Carmakers, union working hand-in-hand

Carmakers, union working hand-in-hand
DETROIT - Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers union will sit down
this summer to hash out new four-year contracts, a gloomy prospect for both sides given financial woes, job losses and plant closings that have wracked the U.S. industry. The domestic automakers are threatened by the growing market share of foreign-based rivals and the growing number of non-unionized plants those rivals are opening in the USA. And the UAW continues to wrestle with a rapidly declining membership.
But on some factory floors, the view is more encouraging. The UAW has quietly engaged in an ongoing relationship with General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F) and Chrysler Group (DCX) to try to save jobs and, perhaps, even create some new ones through plant innovations.
USA TODAY visited three plants - one each from the Detroit automakers - that are considered cutting edge by both the companies and the union.
In these plants, production-line workers are allowed greater latitude to perform different tasks. They are encouraged to find cheaper and better ways to assemble cars and engines. Management and UAW officials work side-by-side to resolve worker gripes on the spot. And automakers have added ergonomic, safety and comfort improvements to make jobs less tedious.
Each side has a big stake in wooing the other. As recently as 2002, 82% of the cars produced in the USA were made at union plants. By 2005, the percentage had shrunk to 73%.
"If the boat sinks, we all go down together," says Jerry Sullivan, president of the 15,000-member UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, Mich., one of the union's largest.
"Either one of us can destroy the Ford company," Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally warned in a January conference call to announce a record $12.7 billion loss last year. "It's not about taking big stands. It's about what do we really need to do to improve the competitiveness of Ford."
GM has given buyouts to about 35,000 hourly workers, including 33,800 UAW members, and has announced plans to close nine plants. Ford is going even deeper, with 38,000 worker buyouts and shuttering of 16 facilities. Chrysler, the U.S. unit of DaimlerChrysler, says it will announce restructuring plans, expected to include job cuts and plant closings, Feb. 14.
Meanwhile, the UAW's membership has dropped from 1.5 million in 1979 to 576,000 last year.
"The union understands the severity of the crisis," says Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who follows the auto industry. Detroit automakers and the union "really want to come out with more competitive companies."
To help make them more competitive, all sides are sure to study some of the best practices at these GM, Ford and Chrysler plants:
At GM's showcase Lansing Grand River plant, manager Philip Kienle practices an open-door policy - minus the door.
His office is a cubicle that could easily be mistaken for a receptionist's desk. He wants to make sure that his workers know he's available to talk about problems. And that's just the start.
Kienle and top UAW Local 652 officials such as Mike Green, vice chairman of the shop committee, try to resolve beefs on the spot to keep workers happy and productive.
"If we have five or six grievances, that's a big number. Other plants have hundreds," Kienle says. To hold down complaints, Green says, he's constantly on the move through the plant to listen to workers and iron out problems.
GM invested $500 million to build the Cadillac plant on a historic site that dates to the earliest days of the company. The plant produces an average of 544 CTS, SRX and STS models a day.
GM has handed more responsibility to team leaders, union members who oversee production crews of up to five. In the past, those kinds of responsibilities were held by management supervisors. "The team leader is the CEO of the team," Kienle says.
Coupling worker expertise with decentralized management can pay off. When cars were being scratched as door parts were being installed, glass team leader Tim Vertrees, a 12-year veteran of the line, had his group find a solution.
They designed a tool to complete the installation without the collateral damage, saving the company $15,000 a year.
The plant isn't without its issues. Lansing Grand River lost about 40% of its workforce as veteran employees took buyouts over the past year. The plant filled in the empty spots by recalling workers from furloughs.
"We kind of anticipated a lot of ruckus, but (there hasn't been) as much as we thought it might be," says Keith Bell, a 23-year veteran and team leader.
To maintain the close relationship with the workforce, even through the downsizing, management tries to keep a low-key style. Kienle's accessibility is one way, but so is his insistence that the same rules apply to everyone regardless of whether they are management or labor.
Employees aren't allowed to eat lunch on the production line out of fear that stray crumbs could wind up inside cars. So Kienle applied the same rules to office workers. He won't dine at his desk. He goes to break rooms like everyone else. "You better walk the talk," he says.
"I would love all our plants to look at the relationship here and see they shouldn't be fearful about what's been done in Lansing," says Larry Zahner, GM's North American manufacturing manager.
Adds Green: The plant "has been an experiment to prove we can compete globally on cost and quality."
The Rouge, as the site of this plant is simply known, wasn't Henry Ford's first plant. But it is certainly his most famous.
