A painful lesson: Flint strike showed labor-relations model had to change
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
The 56-day strike shut all of GM's North American assembly plants. It cost the automaker about 500,000 vehicles and $2.8 billion in net losses.
But both sides learned a valuable lesson: They resolved not to let miscommunication and intransigence cause another meltdown.
That fear of mutually assured destruction was on display in September 2007 when GM opened its books to investment bankers hired by the UAW. Realizing the Detroit 3's precarious financial positions, the UAW agreed to concessions meant to save the three automakers more than $8 billion over the next four years.
"I believe that labor and management today are better off for that than they would have been any other way," says Don Hackworth, a retired GM senior vice president and company point man during the 1998 strike. "I don't think that kind of thing will happen again at GM."
Ten years after the strike, opinions vary on who was at fault.
UAW Vice President Cal Rapson points at the company. Rapson, who heads the UAW's GM department, was the Flint regional director then.
He says GM promised Flint Metal Fabrication, then a giant Delphi division, new transfer presses and additional work. The UAW struck the operation when GM reneged, he says.
"In the middle '90s, there was a real attitude from GM that they weren't going to communicate with us very much, and they were going to do whatever the hell they wanted," Rapson says.
"At that time we had a lot of subcontracting grievances, and they were putting more work on the folks. We worked hard to resolve it, but we finally issued a five-day letter giving them five days to resolve the issues or you go on strike."
Hackworth saw it differently. He says UAW employees didn't want to give a fair day's work and ignored warnings that inefficiency would have consequences. He said Flint was where GM decided to draw a line in the sand.
Like Lordstown, Ohio, Flint had a reputation as a bare-knuckles union town that offered no quarter to GM. The UAW Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37 still is toasted at UAW summer picnics.
At the time, Flint Metal Fab employed nearly 9,000 people and supplied virtually every GM plant in North America.
"We had a stamping plant that kind of brought to the forefront all the things that were wrong," Hackworth says.
"It was a plant that, basically, if they didn't work at all, they would've been perfectly happy. And even if they only worked four hours, they wanted to go home when they were done, and they figured ways to do it.
"And we finally just said: 'Hey, we're not going to put any new stamping presses in these plants at all. It's over, if that's the way you guys want to work.' "
At that point, both sides dug in and workers hit the picket lines, Rapson says.
Within two weeks, GM assembly plants across the continent had ground to a halt.
After nearly two agonizing months, arbitration finally forced the two sides to resolve the dispute. GM, dismayed at its losses, wanted the strike declared improper and the UAW ordered back to work. And the automaker sought damages for the lost production.
The UAW argued its case to the arbitrator. But privately, Rapson says, he informed Hackworth that GM would lose even if the company won the arbitration: Demoralized workers, after all, probably would slow production once back in the plant.
"I asked Hackworth what he thought he'd get if he won the arbitration. 'You'll go back to work, and we'll take your strike fund,' " Rapson says.
"I said, 'You'll get us back to work, but I don't know how productive we'll be inside.' "
After days of testimony, the arbiter told the two sides that he would render a decision within 12 hours. At that point, they settled what had already been a no-win action.
GM brought in the transfer presses. And the strikers went back to work.
Rapson says part of the agreement was that the arbiter never reveal how he intended to rule.
"To this day, we don't know how he was going to decide."
Looking back after 10 years, Rapson disputes that the strike prompted GM to accelerate its efforts to shift parts business to Mexico, in part to avoid a single plant or operation acquiring so much power over the company.
To the contrary, Rapson says the strike opened the lines of communication between the union and company to prevent a recurrence. Soon after the strike was settled, union officials realized that the two sides were barely apart in their positions, Rapson says.
"We realized what was needed was to talk things through," he says. "They had to share with us all the information they had to try and find solutions.
"When the parties went back, we found that the strike should have never happened. We have not had a strike like that with GM since."
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