GM pushes job changes

GM pushes job changes
ORION TOWNSHIP -- Contract talks between Detroit automakers and the
United Auto Workers don't officially begin for months, but critical battles already are under way at General Motors Corp. plants around the country.
GM is pushing UAW locals at its factories to agree to money-saving work rule changes -- from reduced break time to more leeway to outsource jobs -- that mirror policies in plants run by foreign competitors, especially Toyota Motor Corp.
Ford Motor Co. was able to put such so-called competitive operating agreements in place with relative ease in more than three dozen of its U.S. plants, but GM is having a much tougher time convincing the UAW.
The stakes are high in these plant-by-plant battles because they could signal how agreeable the UAW will be to concessions to secure future work during national contract talks, which begin in earnest in July. GM wants to set a tone early that it won't tolerate money-wasting practices, and the union doesn't want to come across as quick to forgo hard-won safeguards in the workplace.
"This is the beginning of hardball," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "The basic message from GM is, 'We're not going to do products where they're not profitable.'"
GM has been working for years to put more flexible work rules in place at its plants. The company won't say how many factories have such agreements, but officials have acknowledged progress has been far slower than they'd like.
GM has made strides over the years in getting the union to implement money-saving practices, and the automaker already has some of the most efficient plants in the United States. But it's looking for broader, more comprehensive changes.
"We have to look for ways to close the competitive gaps," GM spokesman Dan Flores said.
GM loses an average $1,300 on each vehicle it makes in North America, while Toyota Motor Corp. makes about $2,100 on each car and truck built here, according to data from the Center for Automotive Research that is often cited by GM.
At issue are work rule changes both big and small that experts say could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually if implemented companywide.
GM, for example, could save money by paying overtime after a worker puts in more than 40 hours a week, rather than after eight hours in one day.
Less break time and rules that crack down on absenteeism also are likely on the automaker's wish list. Other key goals: fewer job classifications, which would improve flexibility by allowing workers to do more than one job, and the ability to outsource more nonproduction-related jobs.
Such rules are already in place in U.S. plants operated by foreign competitors, most of which are in the South and staffed by nonunion labor. "The competitor defines the game," Cole said, "and Toyota is the competitor."
Orion may be next target
The first signs of discord at GM came last month, when fighting over work rule changes temporarily stalled talks to bring new vehicles to plants in Kansas City, Kan., and Lordstown, Ohio.
Both plants produce small cars that have historically been money losers for GM. Top UAW officials interceded in the negotiations, ordering local union leaders to stop talking to GM.
The automaker responded by calling off work to prepare the plants for future vehicles, sending the message that without a competitive operating agreement, the plants could lose work.
Meanwhile, at the former Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., GM has secured a work rules deal after promising workers they would get to build a new Chevrolet crossover SUV. Workers in Spring Hill were desperate for a new product after GM canceled plans to build a minivan there.
GM's likely next target for a deal is its sprawling Orion Assembly plant in Oakland County, where the automaker has secured local tax breaks that often come with the promise of a new product investment.
GM makes the Pontiac G6 in Orion and is considering bringing production of the new Malibu sedan there if demand exceeds capacity at Kansas City, which will be the primary production site for the Malibu. It goes on sale later this year.
Union leaders wouldn't comment on negotiations, saying only that members haven't yet seen GM's proposal for a competitive operating agreement at Orion. But some workers say GM will face resistance to new work rules.
"Most of the people here have upwards of 20 years in," said Orion worker Terry Davis, who's worked at nine plants in his three decades with GM. "They're not going to give anything up."
National leaders fight deals
While Ford hammered out deals with local UAW leaders, GM is finding its efforts thwarted by national union officials.
The UAW wants to prevent local leaders from cutting deals that will secure new product at their factory at the expense of the larger work force, said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley.
"Dangling product has much more consequence now -- there are more plants than products," Shaiken said."
"But the union has said, 'We're aware of this, but we're not going to be stampeded.'"
While GM has the obvious leverage of holding back work, the company also needs the cooperation of the UAW to mount a successful turnaround, Shaiken said.
Local UAW leaders say they're aware of the urgency surrounding GM's cost-cutting -- and how important it is for them to secure new products.
"The bottom line is that the membership is working to get a new product here," said Jim Graham, president of UAW Local 1112, which represents Lordstown workers. "We know how important new product is to the survival of our plant."
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