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'Me First' Vote at GM Van Nuys Plant Hurts UAW Unity

February 02, 1988|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Members of the United Auto Workers really still sing their union's famous anthem, "Solidarity Forever," at their national conventions and at meetings of their locals around the country as they've been doing with some gusto for 53 years.

But the song's message--one for all, all for one--doesn't seem to have the impact that some UAW veterans fondly recall that it had in past years.

UAW unity is not all gone. While UAW members are less likely to respect picket lines of other unions than they once were, they rarely cross their own lines. And hot internal union battles for leadership that make news are actually a tradition in the organization.

However, it is hard to ignore the "me first" implication of the Jan. 23 vote by UAW members at the General Motors assembly plant in Van Nuys. They narrowly defeated a share-the-work plan designed by union and GM leaders to avert indefinite layoffs of about 50% of the 3,800 workers there.

Another vote is scheduled for next Monday because of challenges to the first vote, and meanwhile the company has laid off the entire work force for one week.

Under the share-the-work plan, the hours of all 3,800 workers would be reduced--and not according to seniority. One half of the employees would be on the job at any time, with one group working for two weeks and then the other group doing the same. If the plan is not adopted, the company will lay off half of the workers with the least seniority while the rest stay on the job full time.

The implications of the first vote were distressing. The majority, albeit a small one, exhibited little solidarity with their brothers and sisters.

That may be understandable in the broader context of today's self-centered society but it was hardly an affirmation of solidarity in the UAW tradition.

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that the workers' lack of cooperative spirit at Van Nuys has dire nationwide implications for the future of cooperation in labor-management relations at GM or other companies.

The vote does not even mean the so-called team concept is on the way out at Van Nuys, where it was started just last May. It will just be slowed down as the work teams there are reorganized.

Under the team concept system, the number of job classifications is drastically reduced. Workers perform many different tasks as team members, instead of doing one repetitive task. And workers are given a voice in making decisions at their plants.

Teamwork is not the current issue in dispute at Van Nuys. The workers were divided over which ones would continue to have a job, not whether, in time, those on the job could work cooperatively with each other and with management.

Workers in a few GM plants have voted down the team concept, and it was approved only by a 53% to 47% margin at Van Nuys, where a hard core of militants continue to oppose it. But it is working well in other locations and it gradually is being introduced in more and more plants to replace the adversarial system that has long characterized America's labor relations.

Team concept works best when workers are an integral part of the decision-making process, as they are at the Toyota-General Motors joint venture plant in Fremont, Calif. It should be a model, not just for GM, but for other companies in and out of the auto industry.

GM officials probably are embarrassed that executives from Japan are managing the Fremont plant with the full cooperation of UAW representatives and workers--the same people who were there when the plant was in constant turmoil under GM management.

The plant was shut down between 1982 and 1984. When the workers returned to the plant after it reopened under Japanese management, their productivity soared and absenteeism plummeted, largely because of the cooperative system that was adopted and partly because of the chastening effect of the long period of unemployment.

The low rate of unexcused absences at the Fremont plant is especially notable when contrasted with the absenteeism reported last week for workers in GM-managed plants last year, which was about three times the national industry average.

While GM has not gone nearly as far as the Japanese have in Fremont to implement teamwork programs elsewhere, worker participation plans are being pushed at GM by top company executives and most UAW leaders.

Obviously, though, such cooperation cannot succeed if workers are feuding with one another as they have been at Van Nuys.

But that "me first" vote by the workers there must be kept in perspective. For the past few years, they have been racked by repeated threats by GM officials to close down the plant because of slack car sales.

They have been badly divided, too, by bitter arguments within their Local 645 over the tactics needed to save their jobs. Union leaders have denounced each other with the kind of vehemence once reserved for the bosses. Especially ugly have been the attacks on those unionists who see the advantages of cooperation over an adversarial relationship with management.

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