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GM Brings in ‘Benevolent Dictator’ to Run Plant

Times Staff Writer

The new boss at the General Motors plant says he’s not like the old boss.

He’s bossier.

“I don’t believe anybody would call me Uncle Bob,” Robert Stramy, who took over Monday at the 3,800-worker factory in Van Nuys, said in an interview. “I have been called a benevolent dictator.”

Stramy, 47, replaced Ernest Schaefer, whom employees called Uncle Ernie.

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“When Uncle Ernie came in everyone knew he was here for a reason, and the reason was to sell Team Concept,” said Rita Mary Bermudez, an assembly worker. “Every plant manager is sent out here by GM for a reason.”

Schaefer, 43, came to Van Nuys in 1984 to persuade workers and their union to adopt a manufacturing method called Team Concept. It encourages worker-management cooperation but eliminated some union-backed institutions, including job classifications.

GM said the plant, which assembles Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros, would close if the workers did not consent to the change, which with some reluctance they did. That job done, Schaefer this week was promoted to a better job in Detroit.

If Schaefer was a salesman, Stramy is more of a drill sergeant. His task: prove Team Concept can produce better-made cars.

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Stramy was the plant manager of a facility in Livonia, Mich., one of the first GM plants to be run under Team Concept.

The Livonia Opportunity, as it has come to be known, was hugely successful. The quality ratings of the engines made there came within a point or two of perfection; warranty claims plunged, and suggestions from employees saved GM $1.4 million during its first four years of operation. Engine sales soared.

Roger Smith, GM’s chairman, raved. “When you get the best people in the world working together like they are in this plant . . . there isn’t any limit to what can be done,” he said in a company publication.

Stramy co-wrote a book holding up Livonia as a model. Called “Transforming the Workplace,” it warns of the decline of American industry. “The simple truth of the 1980s is we are in deadly serious trouble,” it says.

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Stramy left Livonia in 1984 to become the manager of the Ramos Arizpe Complex, a GM manufacturing plant in Saltillo, Mexico. He supervised 4,000 workers and the production of Chevrolet Celebrities, Oldsmobile Cutlasses and Buick Centuries.

Stramy’s four-year stint in Mexico is a sore point with the United Auto Workers, which worries about the trend by GM, Ford and Chrysler to make cars and pay low wages in other countries.

“You can have all of the great ideas in the world, but I don’t see a lot of employee involvement and employee decision making in Mexico,” said Bruce Lee, regional director for the UAW in Los Angeles. “That part of his background bothers me.”

Stramy grew edgy when the interview turned to Mexico. Asked what his workers there had been paid, he turned to a GM publicist monitoring the interview and asked: “Can I answer that question?”

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Told yes, Stramy said: “Here’s my trepidation. People take wage rates in Mexico and compare them to wage rates in the United States without looking at the standard of living here.” But he did answer.

The Mexican workers made $1 an hour, plus 60 cents an hour in benefits such as transportation and lunch. Stramy said the average hourly wage around Saltillo is between 50 cents and 60 cents.

Workers at the Van Nuys plant make about $14 an hour plus fringe benefits.

Stramy said he thinks the Van Nuys plant can replace a joint venture between GM and Toyota in Fremont, Calif., called NUMMI, as the model of worker-management cooperation.

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“Van Nuys can replace NUMMI as the star of North America in competitiveness and quality,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

Is he a tough boss?

“I have extremely high expectations,” he said. “There is no question in many, many cases I am quite directive.”

For the last six years the threat of a closure has hung over the Van Nuys plant. The cars made there have continued to decline in popularity and GM has not guaranteed the plant a car to build beyond the early 1990s.

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“My mission is to help that plant win a new product,” Stramy said. Will he do it? “I have no doubt at all,” he said. “I’m 100% confident.”

Stay tuned.


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