Once it was known for labor strife. The so-called Battle of the Overpass, in which Ford security agents beat up union organizers in 1937, took place down the street. In the 1980s, the Rouge became a poster child for industrial decline.
Today, Ford shows off as one of its most progressive plants the truck factory it built on the Rouge site, named for the Rouge River it sits beside.
"People say, 'You went from the Flintstones to the Jetsons,' " says Rob Webber, who runs the truck plant at the heart of the 600-acre complex. The plant turns out 432 F-Series pickups per eight-hour shift.
Dearborn Truck is light, bright and clean. It has smaller work teams than many others, and decision-making power is pushed to lower levels, Local 600 President Sullivan says. Dearborn Truck is also more cost-competitive with foreign plants because of an agreement that allows non-core jobs like janitorial to be contracted out. And it's considered a trend-setter for its ergonomic safety and worker comfort.
Truck bodies and chassis move along the production line on wood pallets, not steel, offering a little more cushioning for workers who spend a day on their feet. Height levels can be adjusted to suit different size workers. And the "guns," as workers call the powerful wrenches used for installing the hundreds of screws and nuts in every truck, are now electric, not air powered, making them easier on hands.
"I love it. It helps everyone work better," says production worker Byron Edwards, a 10-year Ford veteran, about the improvements. "The guns are a lot easier."
Steve Jordan, who has seen the changes over his 11 years on the line at Ford, says morale is "pretty decent," especially given the changes that are taking place at the 2,703-worker plant. Lately, the Rouge has been absorbing the arrival of about 300 workers from a plant that's closing in Norfolk, Va.
Jordan says union-management cooperation is good. "We pretty much have to work hand-in-hand (to) stay competitive."
The company is now on a mission to chase out costs that rivals aren't having to pay. "We've challenged ourselves, together with the union, to acknowledge competitive gaps," Joseph Hinrichs, Ford vice president of manufacturing, says.
In employment-ravaged greater Detroit, workers are starting to see some payback.
Ford just announced that it's investing $208 million at Dearborn Truck to convert the plant to build the 2009 F-150.
A big chunk will go to turn the Rouge's historic glass plant - an airy landmark that opened in 1925, eight years after the Rouge started cranking out Model Ts - into a training center where workers can experiment and learn the best techniques for the making of the next-generation pickup.
When veteran plant chief Bruce Coventry was charged with building cost-competitive plants that would produce four-cylinder engines for Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai, he scoured the industry for the best ideas.
The result shows up at a sprawling facility in Dundee, population about 4,000, some 50 miles south of Detroit, and in Japanese and South Korean sites for the joint venture.
Because the Dundee plant is so highly automated, Coventry sought out a more highly educated and seasoned workforce to keep it running. The more than 500 workers are required to have at least two years of technical school, skilled trades certification or five years of machining experience to land a job on the line; 44% have at least a two-year college degree.
Yet there is less to manufacture than at some other engine plants. Coventry focused production on making only the most critical parts - engine blocks, heads and crankshafts in which tolerances are measured to within millionths of an inch - at the site. The rest of the components are hauled in from suppliers.
A big innovation was compacting job classifications. A typical plant might have more than three dozen different job descriptions, from electrician to pipe fitter. But Dundee has only one. Workers are encouraged to tackle just about any issue or make any improvement. And there aren't any foremen.
"The lesson for the UAW is we don't have to have dedicated trades," says Chris Brush, who has worked at the plant two years. "Everyone has a skill set, and we should be able to do anything out here."
Adds fellow employee Bryan Kilburn: "A small amount of us can get a big job done."
Coventry says he turns to his pool of collective brainpower when he needs to solve a problem. When workers were sometimes forgetting to yank off round metal pins before sealing an engine, a group of workers came up with the solution: a tube that stops the assembly line if the pin doesn't fall through it.
Just as they are flexible in the tasks they perform on the job, workers have to be pliant when it comes to their shifts. Everybody works a four-day, 10-hour work schedule. But the three crews rotate to day shifts, night shifts and working Saturdays as well from week to week. With more days off during the year, absenteeism is less than 2%, Coventry says.
Having a production facility so highly automated can lead to occasional snafus. When things go wrong, everyone pitches in to create impromptu assembly lines to get around the problem.
Coventry says the staff appreciates variety, and he salutes the "pragmatic leadership in the UAW" for allowing the plant to be innovative for workers.
"They are tired of typical manufacturing where you come in, put in your time and go home," he says.
-- "Your best, last and only line of defense-a cohort of Roman Heavy Infantry"
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