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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

GM Workers Get an Unwelcome Holiday Bonus

General Motors assembly line workers are scheduled to receive a dubious “gift” in the coming year. Thanks to GM management, the Obama administration’s automobile task force and the collaboration of the United Auto Worker’s union leadership, General Motors will run auto plants on three shifts, twenty-four hours a day in 2010. Beginning on January 4, the Kansas City (Fairfax) plant will inaugurate the three-shift scheme.

According to The Wall Street Journal (In Risky Move, GM to Run Plants Around Clock, Kevin Helliker, 12-22-09), long standing industry standards engage the assembly line for two shifts with sufficient time for cleaning, maintenance, and restocking before the start of a new daily production cycle. Among industry experts, the two-shift regimen is believed to be the most efficient production technique; two shifts, operating 250 days a year, is considered 100% of capacity according to these experts. But the Administration’s auto czars, while negotiating the $50 billion investment infusion of public funds, pressed GM to operate at 120% of capacity.

“Do these guys understand the business?” asked an industry analyst quoted in the WSJ.

Functions formerly done while the line was down will now be performed while the production line runs, albeit at a slower speed. GM managers and union officials have reportedly agreed to make up for these slowdowns with “overspeeding” at other times, an odd euphemism for old-fashioned industrial speed-up.

In essence, the GM/auto czar scheme eliminates the industry accepted maintenance shift, replacing it with a production shift and conducting the maintenance work while production continues.

GM is increasing the workforce by a third by drawing workers from closed plants, but expects to increase weekly car production by forty per cent.

Fully a third of the new employees will come from the closed Janesville, Wisconsin plant. The Wisconsin State Journal (12-28-09) reports the toll this displacement takes on workers:

In some cases, the distance has torn families apart. Bill Hollingsworth, a clinical psychotherapist at the Janesville Psychiatric Clinic, is working with seven families strained by out-of-state job transfers. He said marriages separated by hundreds of miles have brought loneliness and fears that spouses are being unfaithful. In some cases, the distance has triggered depression, alcoholism and drug abuse.

"There's a lot of insecurity," Hollingsworth said. "A lot of mistrust."
Many people interviewed for this story spoke of long-distance marriages splitting up… "GM doesn't realize what it's done to the actual families," Carol Muchow said. "I know it's triggered divorces. I know there's going to be more."

The WSJ – not from compassion, but from “efficiency” - notes that “[in] all industries… midnight-shift workers are prone to above-average rates of on-the-job errors, absenteeism, and illness”. Unspoken here is that with “on-the-job errors” and “illness” come injuries, deaths, broken families and marriages, and social and cultural deprivation.

Looming over these changes is the threat – always present – of plant closings or shifts of production. In 2006, Kansas City offered a $146 million bond issuance to GM if they would bring production of a mid-sized vehicle to Fairfax. Where free trade agreements gave corporations an opportunity to stage global labor races to the bottom, these same corporations employ this competition to extort deals and concessions domestically. Ironically, GM extorted deals from the public coffers in 2006 and begged for public funds in 2009. Could there be any more dramatic proof of the fusion of the state and monopoly capital? Could there be a more clear demonstration of the utter bankruptcy of class collaboration on the part of union leaders?

It could not be clearer that the GM/auto czar scheme is not about workers, their families, their fair share, their health, their security, or their futures, but about profits. Increased exploitation, speedup, harmful working conditions, and job insecurity are the consequences of this new scheme. In contrast to other auto producing countries that linked public bailouts to sustaining employment, the current Administration insisted that auto companies close plants, cast aside workers and, in this case, subject workers to draconian conditions and increased exploitation. In contrast to other worker organizations in other countries facing the economic crisis, the UAW leadership eschewed militancy and opted for improving the profitability of capital. The WSJ cites the Fairfax union chairman as giving “his card to anyone driving the new Buick Lacrosse, one of the plants products. ‘I tell them to call me if they have any troubles or questions,’ he said.” Does he report problems to GM management? Does he scold workers over any reported problems? Does he represent GM or the workers?

It is understandable if GM workers feel that they are the “collateral damage” in the economic wars to restore capitalist profitability. On one hand, they must assume the cost of the massive bailout shoveled to GM by an Administration that they did much to elect. On the other hand, they are forced by that same Administration to accept unemployment, increased exploitation and severe working conditions. The only answer is a militant fight back. Unfortunately the current UAW leadership has neither the spine nor vision to organize that struggle.

Zoltan Zigedy

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