In a meeting marked by angry accusations and occasional scuffles, union members at General Motors' Van Nuys plant Saturday rejected an innovative plan to avoid full-time layoffs by reducing by 50% the working hours of all employees. The vote means an estimated 1,900 workers with the least seniority will be laid off for an indefinite period beginning Feb. 1.
Officials of United Auto Workers Local 645 said the proposal--negotiated by union leaders and GM management before Christmas--lost by only eight of the 2,615 votes cast. There are 3,800 union workers at the Van Nuys plant.
Both union and management officials were astonished at the results. "I am disappointed the membership didn't show solidarity and support their younger brothers and sisters," said Jerry Shrieves, president of the local. "I am shocked."
Jim Gaunt, personnel director at the Van Nuys plant, said, "We are obviously disappointed that the membership didn't see the value in keeping as many people employed as possible."
Opposition came from older workers, who will be protected from layoff by their seniority.
"We have suffered too much to let our seniority rights slip out of our hands," John Ochoa, a 23-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant, said before the vote. Ochoa was among several workers who carried placards protesting the proposal outside the polling area at Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys.
But younger workers were asking older workers to vote in favor of the proposal. 'I'm worried about having a job," said Nadine Medina, who has worked at the plant six years. "This plan is going to let me keep my job. I'm for it."
In December, GM said some kind of work reduction was necessary in Van Nuys because sales of the cars made there--the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro--have been declining.
The Van Nuys plant normally operates on two shifts--a day shift and a night shift. Under the rejected proposal the plant would have staffed only one shift at a time and would have employed workers on an alternating schedule. Day shift employees would have worked for two weeks while night-shift employees were on layoff. Then night shift employees would have worked for two weeks and day employees would go on layoff.
Similar work-sharing programs are in effect at GM assembly plants in Oshawa, Canada, and Lansing, Mich., but both those proposals were put into effect without a vote by workers.
Now, the company will fall back on the mass layoffs that are more traditional in the automobile industry.
Shrieves said all employees who began working at the Van Nuys plant on or after June 15, 1976, will be laid off.
When a GM worker is laid off, he or she continues to draw a check from a supplemental unemployment fund that was created by the company and the union in the late 1960s. Typically under this arrangement, laid off workers collect 95% of their weekly paycheck.
But the GM supplemental fund is running low because the company has indefinitely laid off more than 55,000 hourly employees nationwide and Shrieves said Van Nuys workers will only be able to collect 76% of the salaries.
Shrieves said Saturday that workers laid off Feb. 1 will "exhaust their benefits anywhere from six to 11 weeks. Then they go on regular unemployment."
Booing From Members
The mood in the voting area and inside the auditorium where union leaders were explaining the proposal Saturday afternoon was often tense. Several heated arguments and pushing matches broke out among workers, and union officials routinely were booed.
"We have to choose between our family and the brother or sister who stands next to us on the line," Mike Gomez, a GM worker, told other workers. "This is pitting us against each other. We're putting a razor to each other's throats."
Outside the polling area, former union local President Paul Goldener handed out a leaflet against the plan and accused union leaders of "pimping and prostituting your union rights."
Many older workers were concerned that the plan would eliminate some seniority rights, which determine where they work in the plant and what benefits they receive in the event of a plant closure.
'Lived on the Street'
"I've lost my job. I've gone on layoff. I've lived on the street," said Lucky Johnson, a 30-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant. "But now it's my turn, because I have earned it, to be able to work."
The defeat of the proposal could seriously impact a new Japanese manufacturing method GM installed at the Van Nuys plant in May. Under the method, called Team Concept, employees work in groups on entire sections of a car, instead of performing a single-repetitive task. The teams have spent the last eight months learning to work together. February's layoff will force GM to rearrange those teams.
Sales of the cars built at the Van Nuys plant--Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros--have fallen in recent years. Last year, GM sold 117,000 Camaros and 73,000 Firebirds.