In Wake of GM Strike, a Bolder 'Big Labor'

As autoworkers vote on settlement, experts see boon for unions in tight labor market and strong economy.

The fine print of the strike-ending agreement between General Motors and the United Auto Workers may yet reveal which side benefits most after the contentious walkout. But labor's determination to go to the mat also signals a newfound brawn for America's unions.

To be sure, GM won some of the productivity gains it so desperately sought. But the strike held another big lesson for management and labor alike - that two union locals in the trailer-park town of Flint, Mich., were able to all but shut down production at the biggest company in the world.

After years of retrenchment and tentativeness, many experts say, unions at last are in a greater position of strength - at least for now.

"A booming economy, the tight labor market, revitalized unions - all this gives workers more leverage and makes for a much bolder labor movement," says Harley Shaiken, a labor-affairs professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

It all means a potential increase in labor's political voice and the number of strikes. Contrary to many predictions, "the GM strike demonstrates that the strike is not dead as a weapon," says Professor Shaiken.

But for now, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had wrangled enough out of GM - and its workers had gone long enough without pay.

Workers were expected to be back on the job today after voting their approval for the settlement yesterday. In it, GM reportedly agrees not to sell four plants - a speedometer facility and a spark-plug plant in Flint and two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio - before January 2000, thus boosting workers' job security. GM may also have to invest some $180 million in equipment - a further guarantee of continued commitment.

In return, the UAW reportedly agreed to boost productivity and not strike at Dayton and one of the Flint facilities.

UAW and GM officials also pledged better cooperation to avoid more strikes. But workers at several other plants - including the Saturn facility in Spring Hill, Tenn., and the Corvette plant in Kentucky - may still walk out.

Power of a strike

Indeed, with today's economy, their incentives are big to do so.

Manufacturers must race to keep up with booming consumer demand. Strikes hurt their production and can put big dents in market share and customer loyalty - which can have a long-term impact on their success. (GM lost $3.2 billion in profits in the recent strike, although it may make up for much of that with 24-hour production. The UAW's 200,000 members, by contrast, lost nearly $1 billion in pay, much of which will be made up in overtime work.)

Also, the nation's jobless rate - a 28-year low at 4.3 percent - means fewer people are available to replace striking workers.

Meanwhile, the revolution in American manufacturing known as just-in-time production also strengthens labor's hand. Because parts are delivered to an assembly line only hours before they're needed, "labor strife can shut down numerous plants within minutes," says Danny Hoffman at the University of Michigan's Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations in Ann Arbor. "That gives organized labor some real strategy."

Indeed, this climate has recently brought on several high-profile strikes in which labor triumphed.

Last year's United Parcel Service walkout forced the nation's biggest package shipper to upgrade many part-time jobs to full-time status - an issue that resonated strongly with the public.

Labor's defeat of California's Proposition 226 in June is also a sign of resurgent power. The ballot measure, which labor fought hard to defeat, would have squeezed unions by requiring members to vote yearly on whether their dues could be used for political contributions.

Labor merger ahead?

Unions may also borrow from corporate America's playbook to boost their power: Three unions - machinists, steelworkers, and the UAW - may merge in the next year or two into a powerful metalworkers union.

"That could create one of the most powerful situations for organized labor in the history of this country," says Mr. Hoffman.

Still, labor has much work to do to regain its vaunted status of decades past. Its membership rolls have been slowly shrinking. In 1973, 24 percent of US workers were union members. Today it's 14 percent.

And until recently, many unions had lost their activist edge: The number of strikes involving 1,000 workers or more dropped from a high of 424 in 1974 to 29 last year.

During the strike, GM may have found a powerful tactic that could quash future strikes: It alleged in court that the strikes violated the UAW-GM national contract and therefore were illegal.

As part of the settlement, GM reportedly dropped the grievance, but if a court ever ruled in GM's favor, unions' ability to walk out could be limited.

Still, with recent strikes going in its favor, organized labor may only get more adamant, says Hoffman. "Labor is going to take a tough stand over the next few years."

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