Dissidents' Win at Mazda Plant Stuns UAW, Firm

Times Staff Writer

Dissident workers opposed to Japanese-style management techniques swept to victory Tuesday in the first local union elections at Mazda's new U.S. auto assembly plant in suburban Detroit.

The dissident victory stunned both Mazda and the national leadership of the United Auto Workers, which represents the Mazda workers, and raised new questions about how well Japanese management policies can be integrated into the American workplace.

"We're upset about it, and I'm sure Mazda is upset also," said one UAW official.

For the UAW, in fact, the timing of the rebellion at Mazda couldn't be worse. The union, which now represents workers at three of the new Japanese-managed assembly plants in the United States, is on the verge of calling for an organizing election at Nissan's Tennessee complex. Any sign of labor trouble at Mazda could be used by Nissan management in a campaign to oppose the UAW's organizing drive.

While UAW leaders and Mazda officials tried to downplay the significance of the vote, the election seemed to reveal a deep-seated sense of frustration among the workers over Mazda's labor policies, which are similar to those used by other Japanese companies now opening factories all over the United States.

Dissidents, who ran on a platform opposing union cooperation with Mazda's policy of kaizen, or continuous improvement, took the top two posts in the first election of officers at the UAW's newly created Local 3000, which represents the 2,700 hourly workers at Mazda's Flat Rock, Mich., plant.

Philip Keeling, a line worker at Mazda and kaizen foe, was elected president of the local by a margin of nearly two to one over Bill Judson, the incumbent appointed to the post by the UAW's leadership when the local was first created.

According to results released Wednesday, Greg Drudi, who ran on Keeling's dissident slate, also defeated incumbent Ben Hemmingway for the powerful post of shop chairman. In UAW locals, the shop chairman handles union affairs on the factory floor, while the president administers the local.

Keeling and Drudi are allied to a larger dissident movement, called "New Directions," that has been contesting local and regional elections throughout the UAW. The New Directions group has attacked the UAW leadership's willingness to cooperate on joint labor-management programs in the domestic auto industry.

Donny Douglas, president of a UAW local at General Motors and the leader of the New Directions movement, spoke to a meeting of Keeling's supporters just before the Mazda election.

On Wednesday, Mazda officials and UAW leaders were still trying to sort out the impact of the dissident victory. The American personnel director at the plant found that he had to give Mazda's Japanese executives a quick lesson in U.S. labor politics.

"The Japanese executives here are concerned, from the standpoint that they didn't expect this," said C. Robert Leadbetter, Mazda's vice president of personnel. "They don't know the culture in this area, they don't know about union politics," he added. "This is something new to them."

Keeling could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Judson said he believes that the workers felt Mazda had not lived up to rosy promises of Japanese-style employee involvement that were given workers when they were hired.

"People don't feel they have had the input in decision-making that they were told they would have," said Judson. "Management thinks that employee involvement means that managers listen to what the workers say, and then go ahead and make the decisions themselves. The people were told in orientation that it meant they would be involved in the actual decision-making."

Look for Improvement

Such worker disillusionment seems to be at the heart of the dissidents' opposition to kaizen, which is the basis of Mazda's labor relations philosophy.

Kaizen, defined by management as the search for continuous improvement, essentially calls on all workers to constantly look for ways to improve productivity and quality, even if those improvements make their jobs obsolete.

In return, the workers are given job security; they thus have an incentive to make their jobs easier.

However, workers at a number of Japanese plants in this country have complained that such policies often lead to heavier work loads and production line speed-ups.

Workers at Mazda blame the American supervisors on the shop floor for manipulating the Japanese labor policies to increase output.

"Kaizen is set up to benefit both sides, but it is something you have to police," said Judson. "You do have supervisors who will use it strictly as a productivity tool."

Despite the dissident victory, Leadbetter said Mazda remains committed to kaizen --and to working with the UAW.

"We have had good relationship with the UAW, and we expect to continue to have a good relationship," he said. "We just need to establish a relationship with Keeling."

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