On Jan. 23 members of the United Auto Workers at General Motors' Van Nuys plant decided by a mere eight votes to reject a plan that would have allegedly shared the burden of a forthcoming layoff. On Feb. 8 the workers voted again, this time passing the plan by a vote of 1,915 to 1,668. Under the plan, GM, instead of laying off the 1,900 lower-seniority workers, asks higher-seniority workers to temporarily waive their seniority rights so that the two shifts could alternate working two weeks on and two weeks off for 90 days. At the end of that period if slow sales do not pick up, a seniority-based layoff would take place. The original vote and its reversal were characterized by a common theme--an orchestrated conflict between the shifts.
For the second-shift workers disaster has been averted--for a few months. These workers have suffered two major layoffs in the past five years and the prospect of a third with a badly depleted supplemental unemployment fund, was frightening. But for many higher-seniority workers, who admittedly will suffer little economic pain from the layoff (and a small, but surprisingly sizable, number of second-shift workers as well), it was principle and union strategy, not naked self-interests, that motivated their opposition.
To begin with, the layoff was not of the workers' making. GM had not given the workers input into its design decisions--such as making no significant modifications in the Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird for six years--nor did it propose alternatives to keep everyone working.
In fact GM had a far simpler and more equitable option that required no vote--closing the entire plant for two or three weeks at a time. That plan could have reduced inventories and, yes, shared the suffering, but it would not have served the management objectives of challenging the seniority system and pitting worker against worker.
Management has cleverly equated seniority with greed while some union supporters of the plan have equated defensive seniority rights with an opposition to "solidarity." But in this era of economic dislocation, seniority is essential to prevent vulnerable workers from cannibalizing the union and to avoid having workers at each other's throats, attempting to keep their jobs in the face of layoffs. Management journals advocate the breaking of union seniority as a key element to greater corporate "competitiveness." One must question if it is teamwork or attacks on the seniority system that GM really wants.
The plan's proponents argued that the seniority waiver would only be for 90 days. But opponents argued that GM had just signed an alleged "no plant closings" national agreement, only to lay off both shifts at the Framingham, Mass. plant, and they accused GM's local upper management of reneging on other recent agreements. "Why give up the seniority that our union has fought for 30 years to establish," one worker argued. "GM's whole history is one of broken promises. Once we have given away our seniority how can we be assured that GM will give it back?"
The workers had ample reason to distrust their employer. The last two "job security contracts" included a little-publicized clause that reduced supplemental unemployment benefits of workers with less than 20 years seniority from 95% of take-home wages to only 76%. On top of that, GM, knowing it intended full layoffs, made no additional contributions to the fund. It is the decimation of the fund through inadequate employer contributions that created the legitimate sense of panic among second-shift workers and set the stage for the worker-against-worker vote. Additionally, GM just announced annual earnings of $3.6 billion but for the second year, through an accounting manipulation, was able to deny profit-sharing payments to its 350,000 hourly workers.
Meanwhile GM officials congratulate themselves on a masterful piece of social engineering. While GM's policies have pitted UAW local against local, now "competitiveness" pits shift against shift, worker against worker. As threats to the plant's future continue, it is destructive for union members to respond to strategic disagreements by accusing each other of selling out; while, in fact, dedicated union activists advocated both sides of the issue.
For the past five years a unique labor/community coalition threatening GM with a boycott of its products in Los Angeles has imposed a modicum of social responsibility on the corporation and has been the main reason the plant has been kept open. The key to the plant's future is for the GM workers to once again reach out to their allies in the community, and for consumers to tell GM that they support the coalition's demand for a 10-year commitment to keep the plant open. It is by working to restrict management's "right" to shut down and by pressuring GM to invest some of its profits to replenish the supplemental unemployment fund, not by voting on which of their members will be laid off, that unions can retake the initiative and re-establish solidarity in the modern industrial context.