Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

What Lies at the Heart of the GM Strike?

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

What Lies at the Heart of the GM Strike?

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Technically, the United Auto Workers are striking two General Motors plants to protest local health and safety conditions. But below the surface, the standoff pits a company's competitive drive to cut costs against organized labor's effort to protect American jobs.

The strikes have cost the company more than $1 billion since early June. High-level talks broke off Sunday night.

That raises the stakes in a standoff that one national labor figure described as a classic case of a profitable company focusing on the bottom line with little regard for its workers.

"There should be a positive reward, not a negative reward for increasing productivity," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said in an interview. "And the positive reward ought to be some job security."

Trumka portrayed GM as yet another corporation that was increasing its production capacity abroad while neglecting its U.S. operations, raising the possibility of exporting more jobs.

The company counters that no jobs are at risk at the two Flint, Mich., stamping plants where local UAW officers have set up picket lines.

Rather, it says, the issue is getting a local operation to perform up to the company's expectations.

"There will not be one UAW member that will lose his or her job as a result of us trying to get this plant competitive," said Mary Irby, a GM spokeswoman.

"This strike is at this plant," Irby said, dismissing suggestions that larger economic concerns were at play. "We have to deal with the issues here."

The company has filed a grievance alleging that the strikes are illegal and that the union has used health and safety issues as a pretense for striking over non-negotiable issues like the company's investments in the plants.

Local union workers are angry that the company has put on hold plans to invest $300 million in the Flint metal-stamping operation. Irby said that $120 million has been invested since May 1997, and that such issues were not relevant to the existing contract.

One expert said the unspoken tension in the dispute is workers' fears about losing jobs to Mexico, given that the company has made major investments in recent years in that country and other low-wage areas. …

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