GM closings put pressure on UAW
The Kansas City Times
By Rod Perlmutter of the Business Staff
November 19, 1986
Although the General Motors Corp.’s recent announcement about plant closings had no direct effect on Kansas City area assembly plants, it may affect area autoworkers, labor officials and analysts say.
GM’s Nov. 6 announcement that it would close 11 assembly plants and operations in other pans of the country by the end of the decade has put greater pressure on all GM workers and the United Auto Workers union, the industry observers said. This pressure, concern about preserving jobs as well as pay and benefits, comes as negotiations on new national and local contracts are soon to begin. The UAW national contract expires in September.
These worries are particularly on the minds of workers at Kansas City’s Leeds assembly plant, even though the plant missed GM’s first cut. Many analysts say Leeds, which began operating in 1929, will be among any additional GM closings.
Yet as the challenges for the UAW increase, union autoworkers’ options for responding to them may be limited, some analysts say, because the relationship between the union and company has changed.
Labor negotiations are more complicated now, particularly compared with 20 years ago, said Harley Shaiken, an associate professor of technology and work at the University of California-San Diego.
“In the 1960s there were ups and downs (in the auto industry), but a direct relationship existed between a healthy market and jobs,” said Mr. Shaiken, a former UAW member and auto plant worker. “Now that link is broken due to global competition, automation and excess capacity. You can have a healthy auto market and still lose jobs.”
Some UAW officials said the pressure of plant closings was old news. Area union officials said the ploy had been used at the Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., which employs about 5,400 people, and probably would be used at the Leeds plant, which employs about 4,500.
“They’re whipsawing, playing one plant against the other,” said Bob Kutchko, a district committeeman at Local 31, which represents the Fairfax workers. “They are keeping people off balance and hanging a cloud of doom over our heads,”
Mr. Kutchko said speculation that the Leeds plant might close was similar to concern at the Fairfax plant last year over whether GM would select the Kansas City, Kan., site for its GM-10 assembly plant.
GM officials told Fairfax workers that if they didn’t approve a revised local contract, “We can always put the GM-10 plant in Arlington,” Texas, Mr. Kutchko said. Arlington workers were told the same about Fairfax, he said.
But John Mueller, a GM spokesman in Detroit, said the company was not pitting one plant against another.
“We’re not announcing that these plant closures are negotiable,” he said.
When GM Chairman Roger Smith was asked by reporters Nov. 6 whether revisions in local contracts would change which plants were designated to close, Mr. Smith said, “We’re past that.”
Complicating the UAW’s response to the plant closings is division within the union. The position of the union’s international leaders on plant closures has put it at odds with many of the 74,790 autoworkers represented by the union’s Region 5, which covers Missouri, Kansas and six other states.
Although he declined to comment on Leeds’ dilemma Tuesday, Claude Thorn ton, president of UAW Local 93, has been critical in the past of his union’s leadership on issues that specifically affect local plants.
In June, he said: “We’ve got people up there (at UAW headquarters in Detroit) who believe they can get in bed with the corporation and work with it to help eliminate our people, eliminate our jobs. … We’re trying to tell the international they have to do things differently.”
The UAW international disagrees with that portrait. It thinks that some issues should be decided by each local and that some locals would resent what they would consider to be interference from Detroit, said Frank Joyce, a spokesman for the international in Detroit. For example, the number of job classifications in each plant may vary nationwide.
“The union does not have a rigid position on job classifications,” Mr. Joyce said. “We’re prepared to be flexible, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to give away the store. We’re going from an era of hyper-specialization to unspecialization, and we’re headed toward a general period of classification reduction.”
A local example of the classification issue occurred at the Fairfax plant last year. The local approved a pact for the new GM-10 plant, by a margin of more than 2-to-l. that reduced the number of job classifications from more than 100 to two. However, it also increased base pay for workers.
But GM’s commitment to Kansas City has not always been linked to changes in local contracts. For example, Ken Euritt, spokesman for the Leeds plant, said the last big renovation at the Leeds plant, the 1981 expansion and conversion to produce J-cars, was not linked to changes in the local contract.
Still, dissatisfaction in Region 5 led Thornton and other area union traders to support Jerry Tucker his unsuccessful June 5 election challenge against Kenneth Worth; Region 5’s international board representative. Controversy over the disputed election, which was the closest in the union’s 50-year history, continued Tuesday when the U.S. Labor Department filed suit against the union for the second time in 10 weeks challenging how the election was handled.
Although the UAW is divided of these issues, both nationally and locally, the union appears to have changed its tactics from more confrontational times. The UAW has been going out on strike less and 1ess often.
The Leeds plant is one example of that trend. Workers at the plan went on strike at least twice in the 1960s and voted to authorize strike at least four more times in the decade. In contrast, the Local 93 of the 1980s has yet to go on strike.