General Motors Produces Car with New Labour-Management Approach

April 1 st 1990

General Motors' new Saturn car, scheduled to begin rolling off its Spring Hill, Tennessee assembly lines in June, represents a bold new experiment in labour-management cooperation.

Right from the start of planning and designing this car seven years ago, management was determined to break away from the old adversarial style. When managed traditionally, car assembly plants are notorious for boring, repetitive jobs and a hostile labour climate. The realization has dawned that such a climate is not conducive to building good quality cars. As a result, superior foreign-made cars, especially Japanese, have made deep inroads in the North American automobile market.

A Bold Experiment

GM created the new Saturn company because it had found it very difficult to turn old plants around. Management sought to tap the interest and skills of the workforce in producing this new car. All levels of the workforce, including assembly line workers, were to be involved in planning and designing this car and the production lines.

In 1984 GM and the UAW agreed to dismantie the traditional management and union bureaucracies in the new Spring Hill plant. Consequently, they now share information and authority, a concept borrowed from the Japanese automobile producers. In practice this means that Richard Hoalcraft, a former assembly line worker and now the ranking union official at the plant, works in close cooperation with Richard LeFauve, president of Saturn and a GM executive. They both attend the same meetings, are supplied with the same data and share in top-level decision-making.

According to industry watchers, the outcome has been remarkable. Initial reports on the quality of the Saturn have been very positive. Expert test drivers have awarded high marks to this car. John McElroy, editor of Automotive Industries, said, "Saturn will stack up very well against Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mitsubishi Eclipse." While this remark speaks volumes about the quality of American-made automobiles, it is no doubt the kind of report eagerly awaited in GM boardrooms. The company obviously has a great deal riding on the Saturn, especially at this time of declining sales and massive structural changes in the auto industry.

Everybody Wins

"It is this integration of the union into business decision-making that makes the Saturn project a more radical departure from conventional U.S. auto plants than even the Japanese plants in North America," writes Doron Levin of the New York Times. Levin found enthusiastic support for this new approach among workers and management. There are no signs of the historic divisiveness between union workers and managers.

Workers appreciate the fact that they are not reduced to robots on the assembly line but are given a variety of tasks and responsibilities as well as the opportunity to learn new skills. Plant workers, designers and managers cooperate in finding weaknesses in the product and discovering ways to overcome them. They even experiment with competitors' cars to see what they can learn from them.

Believers in the old-fashioned class war in labour relations will denounce this new experiment as a sell-out to capitalism. Labour leaders such as Victor Reuther in the U.S., and his Canadian cohorts in the Canadian Auto Workers union, will exhort their fellow unionists never to view the employer as anything but their enemy. Those who have the true interest of workers and society at heart, however, will welcome these reports about labour-management cooperation. As well, customers of General Motors will appreciate that the cars they drive have been produced with the best efforts of everyone involved. Everybody wins, and that is a bit of good news from an often depressingly strife-torn labour scene.

 

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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