`They've Made It A Manhood Issue Now'

Late last year, General Motors Corp. asked the United Auto Workers to have its members bunch part of their vacations into two weeks in July. That would let GM shut its plants--and save $200 million. Stephen P. Yokich, who heads the UAW's GM department, told the company to get his local unions' O.K. Then, GM goofed: It mailed its plea directly to workers, asking each, "as an individual," to grantthe company's wish. On Feb. 12, miffed that the union had been sidestepped, Yokich told GM: Nodice.

It's a small spat that reflects a big problem. After two decades of improving relations between the UAW and the company that employs roughly 25% of its members, the two are suddenly on the worst terms in years. The reasons aren't hard to find. Tensions over GM's anticipated downsizing had been rising before the company's Dec. 18 announcement that it would close 21 plants and eliminate 74,000 hourly and salaried jobs by 1995. Anxiety in the plants had risen to a fever pitch by Feb. 24, when the company finally named 12 of the 21 doomed sites. Frustrated with all that is happening, Yokich is threatening GM with "guerrilla warfare."

"In the long term," says Thomas M. Fricano, director of UAW Region 9 in New Jersey, "everyone will be hurt." GM lost $4.5 billion last year, including a $1.8 billion onetime charge to cover the plant closings. Its core North American auto operations lost more than $7 billion. To climb out of this hole, GM has to bring its capacity and costs into line with its market share, which shrank 10 points in the 1980s, to 35%. But it will also need cooperative workers to boost plant-floor efforts to lift quality and productivity.

Today's assemblers do much more than tighten nuts and bolts. Increasingly, for instance, they help design new products to make them easier to assemble. "If GM can't get its labor relations in order, it's not going to get what it wants out of its plants," says Harley Shaiken, professor of work and technology at the University of California, San Diego.

If that happens, the UAW will suffer, too. Since 1985, it has lost 127,000 jobs at GM. If the company scraps 54,000 more hourly jobs by 1995, as it currently plans, the UAW's ranks there will shrink to 250,000 workers--a 43% reduction in 10 years. The union's overall membership will slip below 800,000, vs. a million in the mid-1980s. "They're losing more members than the total at many labor unions in the U.S.," says Sean Maclinden, a labor expert at the University of Michigan.

SLIM HAUL. To offset such losses, the UAW would have to spend millions on organizing drives. Over the past decade, it has been aggressively branching into service industries, where it has netted 125,000 new members. Still, the UAW's continued shrinkage will erode its considerable political clout. That could make it a less effective lobbyist against such proposals as the U.S.-Mexican free-trade pact, whose enactment could entice employers into sending thousands of UAW jobs south of the border.

The UAW-GM tensions sharply reverse a long-term warming of relations. In the early 1970s, UAW leaders urged GM to combat the boredom and alienation of its workers by giving them more say over their work. By the 1980s, GM was getting religion. In some plants, it set up semiautonomous work teams of the type that had given Japanese auto makers an edge. But even the noblest experiment could not offset the effect of GM's decline in market share. And in the past several months, that effect has been severe.

The friction started with job security. During the 1980s, GM paid for the UAW's cooperation with some of the most sweeping provisions in any industry. Jobs could disappear, but workers had to be kept on the payroll, sometimes for years. As the recession deepened, however, GM continued to shift UAW work to outside suppliers, even though the current labor contract calls for slowing the trend. The politically aware Yokich reacted.

DIVISIVE TACTICS. Since last fall, the UAW has threatened nine local strikes and mounted three--as it has the right to over issues such as contracting out. One stand-off, at two Dayton parts plants, ended in a three-day walkout that disrupted work at other factories. Then, in January, UAW President Owen F. Bieber rejected GM's informal request to reopen the 1990 contract, which set up a $4 billion fund to pay the wages of almost all laid-off workers. GM, which hadn't anticipated spending much of this money, wanted to stop its cash drain. The rejection nearly coincided with the vacation fiasco. "They have challenged Yokich to see if he can lead his people," says a Ford executive. "They've made it a manhood issue now."

Yokich is also angry over the way GM has handled its layoff announcements. By not saying in December which plants would close, it pitted locals against each other. Those at underused plants scrambled to offer concessions. GM Chairman Robert C. Stempel heightened the whipsawing on Feb. 24, when he made it clear that some plants are staying open partly because of such deals.

A case in point: GM will shut its assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., and leave open a plant in Arlington, Tex., that makes the same cars. Arlington workers agreed to discuss working three shifts instead of two, while Ypsilanti workers didn't. Speaking of a different plant that had accepted such changes, Stempel said: "That and some other innovations will make the plant very productive and really helps its future outlook."

The souring labor relations have been exacerbated by a personality clash between Yokich and Richard F. O'Brien, GM's vice-president for industrial relations. The two never hit it off after O'Brien took office a year ago. Insiders say Yokich hasn't visited GM's headquarters in more than six months, in stark contrast with the friendship he forged with O'Brien's predecessor, Alfred S. Warren. O'Brien has been distracted by the need to care for a son who was badly hurt in a car accident. But Yokich's combative rhetoric doesn't help. "I'm willing to take a little of the blame," he says.

ELECTION HISTRIONICS? Meanwhile, union politics is adding fuel to the fire. The UAW's top officers face reelection at the union's national convention in June. There's no real chance that they'll be unseated, but a dissident, Jerry Tucker, is running against Bieber (box). And Yokich, who aspires to the presidency when Bieber retires in 1995, is playing to members more than usual.

Stempel will find it hard to repair the rift. In recent years, GM has repeatedly changed plans for which models to produce where. And workers have learned that accepting more flexible work rules to keep a plant going doesn't mean the plant will stay open.

"This sure as hell sets back our ability to work together," fumes Bruce Lee, director of UAW Region 6 in California and a strong advocate of cooperation. And that pattern may continue for the foreseeable future: Stempel has seven more closings to announce. He said on Feb. 24 that some may not be disclosed until next year.

      1973 The United Auto Workers win a new Quality of Worklife program that gives 
      workers more voice in factory-floor decisions
      1981 GM's Shreveport (La.) plant opens, starting the company's first experiment 
      with multiskilled teams of workers who have direct input into control of the 
      production process
      1983 Two champions of cooperation take charge: Donald Ephlin at the UAW's GM 
      unit and Alfred Warren, GM's vice-president for human relations
      1984 GM and Toyota form a joint venture in Fremont, Calif. Toyota institutes a 
      team system that nearly doubles productivity and becomes a model for GM
      1985 Led by Ephlin and Warren, GM and the UAW forge a revolutionary labor 
      agreement for Saturn's small-car plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. Union members gain 
      a voice in nearly every management decision
      1988 New Directions, a UAW dissident group headed by Jerry Tucker, lashes out 
      at cooperation. Tucker argues that it undermines the UAW's strength
      1989 GM closes four assembly plants, skirting a contractual prohibition. Ephlin 
      retires under pressure. He's replaced by the more combative Stephen Yokich
      1990 GM signs a three-year deal to pay many workers even if their plants close
      1991 GM, battered by the recession, announces 21 plant closings and says it 
      will eliminate 54,000 union jobs by 1995. UAW leaders accuse GM of playing to 
      Wall Street and pitting local unions against each other
      DATA: BW
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