GM Strike Tests Labor's Muscle

Hardening work stoppage will signal whether unions can slow loss of jobs offshore in era of global competition.

For organized labor, the stakes in the increasingly bitter General Motors strike are both simple and high: Can it stem the long decline in old-fashioned, well-paying, factory union jobs?

If any organization can, it would be the United Auto Workers. The proud UAW has long been one of the strongest of the great unions that helped shape 20th-century America. Throughout its history, it has remained untainted by corruption while winning contracts that made it the envy of its industrial fellows.

With GM, the UAW is now between a rock and another rock, however. It's watching jobs slip away as the company toughens itself against global competition. But if it stands up to try to stop that process, the firm may only redouble its efforts to install labor-saving technology and buy parts from non-GM plants.

Thus, many union leaders are watching GM strike developments closely. They hope to learn the benefits, or cost, of playing tough in today's labor world.

"With a strike, and the hostile relationships it creates, will that increase GM's willingness to relocate jobs somewhere else?" asks John Stamm, a labor expert at Babson College. "That's the question."

As negotiations drag on, both sides in the GM standoff appear to be preparing for a long fight. Management is telling Wall Street analysts that it intends to try to locate outside suppliers in hopes of reopening strike-idled assembly plants. UAW leaders, for their part, have called an unusual meeting of 300 top local officials for today. The intent: explain strategy and bolster support.

Moreover, GM on Sunday was facing the loss of its only US assembly plant still turning out cars, as UAW workers at a Saturn assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., were scheduled to cast a strike-authorization vote. A strike there would be a first for GM's small-car unit, which for years has been the comforting note of union-management harmony amid the contentious noise of GM-UAW relations. If two-thirds of the 7,200 workers vote for authorization, the union may call a strike five days later.

The union already has raised the ante against GM by threatening to strike at two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio, a stamping plant in Indianapolis, and its Buick City assembly and parts complex in Flint. Workers at those plants have authorized walkouts.

"Progress has been very, very, very, very slow, and very disappointing," said UAW vice president Richard Shoemaker on Thursday.

A strike intensifies

The strike began with walkouts on June 5 and 11 at two key parts facilities in Flint, Mich. Since then, the lack of crucial components has rippled throughout the GM system and virtually shut down the company.

It's already the longest shutdown in the auto industry since 1970. It's also penetrating the public's consciousness, although perhaps not as much as did last year's strike by United Parcel Service workers.

The relative labor peace that has spread through the US economy in recent decades makes GM workers appear particularly militant. Strikes are no longer the common tool of labor they once were. In fact, the number of US strikes nationwide has now slipped to its lowest level since World War II.

Last year there were only 29 labor work stoppages that involved at least 1,000 workers. Twenty years ago, there were some 240.

There are many reasons for labor's relative reluctance to strike. Rounds of downsizing have made workers less sure about the virtues of confrontation, for one thing. The use of permanent replacements for strikers is on the rise, for another. And workers on the picket lines of some of this decade's biggest strikes, such as the Caterpillar walkout of 1992, have had to settle for terms that many felt constituted defeat.

Perhaps the most important reason for the decline in strikes is labor's decline in numbers, however. Union representation has dropped precipitously since the 1950s, to around 14 percent of the work force today.

Does the GM strike signal a turnaround in this meekness? Some feel it does.

Strikes in the 1980s and '90s were "defensive," says Greg Tarpinian, president of the Labor Research Association. Workers were just trying to hold on to what they had.

But the booming US economy and tight labor markets have made experienced workers correspondingly more valuable. And the men and women in the front lines are becoming restive and want their share of big corporate profits. "We're seeing more strikes now where the workers have the upper hand," says Mr. Tarpinian.

Last year's UPS strike was a big victory for labor, after all. The nation's biggest package-delivery service was forced to roll back its use of part-time workers.

The Teamsters union was well prepared for its standoff with UPS. It had a clear issue - the need for full-time jobs - that resonated with the larger American public.

Speaking to America

The UAW has yet to articulate its concerns as clearly as the Teamsters did, say some labor experts. The UPS strike was political, in the sense that many Americans felt its outcome had some effect on their own future.

"The UAW is not doing that," says Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of Virginia historian and biographer of longtime UAW leader Walter Reuther. "They should say, 'This strike is not just about petty in-plant questions. It is a strike in the interests of all Americans.' "

The issue should be framed simply, according to Mr. Lichtenstein: Are we going to end up with a low-wage nation?

The UAW was one of the first unions to make big gains in industrial America. Its 44-day sit-down strike against GM in 1937 was one of the movement's biggest victories.

In recent years, it has shrunk even faster than organized labor in general, however. The rolls today list half the 1.5 million members the UAW claimed as recently as 1979.

And the membership is getting older. The union has focused on protecting the jobs of its most senior members, with the result that there are fewer young leaders rising through the ranks.

Since 1985, the labor forces of all US automakers "have been largely composed of mid-level-seniority employees steadily moving toward near-term retirement," concludes a University of Michigan study.

Any settlement of the current strike will likely reflect this trend, say some experts. Senior workers will win protection - but the UAW will go along with further parts outsourcing, as it has at Ford and Chrysler.

"Unfortunately, this strike has taken on a life of its own," says Daniel Kruger, a longtime professor of industrial relations at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Any solution will have to enable the company and the UAW to save face."

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