Spirit of Teamwork Takes a Beating in Vote at GM Plant
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.
On Monday, all the talk of teamwork was dead. Instead, attention focused on deep divisions within UAW Local 645.
By a margin of eight of the 2,615 votes cast, members of Local 645 rejected the work-sharing proposal approved by their own leaders. As a result, 1,900 workers will be laid off Feb. 1. The layoffs will be based on seniority, long a treasured union benefit. Workers hired on or after June 15, 1976, will be out of work.
Judging by the comments of workers before and after the secret ballot Saturday night, the vote divided along lines of age and seniority.
“It was the lower-seniority people versus the higher-seniority people,” conceded Hank Gonzalez, assistant director of the UAW’s western region.
He added, “There are two factions there. 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, also could be seen as something of a referendum on the team concept, the new Japanese manufacturing method GM installed last May at the Van Nuys plant, the only automobile production plant in Southern California. Union members narrowly approved the team concept in the spring of 1986 by a 53% to 47% vote.
Under the team concept, workers were organized into teams that work together on entire sections of a car, with the power to stop the assembly line to fix defects and make suggestions where needed. This is in contrast to the more traditional assembly-line techniques where workers perform single, repetitive tasks. But the team concept also stripped away job classifications and with it, years of established ways of doing things.
With the defeat of the work-sharing program, the 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.”
GM will have to disband and reconfigure some of the teams that have spent the last eight months learning to work together. Now that the younger workers are going on layoff, GM is left with a factory full of older workers, many of whom have little liking for the team concept. Nick Lara, a forklift driver and 23-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant, voted against both the work-sharing proposal and the team concept. The new manufacturing method, he said, “sounded like a lot of baloney to me.”
Schaefer said the plant will have to slow its production schedule for several weeks while the teams are reorganized.
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, predicted that it will be at least a year before laid-off workers return to their jobs.
The reason, Cedergren said, is the dated design of the Camaros and Firebirds.
“They were originally introduced in the spring of 1982,” he said. “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.”
Meanwhile, the UAW, which supported both the 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.