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GM Workers Fear What's Down the Road : Outsourcing Is Threat to All in Industry, They Say

March 15, 1996|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — To auto assembler Patricia Boyd, the strike that has brought General Motors' vehicle production to a virtual halt nationwide is a clear signal that workers have had enough of corporate America's cold talk of downsizing, restructuring and outsourcing.

"GM ought to realize this is a wake-up call," declared Boyd, a United Auto Workers member who works at the inner-city assembly plant known here as Poletown.

"The unions, especially the UAW, are not going to stand to be broken. We want to be treated fairly and don't want our jobs sent outside to others."

Boyd, a slight, 46-year-old widow with a strong sense of purpose, fears not only for the present but for the future of a son, a high school graduate who is having difficulty finding a decent-paying job.

She is among nearly 120,000 General Motors Corp. workers who have been laid off in assembly, stamping, engine and parts plants as a result of a 10-day strike at two GM brake plants in Dayton, Ohio. Twenty-four of GM's 28 active North American assembly plants have been affected by the dispute.

No talks were held Thursday and none are scheduled. Both sides appeared to be hunkering down for a long strike, one whose effects so far have rippled quickly through the economy. Scores of independent suppliers are also furloughing workers.

The walkout, which began March 4, was prompted by GM's desire to transfer parts work from the Delphi Chassis Systems plants to outside suppliers. The practice, known as outsourcing, is seen as major threat to job security by the UAW and its members.

Thus the strike has become a rallying point for the UAW, one of the nation's biggest and most influential unions, but one whose membership has tumbled and power waned as the auto industry has downsized over the last 15 years.

The Dayton strike also symbolizes to some workers the growing uncertainty nationwide about job security and the disappearance of desirable avenues for youngsters without college educations. That's a situation auto workers have wrestled with for years and one that is confronting, to an increasing degree, an entire generation of employees across many industries.

Even a recent forecast that the Big Three U.S. auto firms will be hiring as many as 250,000 workers in the next several years is discounted by union members, who don't believe the numbers and point to the Dayton case and countless other examples of outsourcing to make their point.

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The Poletown plant--so named because it was built in a Polish neighborhood in the early 1980s in the municipality of Hamtramck--employs about 3,200 hourly workers who produce Cadillac Sevilles, Eldorados and De Villes. GM has excess supplies of those three luxury makes and closed the highly automated plant last week, when the first shortages of brake systems and components appeared.

In interviews Thursday, half a dozen of the plant's laid-off workers, members of UAW Local 22, talked knowledgeably about the core issues in the strike and expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Dayton strikers. They freely vented outrage over outsourcing and expressed fear of the future for themselves and their children. They voiced bitterness over what they consider a betrayal of trust and loyalty by their employer.

"Enough is enough," said Ben Johnson, who works as a technician making side-door frames for Cadillacs. "We have been making up for poor management for 20 years. We're tired of paying the price."

Johnson, 44, a strapping 6-footer who sports a mustache, has worked in GM's Cadillac divisions for 25 years. He complained of continual demands for productivity gains even while job cuts are being made.

"I'm expected to do three times the amount of work I was doing five years ago," said Johnson, a father of three who lives in West Dearborn.

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Two years ago, Johnson said, relating a familiar tale of today's manufacturing landscape, GM used nine-plus workers to produce a side-door frame; today only four people do the same job. But, he said, the workers share few of the benefits of the productivity gains. There are just more demands for more improvements.

The Poletown workers are enthusiastic in their support of the Dayton strike--even though it has thrown them on the street--saying that outsourcing is a threat to virtually all GM workers.

"I'm 400% behind them," said assembly worker Robert Young, 61. "GM is shipping all of our work out of the company." He said work on bumper trim and steering columns was recently sent out of Poletown.

Tom Dziak, a 25-year GM veteran, said he was removed from a job preparing parts and materials for future vehicles. The job, known as kitting, entails making sure parts work and fit in cars to be produced in the next model year.

"The job was outsourced this year," he said. "It cost us 12 jobs. They gave it to a company that hires day laborers that are paid about $8 to $10 an hour."

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