BY JOHN SARGE
WARREN, Michigan - "It's pretty good now, but we'll have to see how the company lives up to it," is how T. Rogers, a pipefitter with 35 years seniority at General Motors (GM), described the contract he had just voted on. The local agreement ended a six-day strike by 2,800 members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 909 against the auto giant's transmission plant here.
The unionists struck July 23, just days after an 87-day strike ended at GM's assembly plant in nearby Pontiac. The walkouts were over the same issues: staffing levels, intense overtime, and threatened outsourcing. In both cases the company ended up promising to hire more workers.
Within three days of the strike in Warren, the sixth local work stoppage at GM in the United States this year, six assembly plants were closed due to shortages of parts built by Local 909 members. Even with earlier strikes having cost the corporation an estimated $490 million in lost earnings, the auto giant has some $14.9 billion in cash reserves.
The tentative agreement distributed by the unions' bargaining committee reports that GM has promised to add 420 new workers to the plant, 315 production, and 105 in the skilled trades. Terry Bush, bargaining committee chairman told the press that the non-skilled jobs were to be filled within 60 days with the skilled trades hiring to be completed within two years.
Management also agreed to keep a wheel production department in the plant that the company had planned to outsource. Each local member will also receive a $550 payment to settle outsourcing grievances.
Almost 90 percent of the 1,100 union members who attended the meeting voted to accept the agreement. Rich Losiewicz said the deal "is not too bad. We're getting a little bit more than we had and we need to get some younger people in here."
But Fred Adams, a job setter, said he voted no because "it is almost a replica of the previous agreement. There is not much new and I'm somewhat disappointed. The committee talked about restoring dignity and respect, we'll see if this does it."
While UAW officials were claiming victory and most workers in the plant looked at the outcome with guarded optimism, the company was assuring its investors that it planned to stay its course.
The chairman of GM's board of directors, Jack Smith, announced July 28 that the agreement does not interfere with the auto maker's push to cut its work force through attrition. Wall Street responded to the latest agreement by pushing GM's stock price up $1.75 a share the day after it was ratified.
While GM agreed to either hire small numbers of workers or change production levels to free up enough workers to relieve some of the worst short staffing in the plants, the company continues to cut its hourly workforce.
Since the beginning of 1996, GM's total hourly workforce has shrunk from 246,000 to 227,000. As recently as 1994 the auto giant employed 262,000 hourly workers.
GM is still the least efficient auto maker in the United States, using more workers per vehicle produced than its competitors. Under its 1996 national contract, GM only has to replace one worker for every two who retire, quit, or die. If the company proves that jobs have been reduced by productivity gains they don't have to be replaced. This attrition built into the national agreement helped the company to cut the workforce here and in other plants.
General Motors still has nine locations without a local union agreement, seven in the Detroit area and two Delphi plants in Dayton, Ohio. On August 1, UAW Local 22 gave GM notice of its intent to strike August 8 if a local agreement is not reached at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant, known as Poletown. Again, the main issues are staffing, outsourcing, and health and safety conditions.
John Sarge is a member of UAW Local 900 in Detroit,
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