JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — General Motors Corp., embroiled in an increasingly bitter two-week-old strike over its plans to sell its South African subsidiary to local managers, said Wednesday that it will begin recruiting new employees to replace some of the strikers and, if necessary, resume production without union workers.
The conflict appears to be moving toward a showdown that will not only pit GM workers against management but black militants against the capitalist system and the country's white-led minority government.
"GM has two options--it can either meet the workers' demands or close the plant," said Fred Sauls, national secretary of the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union, which represents the 2,000 workers on strike for severance pay and pensions as part of the company's withdrawal from South Africa. "There's no other alternative."
Earlier in the week, Sauls told a rally of union members in Port Elizabeth, "If GM management has any sense, they must climb down from their white pedestals, where they sit like (members) of the privileged white class and listen to the legitimate demands of the people in South Africa."
Part of Black Struggle
This cast the dispute in terms of not just a labor-management conflict but also as part of the anti-apartheid struggle here.
George F. Stegmann, GM's personnel director and a member of the local management buy-out team, said Wednesday that such a deliberate political escalation could in fact put the dispute beyond the ability of General Motors and the auto workers union to resolve.
"I'm truly afraid of where we're heading," Stegmann said. "Although we still hope and intend and are determined to resolve this situation so that we remain in business, building cars and offering employment opportunities in Port Elizabeth, we are not in a simple management-labor conflict. . . . There are highly political overtones to all this."
States GM Position
Stegmann said that GM wants a negotiated settlement, is willing to work out a compromise on the pension question and would accept arbitration, already requested by the union, on the issue of severance pay. While it will begin recruiting workers to replace 567 employees fired last week, he said, this does not preclude rehiring of those dismissed and does not mean "imminent action" against the other strikers.
"We don't want a confrontation, particularly not this kind and particularly not at this time," Stegmann said. "We are still hoping that our employees on strike will return. . . . If they return to work and we can resume production, we are open to discussions on every issue."
But Robert A. White, GM's outgoing managing director, declared, "We will make vehicles, with or without the unions."
Office personnel, supervisors and others among GM's 1,000 non-striking employees have been finishing cars left on the production line, White said. "The enthusiasm and desire to get the job done is now stronger than it has been for the last six months," he said. ". . . We have got people here who want to make a success out of this."
Calls Move Provocative
The union, whose members are mostly black and Colored, as persons of mixed race are officially described here, denounced the GM plan to hire new workers as "highly provocative" and warned those who might take the jobs, which pay well in an area where black unemployment approaches 60%, that they will face the anger of the community, the most militant in the country, if they break the strike.
Sauls said that neighborhood workers' committees, supported by local political activists, will be formed to ensure that no blacks or Coloreds take the jobs of 567 GM workers fired last week after the company called in riot police and troops to end a seven-day sit-in at the plant.
Although Sauls and other union officials spoke only of persuasion, a serious threat seemed to be implied: Over the last two years in the Port Elizabeth area, dozens of blacks have been killed, most often by being burned to death with gasoline-soaked tires, after militants judged them guilty of breaking the solidarity of the anti-apartheid movement or collaborating with the government.
Union officials said it was GM, not the workers, that had "made this so political."
A GM 'Sellout'
"GM called in the police and the army against us," another shop steward said. "We did not expect that of an American company that has always said, 'We are with you in your struggle.' The basic problem, however, is that management here and in Detroit simply did not consult the workers until the whole deal was put together, and we were told, 'Take it or quit.' To us, this is not a 'management buy-out,' as they call it, but a GM sellout."
Les Kettledas, the union's regional secretary, said that workers are not striking to prevent GM's withdrawal from South Africa but to seek compensation for what they see as lost job security and seniority rights of 25 years and more and to claim their pension benefits.
"What we are demanding is that since GM has been in this country for 60 years and made profits for 50 or 55 of those years, profits that benefited U.S. shareholders, the workers should now share in those profits," Kettledas said.