The Team Lost : Seniority Wins Out Over Teamwork in Vote to Reject Work Sharing at Van Nuys GM Plant

Times Staff Writer

Teamwork (-wurk') n . 1. joint action by a group of people, in which individual interests are subordinated to group unity and efficiency; coordinated effort, as of an athletic team; 2. work done by or with a team.

-- Webster's New World Dictionary

For nearly a year, General Motors and United Auto Workers officials have tried to foster the idea of teamwork at the GM Van Nuys assembly plant.

Most prominently, it was showcased in a new manufacturing technique called "team concept," which would, they said, improve the quality of cars rolling off the assembly line, help ensure job security and create a sense of camaraderie among workers.

The same sense of teamwork was evident in an unusual work-sharing proposal negotiated by the local UAW leadership and GM officials. The plan would have reduced by 50% the working hours of all 3,800 employees at the plant but would have avoided any full-time layoffs. Cutbacks were necessary because of disappointing sales of the Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros produced at the plant.

Now the talk of teamwork is dead. Instead, attention is focused on deep divisions within UAW Local 645.

Saturday, by a margin of eight votes, the majority of 2,615 voters rejected the work-sharing proposal. As a result, 1,900 workers will be laid off Feb. 1, and those layoffs will be based on seniority, long a treasured union benefit. Those workers hired on or after June 15, 1976, will be out of work.

"I'm glad it came out that way," said Robert Colletta, 44, a 23-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant. The work-sharing proposal, he said, "took our seniority away from us. We have been there longer. We should be able to work."

Called Selfish

But Larry Barker, 38, an 11-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant who is about to be laid off, said: "I'm really disappointed. All they have been preaching down at the union is working together and doing the right thing for each other. But when the old-timers voted, they only thought of themselves."

UAW Local 645 is bitterly divided, conceded Hank Gonzalez, assistant director of the UAW's western region. For the most part, Saturday's vote was divided by seniority, Gonzales said.

"It was the lower-seniority people versus the higher-seniority people," Gonzalez said.

He added, "There are two factions. There are people there thinking of what's good for the union on the whole, and then there is another group that is opposed to everything the other group does."

The vote, workers say, was also something of a referendum on Team Concept, the new Japanese manufacturing method that GM installed at the Van Nuys plant in May. In spring, 1986, workers were also divided on Team Concept, which passed by a vote of 53% to 47%.

Under the Japanese method, employees were organized into teams that worked on entire sections of a car, with the power to stop the assembly line to fix defects and make suggestions where they were needed. This is in contrast with the more traditional assembly line techniques where workers perform single, repetitive tasks. Team Concept also stripped away job classifications, and with it, years of established ways of how to do things.

Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, San Diego, called the vote "a preview of the likely conflicts in the next recession: workers scavenging for the available jobs. This will cause immediate problems for Team Concept."

With the defeat of the work-sharing program, Team Concept has been derailed, at least temporarily. "It will be disruptive, no question about that. But I don't think it will be destructive," said Van Nuys plant manager Ernest Schaefer. "I don't think it will ruin Team Concept forever, but it will take some more time to work through it."

New Teams Needed

GM will have to reorganize some of the teams, which have spent the last eight months learning to work together. Now that the younger workers are being laid off, GM is left with a factory full of older workers--many of whom dislike Team Concept. For instance, Nick Lara, a forklift driver and 23-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant, voted against both the work-sharing proposal and Team Concept. The new manufacturing method, he said, "sounded like a lot of baloney to me."

Schaefer said the plant will have to slow down its production schedule for several weeks while the teams are reorganized. That shouldn't cost GM many sales, however, because Camaros and Firebirds are not selling well. GM has a 151-day supply of Camaros, and a 104-day supply of Firebirds, Schaefer said. "That is very high," he said.

GM hopes it will be able to reinstate some of its laid-off workers in May. But Christopher Cedergren, senior automotive analyst with J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village, says it will be at least one year before laid-off workers return to work.

The reason, Cedergren said, is the dated design of the Camaros and Firebirds. "They were originally introduced in the spring of 1982. That means they will be 6 years old, and only a few minor changes have been made. They're selling the same car they were six years ago."

In the event of a recession, Cedergren said, Van Nuys workers might have to wait even longer to get their jobs back. "If there is a recession, that plant would be on only one shift for the next couple of years," he said.

Shaiken said one of the lessons to be learned is that it is more difficult to install a new manufacturing system at a unionized plant with veteran workers. "It is undoubtedly easier to implement Team Concept in a non-unionized plant," he said.

Both Honda and Nissan have successfully opened car plants in the U.S. using flexible, non-traditional assembly techniques. But the Honda plant, in Marysville, Ohio, and the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., are non-union and employ mostly young workers, few of whom have ever worked for a car company before. Thus the companies have not had the problem of retraining its work force.

Meanwhile the UAW, which supported both Team Concept and the work-sharing program at the Van Nuys plant, is at a loss as to how to best represent the divisions among its members. "It is a divided local union, and everything is political," Gonzalez said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World