Even General Motors is Changing
Even General Motors is Changing

Even General Motors is Changing

April 1 st 1988

Over the past decade, Japanese competition has forced the North American automobile industry to take a hard look at their traditional manufacturing and management styles. There is a growing awareness here that not only is state-of-the-art technology essential for efficient production of a quality automobile, but so is a work environment designed to provide variety and responsibility for employees.

The General Motors plant in Oshawa—the largest car and truck assembly operation in North America—is already beginning to reap the rewards of a $3.7-billion modernization program and a new management mindset. GM's Autoplex is a Canadian adaptation of the system pioneered by Volvo in Sweden. Instead of shuffling back and forth on a moving assembly line or working in dark and dirty pits, workers are now part of a team that installs a number of parts in cars brought to their brightly lit work station by self-propelled platforms. These automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can be raised, lowered, or tipped at a convenient angle, and workers send it on to the next team when they're finished their tasks.

GM management knew that discontented workers could easily sabotage the new system, and so paid a great deal of attention to training and communications. Though only two-thirds complete, there has already been a remarkable improvement in quality and productivity, and especially in the attitudes of workers and managers alike. There is a lot less swearing and arguing on the shopfloor than before, and much more of a sense of shared responsibility and interest. Formal grievances have been cut in half, while the absentee rate is down 15 per cent (though the problem hasn't disappeared yet). One employee explained that he feels more responsibility because installing a variety of parts reduces monotony, and being responsible for his own repairs makes the work less stressful. "You're building more of the car," he explained. As to morale, this seven-year veteran of the assembly line observed, "People seem to be getting along better. I would think personally that everyone feels the job is less stressful." Another employee agreed: "I think it's a better atmosphere for the worker than what we did have." Paint superintendent Roger Nesbitt, commenting on the Autoplex paint plant's first place rating in GM's North American audit, stated: "The team concept was sure a major contributing factor to that. You can have the newest facility in the world, but if you don't have the people involvement . . . it won't work." (James Daw, "Building Pride on the Line," Toronto Star, February 28, 1988, PP. l2-13).

This experiment at GM's huge Oshawa plant proves that major changes can be made even in this hidebound industry notorious for its bad labour relations. However, not everyone is delighted with this turn of events.

In defence of the class struggle

According to the most militant leaders of Canada's labour movement and to a substantial number of the country's academics (most obviously those involved with the Winnipeg-based socialist magazine, Canadian Dimension), life is and ought to be a class struggle. In their view, attempts to improve workplace atmosphere and relationships are clearly part of a clever corporate conspiracy to keep workers down and crush unions.

Don Wells, author of two books on labour relations and former teacher at the Labour College of Canada, warns that efforts at enhancing labour-management cooperation and job satisfaction are simply tactics in a new ideological offensive by management.

"'Teamwork'," according to Wells, "is the core of a new management control strategy" intended to blind workers and unions to the most important question, which is "Who is in control?" In good class struggle fashion, Wells writes:

The most fundamental danger is a profound ideological attack on the basic adversarial rationale underlying genuine trade unionism. In part, this kind of teamwork entails a public relations campaign to reinforce public antagonism to organized labour. More importantly, it is a management campaign for the hearts and minds of union members themselves.

Wells argues that workplace cooperation undermines the collective agreement and the position of the stewards, thus making unions redundant. He believes that the new approach rejects the concept of collective achievement and reinforces individualism by encouraging productivity and quality competition within and between teams and by singling out workers for merit awards. Solidarity of the workforce, the basis of worker resistance to management power, is thus destroyed.

Unless unions fight back by politicizing workers' rights, Wells warns, all the gains workers have made since the 1930s will be lost. Labour's strategy must move far beyond the conventional limits of collective bargaining. Labour will have to take the offensive and push for

the objective of achieving a fundamental realignment of labour-management power. 'This will require that the fight against management's rights, especially the right to invest and disinvest, is placed at the top of the political agenda. It will also require that the politics of labour move beyond parliamentary politics to embrace a coalition of the main victims of corporate domination.

As Wells sees it, this coalition of victims ought to include, among others, the women's movement, the peace movement, native people's organizations, the ecology movement, poverty groups, and organizations of the unemployed. ("'Teamwork' and the New Industrial Relations," Canadian Dimension, February, 1988, pp.33-36.)

Don Wells's call to militant action is the old refrain of the Marxist gospel. Part of its continuing appeal must lie in its simplicity: Overthrow the powerful, empower the powerless, and all will be well.

The Christian Gospel as well as history clearly repudiate that essentially simple-minded world-view. Those who believe that a state which has concentrated all power in itself is able to build the just society deliberately close their eyes to one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. This does not mean that we should overlook the shortcomings of our (democratic) societies. There is indeed much wrong to be righted. But that is precisely why we should welcome the joint efforts of management and workers to improve relations and conditions in the workplace.

The mainline unions, represented by the Canadian Labour Congress, are divided on this issue. On the one hand, they are drawn to a socialist view of the relationship between workers and management. On the other hand, a more moderate and pragmatic sector in the Canadian labour movement is willing to pursue the path of cooperation and gradual workplace reform. The tug of war between these two factions will continue to divide the house of labour. As long as it does, don't expect any drastic breakthrough towards a new kind of labour relations. In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that instances of employee ownership, more socially rewarding work arrangements, and improved and open relations between labour and management will continue to take place in a growing number of workplaces across this nation.

If management thinks that the traditional, authoritarian management style is good enough for today, it will merely provide fuel for the likes of Don Wells who specialize in fanning the flames of discontent and envy. Much will be required of management and workers (unions) of good will in the way of fresh ideas and new approaches. We had better wish them well!

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


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