Union rule change sets back workers
SPRING HILL, Tenn. -- When Steve Stidham moved to Saturn's own assembly
plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., in 1996, he willingly signed away 19 years
of General Motors Corp. seniority rights for the promise of a steady job
at what GM billed as a new kind of car company -- one built to take on
the likes of Toyota with a fuel-efficient lineup, no-haggle pricing,
outstanding customer service and a factory free of many traditional
union work rules.
Giving up those rights was a non-issue at the time, he and others at the
plant told the Free Press, because all new Saturn workers gave up their
GM starting dates to get in the door. And in those early days at the
plant, getting in the door often meant escaping older, traditional GM
plants as the company closed them or reduced the assigned workforces.
Stidham moved from Dayton, Ohio.
But it became an issue with a local agreement approved in 2004, when the
UAW and GM agreed to fold the Saturn brand back into the general
corporate manufacturing operation.
That means GM will build more than Saturns at the Tennessee plant, but
also that some of the old rules are now in effect there, too. Now
workers like Stidham are worried that they will lose out to other
members who don't have to surrender seniority from other plants.
The matter is at top of their minds, because up to 300 Delphi Corp.
workers are now eligible to transfer to Spring Hill -- and bring all of
their so-called corporate seniority with them.
"Any Delphi people coming into Saturn can bring seniority back to 1985,"
Stidham said, referring to the Spring Hill plant as "Saturn." "If
they've got close to 30 years and transfer here, they can step over the
top of anybody down here."
The seniority issue doesn't affect worker pensions or the amount of
vacation time they receive, but it does affect in-plant bids for shift
preference, job selection and when they can take vacations. Those issues
are all determined by the seniority date recognized at the plant.
The matter highlights some of the unintended consequences of the
patchwork of contracts the UAW negotiates, particularly as employers
struggle through steep losses, restructurings and even bankruptcies. The
UAW is currently in talks with the Detroit automakers on new national
contracts, in which the union will weigh the needs of retirees and
future workers with those of current workers, who must ratify the agreement.
This Saturn issue, which springs from Delphi's bankruptcy, is another
example of constituents with conflicting needs.
In the recent UAW-negotiated deal with GM and its former supplier
division, the union protected the jobs of up to 300 Delphi workers in
Athens, Ala., by negotiating for them to be allowed to transfer about 80
miles north to the Spring Hill plant as jobs are available after the
Delphi plant closes, which could happen as soon as late next year.
"The international union took care of us here in Athens," said Greg
DeMike, chairman of UAW Local 2195 in Athens. "They got us a soft
landing on this."
Under the deal that allows Delphi to proceed with a plan to become a
private company led by Appaloosa Management LP, senior union members who
stay with Delphi at lower wages get up to $105,000 in buy-downs. Others
can retire or go to a GM plant, if there is one that needs to make hires.
DeMike and other members of Local 2195 said they are proud of the work
the UAW did to protect their jobs and hope workers in Spring Hill will
Jerry Rutherford, 50, another Spring Hill veteran who already is
outranked at his plant by people who have worked for GM less time than
he has, said he doesn't begrudge Delphi workers from Alabama who will be
able to move to Spring Hill and has no animosity toward them. But he
would like the union to restore the seniority so everyone is on the same
"The union needs to fix this," said Rutherford, who started at GM in
1979 and moved to Spring Hill from Buick City in Flint. "The local
allowed it ... and I feel like International turned their back to me."
Unlevel playing field
GM and the UAW have a rule that allows most GM workers who transfer to
another plant to bring their seniority with them as far back as Jan. 7,
1985. But the Spring Hill workers who gave up the rights that determine
such things as job selection and when they can take vacations can only
carry their Saturn start dates with them.
More than 1,000 Spring Hill members who gave up GM seniority to join
Saturn when the idea was that everyone would start fresh at Saturn say
they believe the union should restore the same rules for them that
affect other GM workers, basically honoring all of their years working
for GM and divisions now incorporated into GM's manufacturing operations.
When those union members moved to the plant, everyone rotated to every
shift and no one was permanently assigned a job, workers said. Most of
the things traditionally determined by seniority in a plant were no
longer going to be determined by seniority under Saturn, they said, so
fighting to keep GM seniority seemed unnecessary.
"Signing away seniority wasn't a big deal because seniority wasn't an
issue," said Kenny Vaughn, 47, who has worked at GM since 1981 and
transferred to Saturn in 1992 from Lansing. But, he argued, now that
it's no longer the case, the union should restore equal footing.
Some workers who entered the Spring Hill plant, which is now a general
GM assembly plant in the process of being retooled for a new product,
favor keeping things the way they are. Many of them enjoy the benefits
of higher seniority because of the changed rules, and others simply
argue that the older workers did what was best for the time and a better
deal was made later. They understand the situation could be frustrating,
but don't believe it requires a change.
GM committed to assigning a new product to Spring Hill as part of the
negotiations to pull Saturn and its Spring Hill workforce back into the
GM global manufacturing system. Earlier this year, GM North America
President Troy Clarke told workers they will be building a new Chevrolet
crossover SUV, based on the same architecture as the Buick Enclave,
Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia built in Lansing.
The only thing that didn't change when Spring Hill switched to GM from
being purely a Saturn plant were the seniority rules, workers affected
by the change said.
And shortly after ratification of the contract under which Saturn was
folded back into GM, workers said, the local union held a vote to answer
the seniority complaint by reinstating all Saturn workers' corporate
seniority rights. The vote passed, about 1,700 votes to 1,500 votes,
more than a dozen workers told the Free Press during a visit to Spring
Hill. But the local union representatives said they could not reopen the
contract, according to rank-and-file union members.
Local UAW officials in Spring Hill had said they would speak about the
issue, but after national contract talks began they were no longer
available to discuss the matter.
General Motors officials declined to comment for this report. The UAW
International union declined to comment on the specific issue, but said
situations like this are not unique.
Labor experts said the dispute underscores the challenges the UAW faces
negotiating a national contract and individual local contracts for each
of its plants.
"This isn't a new issue," said Michael Whitty, a professor and labor
expert at the University of Detroit Mercy. "The union is trying to
protect as many of its members as possible in the fairest way possible"
as the U.S. auto industry shrinks.
In the process, he said, things like the Spring Hill issue will occur,
where member constituencies covered by varying specific agreements
occasionally experience friction.
"I think the union has a defensible situation with all of the weights at
play that it is working to balance," Whitty said.
David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, agreed and
said the union and GM are likely to work to solve the issue with some
package of signing bonuses, buyouts or enticements for early retirement,
as they have been doing for the past few years.
"You have to come up with something that is a special deal to create
buy-in," Cole said. "But the union, first, has been focused on the
bigger picture of getting a new product into that plant. A new product
is a future ... then you figure out how to deal with the local issues."