UAW Rejects Efforts to Bar Saturn-Type Pacts
The leadership of the United Auto Workers on Thursday turned back efforts by union members to restrict its ability to negotiate labor agreements in advance of the opening of a new plant, as it has done on General Motors’ soon-to-be-built Saturn auto plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.
Union President Owen Bieber gave a ringing and emotional speech in support of the Saturn agreement, which some UAW members have condemned as a betrayal of basic trade union principles. At the same time, Bieber vowed that the innovative and controversial Saturn agreement, which gives management considerably greater operating flexibility, will not be replicated soon across the country, as some auto executives have predicted and as some union members fear.
90-Minute Debate on Plant
“I heard (GM Chairman) Roger Smith say we’re going to Saturnize the auto industry,” Bieber told the 2,500 delegates to the union’s constitutional convention in Anaheim. “I heard (Chrysler Chairman) Lee Iacocca say something like that. . . . Well, we’re not going to Saturnize the auto industry,” Bieber proclaimed, his voice rising to a shout.
Bieber’s remarks came after a 90-minute debate on Saturn’s merits. The plant, a unit of GM that is scheduled to build small cars starting in 1989, is due to ultimately employ 6,000 workers. The UAW sees Saturn as a key element in its campaign to get domestic auto producers to produce small cars in the United States that can compete with foreign-made imports.
The innovative and controversial Saturn labor agreement stresses labor-management cooperation in its preamble. However, a number of union members object to the fact that workers will be paid only 80% of what other GM workers make. They will have the opportunity to participate in profits if they exceed production quotas or quality standards. Critics contend that this is a return to “piecework.”
The plant also will have considerably fewer classifications of workers. Union and company officials have said workers will have considerably greater input in how the car is made.
‘Sellout’ of Union Values
However, critics say the agreement violates basic union principles by turning union stewards into the equivalent of foremen pushing productivity. They also contend that it erodes the seniority system and pension and health benefits.
“Saturn is a sellout of everything this union has ever fought for,” declared delegate Dennis Lapso from a Ford plant in Cleveland. “Every time we sit down (with) management, the first thing they say is we want concessions like you gave GM at Saturn.”
But Clifford Cantrell, a veteran UAW member from Detroit, said his colleagues should consider Saturn’s potentially positive impact. “We have to find a new approach. It’s not just management we’re fighting now but the foreign auto makers coming to take our jobs.”
Bieber made his lengthy speech in successfully persuading convention delegates to accept a report of the union’s Constitution Committee that a resolution some of their brethren had introduced on Saturn was unnecessary and unwise.
Several locals had introduced a 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, and they wanted to amend the constitution to specifically include “new plants” to the constitutional provision.
Bieber said that sufficient safeguards already existed. He said that if there were problems with the Saturn agreement, the people who eventually work there will be able to modify it.
“I urge you to let us start from the inside rather than standing outside,” Bieber said.
He said that once the union had a wedge at Saturn, it would have “a helluva better chance” to organize Nissan workers 23 miles away in Smyrna, Tenn.
After Bieber’s speech, the delegates voted overwhelmingly in a hand count to support his stand.