BY JOHN SARGE
DAYTON, Ohio - Three thousand auto workers struck two General Motors (GM) brake-parts plants here March 5, forcing the company to close many vehicle assembly factories and idling tens of thousands of workers.
"Jobs are the major issue," said United Auto Workers (UAW) member Gene Felte as he walked the picket line here March 9. The workers, members of UAW Local 696, walked out over plans by GM's Delphi Chassis Division to eliminate about 125 jobs from the plants and send them to other, usually nonunion parts manufacturers, a practice known as "outsourcing."
The union also cited health and safety issues, centered on the risk from repetitive motion injuries, as contributing to the decision to walk out.
UAW Local 696 members were forced to strike over outsourcing for three days in 1994. Joe Hasenjager, president of the union local, reported that GM promised to create over 500 jobs under the 1994 agreement but had added only 76.
The workers who produce brake parts for most GM vehicles, and some parts for Chrysler and American Isuzu, quickly affected production at other GM facilities. By the end of the sixth day of the walkout, the auto giant was forced to close 14 of its 29 North American assembly plants - stretching from Oshawa, Ontario, to Shreveport, Louisiana - idling over 43,000 workers.
U.S. auto manufacturers use the "just in time" inventory system, which means assembly plants keep only a limited number of parts in stock. This practice strengthens the ability of workers in parts plants to affect production throughout the company.
UAW officials sent 300 workers back into the plants on the second day of the strike to resume production on Chrysler and Isuzu brake components. This action by the union officials provoked a discussion among strikers. The Dayton Daily News reported that at the union meeting where this decision was announced a layer of union members "opposed letting anyone cross the picket lines and wanted to shut down the plants completely."
In describing the discussion over sending some workers back into the plants one picket at the Wisconsin Blvd. plant, a machinist with 20 years at GM, said, "Rumors are flying around that the company wants to outsource from 300 to 600 jobs. That's why we're out. But if we hadn't sent those people in, Chrysler would have pulled their jobs and we would have lost 300 jobs."
The UAW's national contracts with the Big Three auto makers - GM, Ford and Chrysler - expire in September, so the decision to strike now has also stirred a discussion among union members about upcoming contract negotiations. The UAW has scheduled a contract bargaining conference April 1-3.
The Dayton Daily News highlighted comments by some workers opposed to the walkout. The paper, for example, quoted Deacon C.C. Johnson Jr., a Wisconsin Blvd. plant worker, saying, "I don't like it. Why go out now? The contract will be up in September (and we may end up striking again.) Why go out twice?"
Many workers on the picket lines, however, have a different view. "We should just as well do it now than wait to the fall, it's time to do it," said Jim Thorpe, a UAW member with 22 years at GM, as he walked his picket duty.
A worker picketing March 11 commented, "There have been rumors for years that GM wants to sell this place, and maybe they will this time. But we've got to do what we've got to do."
The Wall Street Journal reports that some auto industry analysts say this strike can be seen as preliminary to the national negotiations between the Big Three and the UAW that are expected to open in June. This is the eighth local strike against GM in the last two years and outsourcing has been a major issue in all of them.
GM may not settle this strike as quickly as previous strikes at critical parts operations. Negotiations were held the first three days of the walkout, but the company did not meet with the union for the next three days. GM may also be using the strike to reduce its North American production levels and inventories. The auto giant had already announced plans to produce 9 percent fewer vehicles in the first quarter this year than in the same period in 1995. The auto giant's plans for the second quarter already call for an 8.4 percent drop in production over last year's levels.
GM's production cuts come in the framework of a general weakening of sales for new cars across North America. All of the Big Three have temporarily idled plants this year. Three assembly plants, one Ford and two Chrysler, are scheduled to be closed the week of March 11 due to growing inventories.
In face of the intransigence of the auto bosses, UAW members are organizing resistance. A three-day work stoppage by members of UAW Local 869 at the Chrysler Truck Plant in Warren, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, last month was another such indication.
On Friday, February 9, assemblers producing full size pick- up trucks refused to work because of health and safety concerns. The company quickly moved to fire the local union president and a grievance committee person for organizing an "illegal" strike. The auto maker claimed there was no safety problem. Chrysler workers refused to work on February 17 to protest the firings.
The UAW's national Chrysler department ordered the union ranks to return to work on February 19. Workers refused, with only 245 out of 1,800 production workers going in on the second shift to protest the firings of their local elected officials.
The UAW tops were able to pressure the local membership to return the next day without getting the two fired officials back to work, but not before Chrysler lost an estimated $7 million in profits.
As the first three months of this year demonstrate, auto workers can expect the Big Three and other auto companies to continue to push for ever worsening working conditions and the weakening of the union as the upturn in auto sales comes to an end and the owners try to shore up their declining profit rates in face of sharper competition from rivals in other countries.
John Sarge is a member of UAW Local 900 at Ford in Detroit. Jon Hillson from Minneapolis contributed to this article.
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