DETROIT — General Motors' long list of plant closings announced Thursday underscores the need for tough new trade legislation to stem the growing flood of auto imports from Japan and the Third World, the president of the United Auto Workers said Friday.
But union President Owen Bieber and other top UAW officials at a press conference downplayed the impact that the closings might have on next year's contract talks between the union and the world's largest auto maker.
In fact, Bieber declined Friday to rebuke GM for its announcement that it will shutter 11 plants and eliminate 29,000 jobs throughout the Midwest between 1987 and 1989. Instead, he focused on the need for the new Democrat-controlled Congress to take quick action to force Japan and other nations to cut back their imports to the United States.
"If we don't change the direction in which we're going with more and more imports and transplant cars built here by the Japanese, we will be back here for more and more and more closings and layoffs, because I see the trend for excess capacity in the domestic auto industry," Bieber said.
GM Chairman Roger B. Smith insisted Thursday that the company's plant closings were not a result of GM's sluggish sales or loss of market share but said it came as part of GM's drive to reduce costs and consolidate its manufacturing capacity in newer, more modern facilities.
But the union contends that the corporation was forced to cut back mainly because of the growing pressure from imports, which has made it difficult for GM to justify retaining so much car-making capacity.
'Crucial Middle of the Market'
"Yes, GM is regrouping and preparing to fight it out for market share in the crucial middle of the market," Bieber said. "But where is the pressure in that market coming from? Sure, there's Ford and Chrysler. But primarily it's coming from the Japanese makers, which have moved upscale and targeted that lucrative middle for expanded sales of both imports and transplant products."
UAW officials predicted that the GM closings, coming so soon after the recapturing of the Senate by the trade-conscious Democratic Party, will increase the pressure on the Japanese to extend auto import quotas for another year. Bieber said the UAW will push to try to force the Japanese to actually reduce the level of their imports when the current quota year ends March 31.
"We need to change the whole context in which this industry functions from a context of unnecessary and unsustainable decline to one of fair and reasonable competition on American soil with American workers doing the full range of jobs," Bieber said.
But UAW officials said the union isn't interested in trying to use the job losses announced Thursday to bash GM as the two sides position themselves for next year's round of contract talks.
When asked how the closings will affect the union's relations with GM, Bieber said: "We're not going to cancel the contract." He added that the UAW is hoping instead that it can work with GM to push for stronger trade policies.
"The answer is not for everybody in the plants to go and tell the foreman, 'You are a no-good so-and-so,' " Bieber said. "We want GM to come to the party to turn this thing around" on trade. "I don't want to have to come back here and talk about another 29,000 and another 29,000."