Editorial: GM's Crash

ON FEBRUARY 24, 1992, General Motors announced plans to close 11 manufacturing and assembly plants, throwing more than 16,000 people out of work. GM has now announced plans to close two-thirds of the 21 plants it says it will shut down in the next few years.

 GM is shameless. By announcing in December that it was going to close plants without specifying which ones, the company encouraged workers and communities to compete against each other in an effort to offer the company the lowest wages, the most flexible work rules and the lowest tax rates.

All this, in a sense, is to be expected. GM has long shown callous disregard for the effect of its decisions on the communities where it does business.

 More disappointing, but perhaps no more surprising, is the failure of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents the workers who will be laid off, to take any meaningful steps to counteract GM's actions.

GM's most blatant "whipsawing" (pitting factories against each other) involved assembly plants in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Arlington, Texas which produce the Chevrolet Caprice and other models. GM announced in December that it would close one of the plants, sparking a high-profile campaign on the part of Arlington workers and Texas politicians to save the Arlington facility, and a quieter effort in Michigan.

 The city of Arlington, the county of Tarrant and the state of Texas together presented General Motors with tax abatements and other incentives worth $30 million. A bipartisan group of Texas politicians, including both of the state's senators, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Phil Gramm, and governor Ann Richards, met with GM Chair Robert Stempel. And, probably of most importance to General Motors, workers at the Arlington plant agreed to accept special shift arrangements that will allow General Motors to operate the plant around-the-clock.

 One of the most insidious aspects of whipsawing is that the incentives extracted from individual plants and communities usually do not influence corporate decisions to locate or close factories, since those decisions are normally based on internal business concerns which involve sums far greater than the incentives offered.

The case of Arlington and Ypsilanti, however, may be an exception. Most analysts had expected GM to close the Arlington plant, because transportation costs between it and supplier plants in the Midwest are higher than those for the Ypsilanti facility. But Arlington workers' agreement to 24-hour production and close cooperation with the company may have been the deciding factors for General Motors. The Arlington work rule changes are particularly outrageous because they will allow the Arlington plant to run at levels above what has traditionally been viewed as capacity at the same time the Ypsilanti facility is shut down.

 GM values the Arlington workers' concessions not only for their intrinsic value, but because it hopes they will become pattern-setters. After the February 24 announcement, the Wall Street Journal wrote: "GM's decision to save the Arlington factory sent a stern message to the leaders of the United Auto Workers union: GM will save plants when UAW locals agree to scrap long-established work rules to help GM cut costs, and shut plants that don't." Stempel said that GM intends to go from "plant to plant" and ask for work rule changes and reductions in the number of job classifications, adding that local unions' responses would influence which plants stay open and which close.

 The UAW's answer to GM was too little and too late. On February 25, UAW Vice President Steve Yokich, director of the union's General Motors Department, said "GM Chairman Robert Stempel and the corporation are playing with fire if they encourage plant competition over work rules." He said the international union would not approve changes at the Arlington plant.

 An effective union response to the current round of plant closings, however, would have required action before the shutdowns were announced. The union should have taken steps to prevent locals from competing against each other, and it should have tried to save jobs by putting forward demands for a shorter work-week and a ban on overtime.

Jerry Tucker, leader of the dissident New Directions Movement within the UAW, argues convincingly that the union was in no position to take these steps - or to resist whipsawing now - because of its performance over the last decade. The union stopped fighting for job security - with the 1990 contract widely understood as paving the way for mass layoffs - and, in the guise of helping U.S. automakers improve their "competitiveness," became an accomplice to whipsawing. It is a "very tough trick," Tucker says, for "people who have been in bed with management all this time" to suddenly stand up to corporate bullying.

 If Tucker is right, many workers and communities will soon be confronting the troubles Ypsilanti faces - or the significant, though less dramatic, ones in store for Arlington. For there is no doubt that GM will continue to ruthlessly exploit its current predicament to take advantage of workers and communities that do not have the protection of a strong union.