Uaw, Gm Battles Over Work Rules

By: Jenny Mclane

The General Motors Corp.'s tried to enforce money-saving rule changes at its factories but the automaker had a feud with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Now, two plants of the company are at a risk of losing future work.

GM has stopped the progress of preparations under way at plants in Kansas City, Kan., and Lordstown, Ohio, to set the facilities for new vehicles. The swift cessation came after the UAW ordered its local negotiating teams to halt bargaining with GM on work rules aimed at making the factories more competitive. The clash is the first time the UAW and GM have openly butted heads over rule changes. The automaker has been pushing new rules at its plants as it strives to slash billions of dollars in production costs.

"The management and union leadership at both Lordstown and Fairfax are in discussions about improving the competitiveness of both plants and putting both plants in a better position to secure future products," GM spokesman Dan Flores said. He added that the company does not comment on future products or labor negotiations. UAW Spokesman Roger Kerson, on the other hand, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Union officials at the Lordstown complex have been working to safeguard production of the upcoming Chevrolet Cobalt. The plant has been under strong pressure to slash expenses as the automaker fights to eke out a profit on small cars manufactured for the North American market.

In the meantime, GM's Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City plans to produce the next vehicle to be built on the underpinnings of the Chevrolet Malibu sedan. The plant is manufacturing the 2008 made-over Malibu which is set to hit showrooms later this year. Current work on the Cobalt and the Malibu is not at all affected, Flores said.

The skirmish spreads like wildfire after the story was revealed at the UAW Local 1112 at Lordstown through a posted flier informing workers that GM has "suspended two new vehicle programs for North America." The flier has this content: "The International Union has contacted your Shop Chairman and requested that he along with the Shop Committee suspend all meetings immediately."

In the previous months, the automaker's top executives have been visiting plants pushing for changes like an effective . Changes include outsourcing work not directly related to the assembly of vehicles like maintenance. The automaker's goal is to make its plants fully competitive with those of its closest rivals in the United States.

According to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, GM loses $1,300 on average for each vehicle it makes in North America, while the Toyota Motor Corp. makes about $2,100 on each car and truck it builds here. While more flexible factory rules would not eliminate that gap, GM says they could save hundreds of dollars per vehicle.

The conflict between the UAW and Detroit's automakers will be remedied by a negotiation. The negotiation will start this summer. The goal of the negotiation is to secure a new labor agreement when the present four-year pact expires in September.

"The union wants to see a more competitive GM, and it's made some tough choices," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "But it's not willing to abandon what it's built up over so many decades."

Shaiken said that trouble at the local level does not necessarily bode badly for the national talks. "If the union and GM are able to work out tough issues early on in local contracts, bargaining could go more smoothly at the national level. This will make the national talks less contentious, not more," Shaiken said. "It's not a preview necessarily, but rather a drawing of the line."

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