In the second strike against General Motors Corp. in less than a month, about 4,200 workers at GM's car body assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., walked off their jobs Friday, shutting down production of the company's second best-selling car, the Pontiac Grand Am.
The strike by the United Auto Workers union local is ostensibly over the company's decision last month to shut down its assembly line during break periods. But it is being played out against the backdrop of a major restructuring by the beleaguered company.
The strike is not expected to be as damaging as the one at a Lordstown, Ohio, parts making plant in late August that stopped production of the company's hot-selling Saturn car and idled 43,000 workers over nine days.
The quick succession of strikes--and rumblings at another GM parts plant--has raised speculation that the UAW intends to resist the auto maker's efforts to eliminate union jobs with a series of rolling strikes at key plants.
The UAW's strike strategy highlights the extreme tension that has mounted between the world's largest auto maker and its union as GM carries out its plan to close 21 plants and eliminate 54,000 UAW jobs by mid-decade. With the next national contract negotiations scheduled for September, 1993, relations between the company and the union are expected to grow increasingly rocky during the coming year.
At a time when GM is desperately trying to turn its unprofitable North American auto operations around, industry experts say the company's deteriorating relationship with the union could set back its restructuring plan.
The Lordstown strike cost GM an estimated $100 million in lost profit, and analysts estimate that the Lansing strike will cost the company as much as $2 million a day.
"It is truly unfortunate because nobody wins," said Maryann Keller, auto analyst at Furman Selz in New York.
"The UAW can go and fight for what it believes is right, and in the end it will lose anyway, because the customer is not going to pay for GM's uncompetitive cost structure. And if GM cannot get its costs in line, there's going to be a lot more than 300 jobs at stake."
Moody's Investors Service cited questions about GM's efforts to contain its labor costs and the probability of further labor disruptions at the auto maker in its announcement Friday that it may downgrade $70 billion of GM's securities.
The action by Moody's--unrelated to the strike--helped send GM's stock tumbling $1.50 to $31.625 Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.
The chief dispute in Lansing is over GM's decision last month to shut down its assembly line during break periods. The move eliminated the jobs of 300 union workers who filled in for other employees during their breaks.
Union officials said health and safety grievances were also under discussion, but neither the union nor the company would comment on the details of the negotiations.
While such issues may be substantive, labor experts said, in recent years they have rarely been allowed to flare into production-crippling strikes--especially with as much lead time as there is now before the next round of negotiations roll around.
But the union is afraid that if it waits for next year's contract negotiations, it may be too late. With GM management under orders from its board of directors to cut both blue- and white-collar jobs more quickly, the UAW has dug in its heels.
It is aggressively fighting the company's efforts to "outsource" parts making jobs to lower-cost, non-union companies and to negotiate flexible work-rule agreements at its assembly plants.
It's a stance that doesn't leave much room for the labor-management cooperation so highly touted by both sides in recent years.
"The union is saying that cooperation has its limits," said Harley Shaiken, an expert on work and technology at UC Berkeley and a onetime UAW member. "And GM, as it hastens its restructuring, is bumping into those limits more and more."
The strike at the body plant will also halt production at the adjacent assembly plant, which employs 3,000 workers, GM spokeswoman Linda Cook said. That plant makes three models that account for nearly 13% of GM's domestic car sales--the Oldsmobile Achieva, Buick Skylark and the Grand Am.
The two sides at Lansing are to resume negotiations today, and GM, whose dealers are anxiously awaiting their 1993 models, said it hopes to resolve the strike quickly. But other labor disputes are in the wings.
UAW officials at GM's Anderson, Ind., parts plant, who have already requested strike authorization from the international union, said the outcome of the Lansing negotiations may affect their status.
A strike at the Anderson plant, which makes bumpers and signal lights for several GM vehicles, could cause major production disruptions throughout GM's operations.
"We are carefully monitoring the Lansing strike," a union official at the Anderson plant said. "Our shop committee continues to meet with management. There is some movement on grievances but there is little progress on major issues."