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GM Van Nuys Workers Approve Team Concept in Effort to Save Plant

Times Staff Writers

Auto workers at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys narrowly approved a major change in their contract in hopes of prolonging the life of the plant and gaining increased job security, officials of the United Auto Workers and the company disclosed Friday.

The new contract, which would institute a Japanese-style “team concept” of production, was approved by just over 53% of the workers who voted, said Ray Ruiz, bargaining committee chairman for UAW Local 645. He said that about 70% of the plant’s 4,500 hourly employees cast ballots.

“I’m pleased,” Ruiz said. “We wouldn’t have had a future without this new contract.”

Ernie Schaefer, manager of the Van Nuys plant, echoed those sentiments. “I think this vote is the thing we’ve needed to move this plant from the bottom of the list in Detroit to near the top of the list to get a future product,” Schaefer said.

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Fremont Plant Sets Pattern

Schaefer’s comment referred to the fact that the Van Nuys plant’s long-term future has been in doubt since late 1982, when GM placed it on an endangered list. The company has been demanding that the union accept modified work rules that would make the plant more efficient.

Bruce Lee, the UAW’s Western regional director who played a key role in negotiating the new agreement, said auto assembly operations would be patterned after those at the General Motors-Toyota joint venture operation in Fremont, Calif. Workers would function in small teams and have considerably more input and responsibility in the way a car is manufactured, he said.

“The teams will make the decisions about how a job will be handled,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of responsibility for workers. . . . All of a sudden, things will be completely changed. It’s awesome.”

Under the new system, the assembly line will stop once a week so teams can discuss problems and make suggestions on how to improve production. Eventually, time clocks will be eliminated. Some job classifications will be eliminated. And workers and managers will eat in the same cafeteria and park their cars in the same lot, a sharp break from past practice.

Lee cautioned, however, that the new agreement will not be implemented “until we’ve got a commitment from GM for a new product at Van Nuys.” GM has said that it will phase out production of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird at Van Nuys at the end of the 1988 model year. The union has been pushing GM to give the company a new car to make as a condition of changing the way that cars are made at Van Nuys.

GM corporate spokesmen here and in Detroit have consistently taken the position that adoption of the new contract did not automatically ensure the plant’s long-term future. “This just puts the Van Nuys plant in the running for any new models that come down the road,” Harry Kelly, a Los Angeles GM spokesman, said Friday.

Close Vote No Surprise

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Lee said a joint union-management team from Van Nuys will go to Detroit the week after next and present its case for getting a new product line. He said he expected a favorable decision from the company but would not make a prediction as to how long it would take. Schaefer said that it will take “an absolute minimum of three months” for GM officials to make a decision and that it could take up to a year.

In the interim, Lee said, the plant will continue to operate under its old contract. However, he said the union and local management will immediately begin to take steps to begin the transition.

He said a group of workers and managers from the Fremont plant will come to Van Nuys to help retrain employees to operate under a new production system. “We will borrow from their system where it makes sense,” Lee said.

Lee and Ruiz said they were not surprised by the close vote. “We’re fighting a lot of tradition in the plant,” Ruiz said. “There’s a lot of resistance to change because of fear of the unknown.”

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Pete Beltran, president of Local 645, told union members that he vigorously opposed changing the contract in meetings held at the plant Wednesday. One worker interviewed Friday said Beltran had told workers that 600 jobs might be lost as a result of the changes, including elimination of certain job categories. Other workers interviewed said they objected to the fact that changing to a team concept would put them in open competition with fellow union members at other plants. “Team concept is playing worker against worker, plant against plant,” said Martin Dominguez, 33, of Arleta, who has been working for GM for more than 10 years.

“It’s using peer pressure to get more out of us, then applying the same thing to other plants,” he said. “Now they can say to Norwood, ‘Van Nuys has team concept, what about you,’ ” he said, referring to the Ohio factory that also makes Camaros and Firebirds.

Harley Shaiken, associate professor of labor and technology at UC San Diego, agreed, saying the new contract could have significant ramifications for all of GM’s assembly operations. “GM’s interest isn’t simply in what happens in Van Nuys,” he said, “but in using Van Nuys as part of a national pattern to gain more managerial flexibility on the shop floor.”

Lee acknowledged that some workers had expressed concern that they would be part of a “whipsawing” process by GM. But, he said that GM plants had in effect been in competition with one another for some time and that plants in California had been at a particular disadvantage because they incurred increased shipping costs.

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Some workers who opposed the new contract complained that the wording of the ballot was confusing and vague, and they are circulating a petition in the plant to protest the results. The workers also complained that the ballots were not numbered, as has been done in the past, raising questions about the validity of the count.

But the majority of workers said they wanted the new agreement. “The people with 20 years experience, they’ve got it made here,” said Dennis Cathcart, 26, of Arleta, who works in the hard-trim department and is scheduled to be laid off in July (along with 2,100 other workers in the plant when the entire second shift is indefinitely laid off) because his eight years of service don’t give him enough seniority to preserve his job.

“We don’t have a chance at anything,” he said, referring to the low-seniority workers. “Team concept gives us something. This is the 1980s; it’s time for a change.”


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