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Saturn Project May Ring In New Era of Labor Relations

January 16, 1985|Harry Bernstein

Executives of General Motors Corp., the world's largest auto maker, and the United Auto Workers say they have drawn up plans for building the new Saturn small car that could usher in a new era of industrial peace and prosperity at GM and become a model of excellence.

Their expectations might be too high, but clearly they are at least trying--with courage and imagination--to take this nation along an enlightened path of labor relations.

If they succeed, they can, perhaps, put to rest the authoritarian idea of some corporate leaders that the way to industrial paradise is to eliminate unions, sharply reduce workers' pay and keep their employees in the role of order-takers, instead of encouraging them to become decision-makers.

In addition, success with the Saturn could not only speed up the trend toward industrial democracy but also reduce the attraction of the traditional system of adversarial labor relations.

The UAW and GM leaders describe their plans with such enthusiasm that one would think that they have drawn up plans for the millennium, the golden age of happiness in the work world.

Cynics note, however, that the new plan, if it succeeds, will also mean a dramatic reduction in the numbers of workers it takes to build a car--hardly a traditional goal of any union.

If the new system works, GM officials say, one worker building Saturns should be able to do the work of at least two workers under current conditions.

But UAW officers say that, unless something is done, job losses in the auto industry will be far greater.

Taken as a whole, the tentative plans would make the new Saturn operation different from any other, even though most of the ideas have been used separately before. The Saturn would be built by a new, separate auto company with its own plants, labor contracts and dealer network.

Details of the plan are still secret and must still be put into a formal agreement. Tentatively, the plan includes:

- Giving GM workers a voice in almost every phase of running Saturn Corp., ranging from the number and design of cars to be built and the number of workers needed to build them to plant location and advertising programs.

To be determined is whether workers will join Saturn Corp.'s board. GM has so far rejected the idea, even though a UAW officer now serves on Chrysler Corp.'s board. But, certainly, workers will take part in almost all decision-making below the board level, although management insists that it will retain the right to make final decisions in case of a dispute.

- Replacing the assembly line with "module manufacturing" techniques. This involves using small teams of workers with multiple skills to put together entire sections of the cars, instead of adding small pieces one at a time along an assembly line.

- More or less eliminating jurisdictional lines, so that the number of job classifications will be cut to fewer than half a dozen from 200 or so now.

- Paying workers a salary instead of an hourly wage and basing pay on their knowledge and the extent of their skills as well as individual productivity or the productivity of small work teams of 10 to 15 members. Workers will also get a share of any savings from increased productivity.

- Giving workers substantial authority to maintain quality control. Now, management usually pushes employees to work fast and increase production. Mistakes are corrected after the car is completed. It is estimated that as many as 30% of all new U.S. cars need some repair work. In Japan, it is said, only 1% of all new cars must be sent back for repairs.

- Substantially increasing the number of robots. GM now has about 3,900 robots and plans to have a total of at least 14,000 five years from now. Since 1948, the UAW, unlike some other unions, has readily accepted new technology to modernize auto production, even when it meant a loss of jobs.

- Eliminating such divisive but traditional management perks as special parking spaces and dining and exercise facilities. The Saturn plants will have gyms, upgraded dining facilities, parking and day-care centers for all.

Many of these ideas are now in place at auto and other companies in this country and abroad. Some are in use, for instance, at the GM-Toyota joint-venture plant in Fremont, Calif., and many are common in Japan, Sweden, West Germany and other nations.

But UAW and GM leaders contend that this will be the first time all of these innovative ideas have been brought together in one company. And they are not bashful in boasting about their prospects for success.

Alfred Warren, GM's vice president of labor relations, says the relationship being developed between workers and bosses at the new Saturn plants will "have the potential of revolutionizing the way we work everywhere, not just at Saturn or even at GM."

GM Chairman Roger Smith said the very "survival" of GM depends on the plan's success.

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