Labor Gives to Make Saturn Work

By Carter Garber and Verna Fausey

Vol. 8, No. 4, 1986, p. 19

The Saturn Agreement has set a new pattern for UAW bargaining in the automobile industry and is affecting many negotiations carried out by other unions. Despite an early GM promise to the UAW insistence that Saturn not be a precedent, GM's Chairman Roger Smith talks of the need to "Saturnize" industry and UAW Vice President Donald Ephlin now declares "We need a lot more Saturns."

From the beginning, the Saturn Project was a joint effort of GM and the UAW. The 1985 accord has its genesis with the establishment of a joint study center in the spring of 1983 to map out "a new approach to union-management relations and the more effective use of human resources if assembly of small cars was to be feasible in the United States."

The unusual union contract has created controversy within UAW and a debate within the nation's union movement. Some charge that the UAW has sold out under what Saturn calls its new "philosophy of total cooperation." UAW leaders are defensive; perhaps because "no party to Saturn has risked more with this experiment than the UAW," according to labor writer Anthony Border. GM's William Hoglund stresses that the UAW is a partner and "a stakeholder in Saturn and participates in decisions. A UAW advisor is on the Saturn management staff and is a part of all enterprises."

The contract reflects the concessions typical of the Reagan era as well as autoworkers' desire for job security. Saturn employees, called members, will take a twenty percent pay cut in straight-time GM wages in return for profit-sharing and additional income based on meeting production, quality and productivity goals. Production will be carried out by small work units of five to twenty-five people rather than by assembly line. "Our work teams are going to do it all-seek resources, keep records, communicate and work with supplier partners and insure quality," according to GM's Hoglund.

In order to get a commitment of relatively secure employment for eighty percent of the workers, the union gave up normal grievance procedures, seniority rights, fixed work rules and practices, and traditional job descriptions. The Agreement reads "Saturn will not lay off Saturn members except in situations rising from unforeseen or catastrophic events or severe economic conditions." This sounds like a weak guarantee in a country whose economy has be in an official recession for half of the past one hundred and twenty years. Yet the Chr8ysler company to give workers a sixty-day layoff notice "when practicable." The UAW was willing to agree to this because of numerous layoffs and the rapid loss of members in an industry which has seen forty-seven facilities shut down since 1980. However, the deep concessions make it clear Saturn was designed to compete with domestic as well as foreign autoworkers.

Once the agreement was complete, GM picked a right-to-work state to test it. Saturn was to be kept away from GM's other plants where there are strong anti-management sentiments and more traditional labor contracts. GM's labor relations chief, Alfred S. Warren Jr., said that the UAW fought the Spring Hill location "up until the last moment" as the ninty-nine member union/management team debated sites.

While Tennessee governor Alexander has made his peace with the UAW in order to get the plant, Republican gubernatorial candidate Winfield Dunn is not bound by this peace treaty. Dunn, who was governor from 1971-1975, feels the Saturn agreement "violates the spirit of Tennessee's right-to-work law."