United Auto Workers, GM Work Together to Bridge Relationship Gap

THE stepped-up training at GM could never have happened without unprecedented cooperation from the UAW - a process both groups call ``jointness.'' This edited conversation between the executive co-directors of the UAW-GM Human Resource Center - one representing the company, one the union - would have been unthinkable 10 years ago: What has changed in your relationship? Richard K. McMillan (from GM): There's just the keen recognition by just about everyone that the times are different. Supervisors, employees realize more than ever that in many ways we have common objectives. We believe that if we don't work together we won't survive. Donald J. Davis (from UAW): We used to present a long list of demands. Now, if they have a problem, we have a problem.

How does that work on the shop floor? McMillan: Today, a supervisor will shut the line down, sit down with employees, and talk about how things are going in the department - not just from his perspective, but more importantly from the perspective of the employees. That's a fundamental change. Davis: We've decided that we are going to drive some of the decisionmaking in this corporation to its lowest level and involve everybody in this process of building cars. Instead of just using the arms and legs we are using the whole body, the whole person. Everybody loves it.

Why is this taking place? Davis: I think it goes back to 1982 and 1983 during the auto recession. About 170,000 people that we represented at General Motors were laid off. At the same time GM for the first time in history lost about $760 million. I think out of that sorry commentary we decided that we had more in common than in conflict. McMillan: Many would give credit to the late Ed Cole, former president of General Motors, and Irving Bluestone, a retired vice-president of UAW. The old confrontational ways were literally crippling some plants. They at least recognized the need to start looking for different ways of working in the plants. Over a period of time, this very simple but neat idea started to evolve that we now call ``jointness.''

Don't management and labor still disagree? McMillan: We still bargain every three years. And during that period of time, Don and I may not get along - depending on what the issues are. Davis: The pie is pulled out of the oven at the end of the year and we want our slice of it. But we want to make sure there is a pie.

How far will this go? Davis: Change is never easy - especially the kind of change that we're talking about. And there are folks on both sides of these organizations that resist change. [But] it's getting easier because people are beginning to see the results of these programs. I don't think it will stop until we are an equal partner in the company. McMillan: Whatever this is, we're in the process of becoming. I think we are still in the beginning stages.

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