For more than six months, relations between General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers have been deteriorating. Harsh words are understandable at a company that's in the midst of closing 21 plants and cutting 74,000 jobs. But in the past month or so, relations between management and the uaw have sunk to levels not seen since the recession of the early 1980s. The resulting acrimony could place GM's long-term competitiveness at risk: To match the quality and productivity of its Japanese rivals, the company needs active cooperation on the shop floor.
Management must accept part of the blame. It has been so intent on downsizing that it hasn't done enough to mitigate the devastating impact on GM workers--including those who face continued uncertainty. And uaw leaders are at fault, too: Stephen P. Yokich, head of the uaw's GM department, has a tendency to fly off the handle. To make matters worse, the uaw holds its election of top officers this June. That tempts Yokich and other union leaders to grandstand.
The hollering could endanger the future prospects of both GM and the union. GM must adjust its capacity and costs to its shrunken market share. But to get high quality and efficient plants, the company needs workers to pitch in. GM, like many other large U.S. manufacturers, has been implementing cooperative labor relations in recent years aimed at realizing just such improvements in productivity. These had begun to bear fruit. One good example: At GM's highly successful Saturn Corp., where worker commitment to quality runs high, employees recently agreed to work 50-hour weeks to meet the strong demand for the division's cars. But the war of words is jeopardizing this progress in the rest of GM. If GM is going to emerge as a competitive company, both sides must tone down the polemics and work together.