NLRB Upholds Contract of GM Saturn Plant : Dismisses Complaint by Right-to-Work Group; UAW Dissidents Hit Pact

Times Labor Writer

The National Labor Relations Board on Monday dismissed unfair labor practice charges filed against General Motors and the United Auto Workers by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, which had challenged the legality of the union’s labor agreement with GM for the yet-to-be-built Saturn auto plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Ironically, on the same day, militant UAW dissidents--who are philosophically light-years away from the right-to-work group--circulated a brochure at the UAW’s constitutional convention here blasting the Saturn agreement as “the most far-reaching giveaway contract ever signed by the UAW.”

The conservative Right to Work organization, based in Virginia, alleged unsuccessfully that GM and the UAW gave an unlawful preference for employment at Saturn to employees who now work at other GM facilities and are now represented by the UAW. The group also argued that the company prematurely recognized the union as a collective bargaining representative at Saturn, where automobile production is due to commence in 1989 and where 6,000 workers ultimately are due to be employed.

Key for UAW Leaders


The innovative and controversial Saturn agreement stresses cooperation between workers and managers. There would be considerably fewer classifications of workers than at a traditional auto plant, and management would have considerably greater operating flexibility.

Employees at Saturn would be paid 80% of those in comparable plants, but they would be entitled to share in profits. And they would get bonuses for exceeding production targets and quality standards.

The Saturn pact is a critical element in the strategy of UAW leaders to get domestic car producers to manufacture small cars in this country that can compete with imports from Japan, Korea and other countries.

UAW President Owen Bieber has said that the union “wouldn’t have a future in small-car production” without agreements such as Saturn.


But the brochure distributed by UAW Local 160, based in Warren, Mich., charged that the agreement would undermine seniority, reduce take-home wages, jeopardize hard-won health and pension rights and weaken union solidarity.

“The Saturn agreement, negotiated under the duress of threatening out-sourcing of small-car production, makes a mockery of ‘free collective bargaining,’ ” said Victor Reuther, a former union vice president who has been speaking out against the agreement at UAW meetings nationwide.

“Saturn pits worker against worker and local union against local union,” Reuther told a group of about 250 delegates at a meeting held after the convention adjourned Monday.

Several other locals have introduced a convention resolution asserting that the Saturn agreement violates the union’s constitution. They charge that no union officer has the authority to negotiate contracts without prior approval and subsequent ratification by the members to be served by the contract. The resolution has yet to be debated here.


Internal Debate

Don Ephlin, UAW vice president who was the principal negotiator of the Saturn agreement, said it violates no union rules or principles and could be changed at any time with 30 days’ notice.

The internal union debate was not mentioned in the statement issued by Rosemary M. Collyer, NLRB general counsel. She said she based her decision on the fact that the agreement between GM and the UAW to prefer present GM employees for jobs at Saturn was the result of bargaining about the effects of Saturn on employees at existing GM plants.

“Under the National Labor Relations Act, as interpreted by the board and the Supreme Court, an employer is required to bargain with a union about the effects of employer decisions which could have adverse consequences on the employees represented by the union.”


Job Security

Collyer said that whether Saturn is successful or not, it would have an impact on current GM small-car manufacturing and consequently on the job security of GM employees represented by the UAW.

“The UAW sought this agreement for the benefit of the employees it represents, while GM sought the agreement in order to provide the Saturn Corp. with an immediate source of employees skilled in automobile manufacturing,” Collyer’s statement said.

She also spurned the Right to Work group’s charge that the company had prematurely recognized the union. She said: “The evidence does not establish that GM and the UAW have entered into a functioning collective bargaining relationship at Saturn. Rather, under board law, the legal effect of the agreement is only that GM will recognize the UAW in the future if, and when, a majority of employees working at Saturn freely choose to be represented by the UAW at that facility.”


The union assumes that this will happen because it expects a considerable bulk of the Saturn work force to be drawn from workers already in the UAW.

Collyer also noted that the agreement between GM and the UAW would not preclude an NLRB election if the employees requested one. And she concluded that the agreement does not involve any violation of Tennessee’s Right to Work Law, which bars compulsory union membership as a condition of obtaining a job.

Collyer said the Saturn agreement requires union membership only “to the extent required by law,” which in Tennessee means no one can be forced to become or remain a member of the UAW in order to obtain or retain a job at Saturn.

UAW President Bieber said the union was pleased about Collyer’s decision. Ephlin added that the decision “removes a roadblock that’s better out of the way.”


Pete Kelly, president of Local 160, said the NLRB’s decision will have no impact on the dissidents’ campaign against the pact. But it appears unlikely that they will be able to raise all of their arguments at the convention. Bieber has indicated that there will be no debate on the ramifications and impact of Saturn at this convention, saying that such a discussion would be more appropriate at a collective bargaining convention that the union will hold next year.