In recent weeks, General Motors chairman Roger Smith has been paying visits to a number of GM assembly lines across the United States, ``pressing the flesh'' with workers and hoping to ease the growing rift between management and labor. His timing is clearly not coincidental. In July, General Motors will go back to the bargaining table with the United Automobile Workers union for what many observers believe will be the most difficult and far-reaching round of contract talks in many decades.
``He has a lot of guts,'' UAW president Owen Bieber said about Mr. Smith during a union conference in Chicago recently. ``But it would be a lot easier for him if he didn't have [to face] that animosity.''
Animosity is an accurate way to describe labor-management relations at the giant automaker these days. Since last November, General Motors has announced plans to close 11 body and assembly plants as well as several component factories. And the automaker says further cuts are likely to follow as it ``outsources,'' or transfers to outside suppliers much of the parts production work long done in-house.
As a result, says former UAW researcher Dan Luria, ``GM has far too many people.'' And its blue-collar ranks, now about 320,000 strong, could decline by at least 100,000 by the early 1990s - that is, if the company is successful in halting its current sales decline. If not, some industry analysts say more than half the current work force will be cut.
The GM work force must not only worry about outsourcing and plant closings but also about the increased use of automation, as well as a practice known as whipsawing. According to union dissidents, this is an increasingly common tactic in which General Motors will announce plans to close several plants, promising to keep open only the one where workers agree to make the most concessions - usually in the form of more flexible work rules and fewer benefits.
Union leaders say they recognize and accept that the increased use of automation and more flexible contracts will result in more efficient plants and somewhat fewer jobs, but they are hoping to use the upcoming round of negotiations to prevent any wholesale losses.
``Let me describe in four short words the goal I see our great union seeking in this set of negotiations: Job and income security,'' Mr. Bieber told the 3,000 UAW delegates attending the Chicago conference.
But despite their seemingly common goal, Bieber has found himself under assault by union dissidents who believe top union leaders are not doing enough to protect jobs.
While Bieber insists he will not tolerate the automaker ``pitting worker against worker,'' he questions whether whipsawing is really a serious problem. On the other hand, Victor Reuther, a retired UAW member and brother of the late UAW president Walter Reuther, argues that ``Whipsawing is the most dangerous practice facing our union today.''
Can the UAW win its demands for a cap on outsourcing and a moratorium on plant closings? Or the restoration of the 3 percent annual wage hike it gave up in 1982?
GM officials say no. In an interview in the Detroit Free Press recently, the company's chief negotiator, Al Warren, insisted that if anything General Motors might eventually have to transfer all its assembly operations abroad in order to remain competitive with nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Mexico, where labor costs are often less than a tenth those found in the United States.
The automaker already imports several small car models from Japan and South Korea and plans to produce some of its mid-sized models in Mexico before the end of the decade. Thus a standoff appears to be shaping up.
``Workers are not going to accept a second-rate contract,'' says Don Douglas, head of union local 594 in Pontiac, Mich. Mr. Douglas says that while he recognizes GM has problems right now, it is hard for the rank-and-file to accept management's demands that they continue making sacrifices.
One reason, he says, is that while workers received no profit-sharing bonuses this year, top General Motors executives divided up bonuses worth a combined $169 million.
``I'd like to see GM put in its place,'' he adds, noting that a recent strike by workers at the Pontiac Truck and Bus plant convinced GM to restore work that had been outsourced from the facility.
Don Ephlin, vice-president of the UAW's GM Department, says ``frustration is not a good reason to strike,'' but he and other union leaders grudgingly admit that if the automaker will not back down there may be no alternative.
``The UAW doesn't go around picking fights,'' Bieber said in his keynote address at the Chicago conference, ``but we don't run away from them when they're forced on us. And if it's war, the UAW will be ready for it.''
With a near-record $675 million in its strike fund, the union could sustain a lengthy confrontation should bargainers fail to reach a settlement before the Sept. 14 deadline.