FORD PLANT WORKERS, BOSSES SWAP JOBS

In the past, UAW workers and management at a Ford Motor Co. axle plant seldom spoke to each other. Now they have found ways to communicate, and business is booming.

It started in 1990 when a Ford Motor Co. engineer lambasted an employee on the plant floor for not executing a job as it was drawn up. The employee responded: 'If you were in my shoes, you would see this doesn't work. I'd like to see you try it.'

That was four years ago. Every year since, UAW workers and management at the Ford Sterling Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., have swapped jobs for a day. The program, called Job Share, is designed to give both sides insight into the other's duties. The largest benefit however, has been the jobs the powertrain plant has saved because the two sides are working toward common goals.

'We as a plant and a company realize we both need each other to remain competitive in a world market. Job Share advances that joint process,' said George Pfeil, plant manager, speaking at the Job Share on Dec.*8.

In 1990, management and hourly workers at the axle plant didn't get along. There was little communication, and even less trust. Ford was outsourcing more jobs, scaling down its work force.

Vince Levine, employee resource coordinator, said there has been more cohesion, solidarity and togetherness over the last four years, and the plant has become more competitive.

Ford will spend $185 million to retool the Sterling Plant to produce new axles, drive shafts, universal joints and modernize its heat treatment department. Retooling will begin early next year and should be completed by 1998.

Levine said that years ago Ford would not have encouraged Sterling to bid on contracts. Although Ford never announced it, employees felt the plant was on the verge of being closed, he said.

This year the plant won bids to make axles for Ford's F-series trucks, Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis, and it will make axles for the redesigned 1996 F series. Ford will invest about $61 million at Sterling on these two projects. Outside suppliers had previously handled the work.

It isn't cheap for management to swap jobs with the rank-and-file. Sterling's Job Share day cost about $500,000 in 1993, mostly due to lost productivity, says Frank Savalle, UAW plant chairman.

At its peak in 1978, the Sterling Plant employed 8,400 workers. Currently, there are 3,500 with plans to hire 240 employees over the next three years.

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