Why has GM been focus of past 7 UAW strikes? Ford, Chrysler appear to have better relationships with union

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THERE HAVE been seven local strikes by the United Auto Workers union since the signing of the national contract in the summer of 1996. They have all been against General Motors Corp. plants.

Why have there been so many strikes at General Motors and none at Ford Motor Co. or Chrysler Corp.?

Richard N. Block

Professor of labor and industrial relations, Michigan State University

I think it is because Ford and Chrysler have moved toward a more cooperative relationship with the United Auto Workers over the past 20 years than General Motors.

GM has maintained a more traditional relationship with the UAW. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but some of it has to do with the values of the GM executives.

There are other reasons. In the early 1980s Chrysler was near bankruptcy and Ford was losing a lot of money, about $1 billion a year. GM had its problems, but they were not on the same level as those at Ford and Chrysler.

So, unlike Ford and Chrysler, which really faced serious crises, GM's experience has been more of a slow whittling away -- a drop of a percent of its market share here, a drop there.

The next thing you know they have lost a big percent of their U.S. market share.

The crises that Ford and Chrysler faced forced them to look at their labor relations as a possible assets. They decided, we can't do things the way we have in the past.

We can't continue this traditional, costly, adversarial relationship. We have to change.

Since getting rid of the union was not an option for them, they decided to move toward a more cooperative relationship and I think we are seeing the results of those decisions.

A good example of this was the strike last year at the Johnson Controls Inc. plant that makes seats for Ford vehicles. Johnson was going to use nonunion labor to produce the seats, but Ford refused to accept seats made by replacement workers.

Sam Fiorani

Automotive analyst with Standard & Poor's DRI

Back in the 1980s, General Motors took a different track than Ford and Chrysler. Where Ford and Chrysler were attempting to downsize to be more competitive, GM was trying to take advantage of the fact that its competitors were downsizing. They kept on more people, hoping to produce more cars and that decision came back to bite them. Now they have too many workers.

The downsizing by Ford and Chrysler did not decrease the number of cars they built. It just decreased the amount of people needed to build them. And now GM has too many people building the same number of cars.

This is one of GM's big flaws and the UAW is using that now to protect against a decline in its membership.

The union has lost over half its membership over the past 30 years. With the dues-paying members shrinking, the union is trying to hold onto every man and woman on its rolls.

When Ford and Chrysler downsized they were in dire straits at the time and it was easier for the union to accept that some jobs had to be eliminated.

It would have been easier if GM had taken a stand 10 or 15 years ago when Ford and Chrysler were doing it.

The company was not doing well. It was losing money and GM could have said we need to reduce the number of workers to keep the company afloat.

But now GM is making money and the the union is saying it wants to share in the good times. They don't want to give up jobs.

GM has always had a mentality that it has to take a hard-line position against the union in order to compete. Ford and Chrysler have learned that they can benefit from treating workers better. These are the people who put the cars together, you can't treat them like the enemy. GM hasn't learned that yet.

Edward Lapham

Executive editor, Automotive News

There is clearly a difference between General Motors' relationship with the UAW and that of Ford and Chrysler, but I can't point to one reason.

Things are tough right now at General Motors. But it was faring better when Ford and Chrysler were going through their financial crises.

Back then, Ford and Chrysler took the medicine and got stronger. GM didn't.

You have to remember when Chrysler was facing bankruptcy in 1979 and 1980 the union participated in their recovery. The union had a seat on the board of directors until Chrysler paid off its government-guaranteed loan.

Chrysler has been good at working with the union in its plants. It's the same at Ford. They have good relationships with the unions at individual plants.

GM and the UAW have had their moments of cooperation, but they don't seem to have a lasting relationship.

Saturn is a good example of this. The corporation and the union worked together to come up with the Saturn concept.

But the cooperation shown on the Saturn project is the exception to the rule. There is a lot of animosity at GM toward the union. Very few people at GM over the years were willing to reach out and try to work with the unions.

David E. Cole

Director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation

The big difference between General Motors and Ford and Chrysler is that Ford and Chrysler are at the right size in terms of the number of employees, where GM is a little oversized.

The continued tension over job reduction at GM is the root cause of the strikes at GM, including the current strikes in Flint.

The bulk of the labor problems at GM are related to downsizing and the tension that creates.

There are other factors, including a lack of trust on both sides, probably caused by poor communications between the two.

There's a history of miscommunication on both sides. It's like they are not using the same dictionary when they are talking to each other.

A good example of this can be seen at the current Flint strike. The union claims that GM has reneged on its promise to put new technology into the plant. GM is saying the union has reneged on an agreement to move to more streamlined work rules.

It is the perfect example of miscommunication and not doing what they should have done. Generally, you can blame both sides.

The downsizing that Ford and Chrysler went through 15 years ago was swift and brutal. They did it at a time when their worlds were falling part. They were struggling to survive.

In contrast, GM is making a lot of money at this time and the union is asking, "Why do you want to give up jobs when times are good?" It makes it a lot harder to swallow.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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