Bitterly divided workers at General Motors' assembly plant in Van Nuys have approved a controversial job-sharing plan that they voted down only two weeks ago, it was announced Tuesday.
Although adoption of the plan averted, at least temporarily, the indefinite layoff of 1,900 workers at the plant, it will mean varying pay cuts for all 3,800 employees.
More important for some workers, approval of the plan marks a repudiation of traditional seniority rights within the union in which those employees with the longest service are protected from loss of their jobs. The proposal was negotiated by GM officials and leaders of United Auto Workers Union Local 645 last Christmas.
In the latest vote, held by secret ballot at the plant from 5:30 a.m. Monday to 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, 1,915 workers favored the job-sharing plan and 1,668 opposed it. The new vote was scheduled after union leaders threw out the results of a Jan. 23 election in which 2,636 workers voted. The job-sharing plan was rejected by a margin of eight votes in that count.
Union officials alleged irregularities in the January voting.
Officials from both the union and GM were delighted with the ratification. "We're happy, happy, happy," said Joe Garcia, the union's treasurer. "Keeping people working always makes us happy."
"We are very pleased," said Kathleen Tanner, a GM spokeswoman who was flown in from Detroit for the vote.
But workers who had opposed the plan, largely older workers most likely to be protected by seniority from a traditional layoff, were furious.
"I'm outraged," said Eddie Ross, a 27-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant. "GM and the union wanted this plan. If you don't vote for what they want the first time around, you have to vote again. It's like a dictatorship."
"The UAW has turned into a group of corporate pimps and money collectors whose only reason for existing is to collect dues from workers," said Paul Goldener, a former union president. Goldener has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to prevent GM from implementing the plan. An NLRB spokesman would only say that "the matter still is under investigation."
Starting Monday, the night shift at the Van Nuys plant will go on layoff for two weeks while the day shift works. Then on Feb. 29, the night shift will work for two weeks while the day shift is on layoff. The alternative, GM has said, was full-time layoff for half of the plant's workers.
Similar job-sharing programs are in effect at GM assembly plants in Oshawa, Canada, and Lansing, Mich., but both of those were put into effect without a vote by workers.
The Van Nuys plant will continue on the rotation through April 29 unless sales of the Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds produced there improve. GM is hopeful that it can bring back both shifts by that date, but could be forced into further layoffs if sales of the two models continue to lag. As of Jan. 1, GM had accumulated a 136-day inventory of Camaros and a 103-day inventory of Firebirds.
In a traditional layoff, a GM worker continues to draw a check from a supplemental unemployment fund that was created by the company and the union in the late 1960s. Typically under this arrangement, laid-off workers collect 95% of their weekly paycheck for up to a year or more.
But the GM supplemental fund is running low because the company has indefinitely laid off more than 55,000 hourly employees nationwide, and local union officials say workers with less than 20 years of experience can collect only 76% of their salaries. The work-share plan will lessen the austerity of a layoff because it allows workers to collect their regular pay for two weeks and the reduced pay the rest of the month. But some senior workers who are taking a pay cut of $200 per month would be guaranteed full-time work if there had been a traditional layoff.
Thus, the job-sharing proposal has pitted older workers against younger ones. "This is a very divided situation that will not be easy to get over," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at UC San Diego who has followed the issue closely.
"The two different outcomes don't indicate a fundamental shift of opinion," Shaiken added. "There are still a lot of people almost evenly divided on both sides of this issue."
The UAW has been struggling to represent its membership and help the Big Three auto makers take on the Japanese at the same time, a proposition that some workers think is impossible. Proposals that not long ago would have been anathema to union principles--like temporarily waiving long-treasured seniority rights to allow younger workers to stay on the job--are now vigorously advocated by UAW officials.