DETROIT — Last week, United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber signed his union's new labor accord with General Motors and hailed the settlement as one that would provide an unprecedented level of job security for American auto workers.
Yet just nine days after that signing ceremony, GM announced a new wave of layoffs. The company on Thursday said it will lay off a total of 1,155 workers at three assembly plants in Michigan and Kentucky to reduce assembly line rates because of slow sales. In addition, the GM plant in Van Nuys is also being closed for a week in January.
The announcement comes amid growing signs that the nation's largest auto maker will be forced to sharply curtail production and idle several assembly plants over the coming months in response to a worsening sales slump.
So while Bieber and other union leaders continue to pledge that the new contract--which includes a plant closing moratorium--will plug the gaping loopholes in the UAW's 1984 job security accord with GM, it has become increasingly clear in recent days that the pact will not seriously hinder GM as it moves aggressively to slash costs and excess production capacity.
In most cases, the company will not even be obligated to place any of the affected workers in its job bank or income protection programs specified by the new contract to protect GM workers from the ravages of unemployment.
The company said 225 workers at its Bowling Green, Ky., Chevrolet Corvette plant will be laid off, along with 80 employees at its Pontiac, Mich., Pontiac Fiero plant, as well as 850 workers at a Lansing, Mich., facility that builds Buick and Oldsmobile mid-size models.
The latest job cuts follow by just two weeks GM's decision to indefinitely idle its Framingham, Mass., assembly plant, eliminating the jobs of 3,700 workers because of poor sales of the intermediate-sized Chevrolet and Oldsmobile models produced there.
Legal Under Contract
GM announced the move to idle Framingham on Nov. 4, after the effective date of its plant-closing moratorium. While GM insists it doesn't plan to close the Framingham plant permanently, it also has no plans to reopen it anytime soon.
All of GM's latest cutbacks are legal under the terms of the new contract because they are considered "volume-related," meaning they were prompted by slow sales.
All cutbacks and plant shutdowns caused by lagging sales are exempt from the restrictions imposed by the new contract, and any worker laid off as a result is ineligible for the full income protection provided by the agreement.
While the pact's job security provisions cover workers laid off for any other reason, GM has been able to blame all of its recent cutbacks on poor sales.
UAW officials defend the new contract, however, and insist that it will eventually save jobs by restricting GM's ability to move production to offshore suppliers.
But they admit that there is little they can do now to save jobs as long as GM's sales slide continues.
"There is this obvious problem here. . . . The problem is GM ain't selling cars," says Frank Joyce, a UAW spokesman. "The agreement didn't solve that problem, and it doesn't pretend to."
Joyce and others in the UAW do note, however, that some modest gains in the area of sales-related cutbacks were made by the union in the new contract. Now, GM must get the UAW to agree on whether a cut in production can be defined as volume-related.