Saturn uprising

Mar 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

It was a stunning blow to the world’s best-known example of labor-management cooperation – Saturn, the "different kind of car company."

With a voter turnout of 85 percent, UAW members removed from office the union leadership caucus that had ruled in Spring Hill, Tenn., since Saturn was founded in the mid-’80s. The incumbent "Vision Team" championed "partnership" with management, but many workers had come to see the partnership as benefiting only management and the hundreds of full-time appointed union reps who help run the Saturn system.

The vote was seen also as a rebuke of the so-called "Saturn way," which shuns seniority in favor of "merit" in job assignments, transfer rights and the like.

Jeep Williams, elected shop chairman over 12-year incumbent Mike Bennett by a margin of 56 percent to 39 percent, said the campaign slogan that caught on among the rank and file was "Rebalance them. On the line in ’99."

"Rebalance" is Saturn’s term for doing the same work with fewer people. "Them" refers to the Vision Team. And "on the line" means put Vision Team members to work on the factory floor rather than in the quasi-management positions they currently enjoy.

Union Vice President Williams is a former Vision Team member who broke with Bennett. "Union leaders," he said, "were making decisions and not getting the team members’ input."

Ken Duncan, defeated as a union trustee, was one of Saturn’s original architects. Asked why members voted his caucus out, he referred to "CAVE people, Caucus Against Virtually Everything."

The winners’ platform, Duncan said, included "a little bit of everything," including dissatisfaction with Saturn’s pay system and a demand to elect the UAW members who co-manage with first-level foremen. Currently, these officials are jointly appointed by union leaders and management.

Tom Hopp, a rank-and-file member who transferred to Saturn when the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti closed, agreed that that no one incident or issue brought the Vision Team down. He led a campaign a year ago to end Saturn’s special contract with the UAW and replace it with the UAW-GM national agreement. That proposal was voted down by a ratio of 2-to-1. But, according to Hopp, "We created a climate (where) dissent was OK. … Before the national contract campaign you couldn’t speak up even among your own teammates."

Williams now faces General Motors’ demands for a 12 percent rebalance. The company is insisting on those cuts before it will commit to building a new sport utility vehicle in Spring Hill.