One ef the nation's leading experiments in labor-management cooperation got a jolt on Jan.13. While cranking out their daily quota of 1,100 hot-selling subcompacts, 5,000 union workers at Saturn Corp. voted in a key referendum on the company's innovative labor system. A majority of workers at the Spring Hill (Tenn.) factory voted to keep the current setup. But a surprising 29% backed a shift toward traditional, arm's-length labor relations that would be more adversarial than the current de facto partnership with management. "We are not being represented," grumbles assembler Terry Walton, who thinks Saturn's union leaders have become too cozy with the bosses.

Such dissent illustrates the growing pressures that may endanger one of the most progressive experiments in U.S. industrial relations. Saturn workers have an unprecedented degree of control in running the company. Teams of 15 or so factory workers handle everything from hiring to budgets. A joint-management structure allows union officials a say-so at every level, right up to the governing Strategic Action Council, where they participate fully in selecting suppliers, future products, and advertising campaigns. The enthusiasm this generated among the initial group of 3,200 United Auto Workers (UAW) members, mostly hired in 1988 and 1989, has been key in making Saturns among the highest-quality U.S.-built cars.

LESS TRAINING. Now, though, a number of factors are marring that harmonious atmosphere. To meet the high demand, the Saturn plant has gone on 50-hour workweeks that are taking a toll on workers. In addition, recent hires tend to be less gung ho about cooperation. Many of the 1,800 who have transferred into Saturn since late 1990 after being laid off at other General Motors plants voted against the referendum, union leaders say. The problems have been compounded by what may turn out to be a short-sighted decision by Saturn's management. Despite objections from UAW leaders, it has cut by 50% or more the extensive training for new workers that helped the original work force learn cooperative work methods. And Saturn now is bringing aboard 1,000 more ex-GMers, who presumably will add to the dissidents' ranks.

The dissatisfaction is reaching the point where dissidents may challenge Michael Bennett, president of Saturn's UAW Local 1853 since the plant opened, in elections slated for May or June. Meanwhile, Bennett says he is burned out from seven-day workweeks and may not run for reelection. "I'm seriously thinking about letting somebody else carry the torch," he says. His departure could be a serious blow to Saturn, where he has been a prime architect of the union's cooperative role.

The turmoil couldn't have arrived at a worse time. Consumers can't get enough Saturns, and the company is cranking up a third work crew to lift production from 240,000 to 310,000 cars a year. The new shift is due to start just before the union election. Saturn also is under intense pressure from struggling GM to erase last year's $700 million loss. Workers will have to cut costs and boost productivity for the company to break even this year, as Saturn President Richard "Skip" LeFauve has promised. Some employees already are grumbling about company efforts to increase work loads, for instance by reducing team sizes. The company recently offered a carrot: Workers can earn bonuses of $3,000 or more each if Saturn gets into the black by midyear and stays there.

SMALLER POOL. Even big bucks may not be enough to get Saturn's work force to pull together. When the company began hiring in the mid-1980s, any UAW member at GM could apply. More than 16,000 did, and those who left their old jobs were largely attracted by the promise of a greater role in workplace decisions. But in the labor pact GM and the UAW signed in September, 1990, the two sides agreed that Saturn would hire only workers laid off from other GM plants.

That has cut the pool of applicants for the Tennessee plant and restricted Saturn's ability to screen out those who are lukewarm about cooperation. And many new hires who went through traumatic plant closings have come to Saturn only for the job. They distrust the UAW's close ties with management. "These folks are tougher to integrate into Saturn," says Timothy Epps, the company's personnel chief.

Changes in the training program are making the integration harder. Saturn wants new arrivals on the line pronto, to help relieve workers who have worked 50-hour weeks for more than a year. So new employees get just 175 hours of initial schooling, compared with up to 700 hours before. And instead of first learning basic skills that are crucial to the smooth operation of Saturn's teams, such as conflict management, new hires initially focus on such job-specific skills as pmwer-tool operation.

The shift has spawned heated debate among Saturn's leaders. Bennett wants more up-front training so new arrivals can quickly learn Saturn's ethic of worker self-management. But company officials think more training is a luxury they can't afford. So far, they doubt that growing employee unhappiness will damage quality or productivity. Says Epps: "There's not much time to stand around and chin-wag about philosophy."

THE RIGHT THINGS. The unrest may reach a boiling point in the upcoming union elections. The most likely challenger for Bennett's spot appears to be Henry Campbell, a vice-president of the local. At an August membership meeting, Campbell challenged Bennett and the union structure he has helped put in place.

This structure was the issue in the Jan. 13 referendum. Bennett called the vote in an effort to head off the growing debate over cooperation. He wanted workers to support a policy whereby UAW and company officials appoint the shop-floor union leaders who act as middle managers. Dissidents such as Campbell say appointees sometimes ignore members' gripes and focus on what's best for the company. They want these officials to be elected. Bennett responds that turning the jobs into political posts would undermine the partnerships union appointees forge with their jointly appointed management counterparts. Evan Riley, an appointed UAW adviser, agrees: "I try to do what's right, not what I have to do to get votes."

Saturn's labor uncertainties are all the more unsettling because the company is doing so many things right. Its cars have become top sellers largely because of the diligence of employees. Even dissenting workers know they are part of a laboratory for new ideas. "We are the future of the American car industry, if it has a future," muses worker Walton. This bold experiment may run into trouble, though, if Saturn can't iron out this round of problems.

      -- Recent hires who are often less committed to Saturn's employee-participation 
      -- Burnout from 50-hour-and-up workweeks
      -- Growing distrust of the union's close ties with Saturn's management
      -- Anger at lack of elections for key union posts
       on the shop floor
      -- A scaling-back of training for new workers
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