough with management" union officers.
    March 21: A jury in federal court found Saturn guilty of discrimination in the way it treats injured workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    May: Module seniority vote passes. This means Saturn workers now have genuine seniority rights, something workers in other auto plants have had since the 1930's.
    October: Fixed shifts vote passes. No longer will workers' families and their health be destroyed by dehumanizing rotating shifts. We can now rejoin the human race.
    December: Adding to the workers' delight was the second defeat of Mike Bennett, who was Saturn's shop chairman since its inception and a strong supporter of cozy relations with the boss. Bennett had retired after the Vision Team's defeat last February, but ran in December for union trustee. He was soundly defeated by a relative unknown, Dennis Weaver.
    December 20: The Saturn contract, a break with the "living agreement" of the past, was ratified by a margin of 89 percent.


The 1999 contract contains significant pay increases. Workers will now receive 100 percent of their pay with each check. No longer will 12 percent be withheld under the so-called Risk and Reward plan. Under this plan, workers could get the 12 percent back if they met performance targets. The contract also gives the workers more shop floor rights on transfer to a different team, on placement of injured workers in light-duty jobs, and on absences, along with many other significant gains. More elected shop floor union reps will be added to decrease the rep-worker ratio from 560:1 to 319:1.

How did Saturn workers turn their union around? Read on.

When the plant opened, workers were hand-picked from the GM workforce. Candidates were subjected to a barrage of tests and interviews to weed out troublemakers and include only workers who liked team concept. Seeing this process, others told us that we would never change conditions at Saturn. It was impossible - look at the workers you have.

I do not ever use the word "can't." If Saturn can be put in the control of the workers, then any plant can be organized. In fact Saturn worker Bobby Wilson comments, "The strongest union people I have ever met work at Saturn."



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Saturn workers suffered for years under the infamous Saturn Memorandum of Agreement, a contract that was supposed to be the model for labor-management co-operation, a new unionism. In reality this contract was a return to the company unions of the 1920's. The workers began to ask, "Why are we the ones doing all of the cooperating and capitulating?" Many saw the partnership as sham. The rebellion started in the late '90s when a few workers dared to voice their opposition to the Saturn cooperation concepts and urged a return to the UAW-GM National Agreement.


The union politicians refused to help the workers make any real changes, so the workers took charge and did it themselves. We created an atmosphere where workers could openly voice their opposition to the Saturn concepts and the local union leadership. We promoted a greenhouse where the seedlings of democracy were nurtured and allowed to grow. These seedlings became individual groups of dissent that acted independently without any centralized leadership. A flood of shop floor letters and fliers supporting democracy came from these different groups. They all had one central theme: Our union officials rule us only by our consent, and we no longer give that consent.

The workers did not stop there. They elected a group of officials who supported their beliefs, including a leader who supported returning to the GM master agreement. Union meetings now have hundreds of workers demanding that their voice be heard. They demand that we move forward as a union. We do not want to return to our dark days of partnership and collaboration with the bosses.

As I walked through the plant and watched the workers celebrate their contract victory, supporters of the debunked Vision Team could not even look me in the eye. They finally realized that they had been lied to for all these years. Our agreement is not perfect but it is a lot closer to the GM national contract than we have ever seen before. Through years of the "partnership" we were never able to obtain what we had achieved with rank and file power.

"New unionism" is useless. Good old-fashioned, rank and file unionism works just fine; just ask any "Can-Do" Saturn worker.

Tom Hopp is an operations technician (production worker) at Saturn and a member of UAW Local 1853. For more information contact The Saturn Line Workers at