By SHIRLEY PASHOLK
CLEVELAND-Management at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, plant and officials of UAW Local 1112 were shocked when local members defeated a proposed local agreement by better than two to one in voting ending Nov. 24. This vote was followed up by an overwhelming strike authorization vote.
A revote then took place on Dec. 16. Unfortunately, company threats caused the workers to approve a concessionary contract, only slightly revamped from the proposal they had just voted down.
Larry Wilkins, the local’s shop chairman and chief negotiator, attributed the rejection of the contract in November to discontent over GM’s contracting out of UAW work, the lack of hiring in the plant since 1996, and the company’s announced intention to reduce work in January. He hastened to add that all three of these issues are beyond the scope of the local agreement.
Wilkins claimed, “It was just bad timing. I believe if this agreement came out six months ago members would have voted for it.”
What Wilkins failed to mention was that six months ago the local union leadership had expressed a willingness to accept more serious concessions. In exchange for GM’s promise to introduce a new product line, they had negotiated “Project Yellowstone,” a plan to introduce modular assembly, i.e. eliminate large numbers of well paid auto worker jobs by bringing in fully assembled components from suppliers.
The national UAW stepped in to prevent this agreement, declaring that this was not a matter for local bargaining. Although such modular assembly was not part of this year’s national agreement, auto industry analysts expect such modularity talks to resume closer to the Cavalier’s 2004 phase-out date.
Company spokesman Kerry Christopher said union and management had worked for months on a deal that would be fair to both sides.
Management demands a “competitive agreement”
Any hopes UAW members had that their overwhelming rejection vote in November would send company and union negotiators back to the bargaining table to address their concerns were quickly dashed by the following statement Lordstown Plant Manager Berman Maass posted in the plant:
“After hearing the news about the defeat of the new contract, I was personally very disappointed.
“I felt that we were doing a good job of keeping everyone informed about what was required to secure a future here at Lordstown.
“We had to demonstrate our ability to compete by increasing our minutes-per-hour and reducing our hours-per-car.
“The contract we negotiated would do this. It was a good contract.
“The defeat of this contract sends a very clear, negative message to Detroit … Lordstown will not do anything to improve its performance for the next four years and will remain uncompetitive. Period.
“Without a competitive agreement don’t expect the corporation to invest at Lordstown.
“Without a competitive agreement, don’t expect a commitment for future product.
“I realize these are very strong statements, and I know many of you will think this message is a threat. It is not.
“But obviously, my comments in the past have not been strong enough.”
As 33-year UAW member Bill Caroline explained, he and his coworkers were fed up by the economic terrorism expressed in this arrogant, bullying statement. After giving up more and more concessions in the hope of avoiding a threatened plant closing, these workers had decided to take a stand for basic fairness.
Working conditions have deteriorated to where over one-third of the jobs are deplorable. Management wanted to implement a system whereby every worker would rotate among eight separate jobs. Thus, seniority could no longer be used to bid into better jobs.
The company is contracting out-at less than one-half the wages-many of the better jobs previously performed by senior workers. Other better jobs are being eliminated, with the duties spread among other workers.
Only 400-500 people-all children of foremen or union officials-have been hired to permanent jobs over the past four years. Instead, the company has hired temporaries, working them 89 days.
When it has become clear that the temporary employees are needed longer, the company has asked the union to extend their time without seniority and job rights. They’ve made it clear that if this request isn’t granted, these temporaries will be let go and replaced with a new group.
Prior to the vote, the company stated they would get rid of the temporary workers and reduce the line speed to make up for the more than 400 workers who would be retiring. They claimed this would solve the problem of over-worked jobs.
Christopher explained, “We’re predicting there’s going to be less volume in the coming year.” Youngstown State University Labor History Professor John Russo questioned this, given that sales for the Cavalier and Sunfire (both produced at Lordstown) increased about 8 percent in the first 10 months of 1999, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
Caroline said that past experience had taught Lordstown workers not to rely on the company’s promises. He said that nothing in the agreement guarantees a reduced line speed. So, in January, the company can simply announce that since orders are backed up they need to schedule overtime and increase the line speed.
While local UAW officials and the company negotiated cosmetic changes to make the proposed local agreement more palatable, efforts to scare the membership intensified. Using the catch phrase, “Bring It Home! Get the Next Generation of GM Cars for Our Valley,” the Chamber of Commerce, the Youngstown Vindicator, and various community groups lined up behind the company’s concession demands.
U.S. Congressman James Traficant (D-Ohio), showing that his carefully crafted pro-worker reputation is simply a ruse to allow him to better serve the capitalist class, threw his weight behind this pro-employer campaign.
When the reworked local contract was put before the membership on Dec. 16, it passed. While expressing their distaste for the new agreement, many workers said they felt it was the only possible chance to save their jobs.
While there is no guarantee the company will make the needed investments or introduce a new product line, the work-rule concessions will be introduced immediately. As the Dec. 18 Warren, Ohio, Tribune Chronicle reported, Christopher announced that workers returning Jan. 3 from the annual holiday break will find that “most peoples’ jobs will be different from the way they are now.”
Those who must work under these new work rules will soon see the extent of the company’s victory. Then, like Caroline, more and more workers will recognize how the “get along, go along” cooperative system between management and labor doesn’t work.
Caroline pointed out that good, hard-working people were shot and killed standing up for the rights which the union has negotiated away without a fight. He added that it’s time to return to the roots of trade unionism, looking to protection in numbers.
The company, backed by their friends in elected office and the media, won this skirmish. The November vote showed that the workers desire to reverse the concessionary spiral. But the December revote showed that the company’s threats, combined with the default of the local union leadership, left most workers feeling helpless to resist.
As they experience the implementation of their vote, more and more workers will decide that the time has come to take a stand against the company’s economic terrorism. When this happens, GM will find its current victory short lived.