General Motors, desperate to cut assembly costs, pushed the UAW at the Oklahoma City assembly plant to relinquish a key task: readying parts for the assembly line.
GM wanted an outside supplier to do the work at the plant, which produces Chevrolet Malibus and Oldsmobile Cutlasses. The elimination of some or all of those 112 jobs was a key dispute in the seven-week strike at the plant that ended last week, according to company and union officials.
'This is a major issue,' said Yvonne Smith, vice president of Local 1999, representing Oklahoma City workers. 'It represents a number of jobs, and the company wants to do this at all of the plants in the future.'
Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said hiring suppliers to ready parts for the assembly line - called sequencing - is not a new practice, but one that is expanding.
He said the union opposes losing any jobs at all, but sequencing jobs are perceived as some of the more prestigious in the plant.
More importantly, Shaiken said, the workers view the loss of sequencing as another important step toward the Volkswagen plant method in Brazil, where many of the employees on the line are suppliers.
'Sequencing is something the companies would like to do, but they will have a tough battle,' Shaiken said.
At issue are the various jobs held by UAW workers, such as stock handlers, material handlers and stock runners. They pick up the parts from the dock, prep them and deliver them to the lines.
GM is not attempting to prevent UAW employees from picking up the supplies and delivering them to the line. But the company admits it wants to cut out that middle step: sequencing the parts.
Sequencing means putting the parts in correct order before they arrive at the line. Seats, fascias, carpeting and other parts must match up with the proper cars as they move down the assembly line.
'The idea is to have the material flow right to the assembly line,' a GM spokesman said.
Before computers, UAW workers sequenced all parts at the plant. In a large assembly plant, the work accounts for up to 500 jobs.
But now automakers, via computer communication, can tell suppliers the order of vehicles on the line and how to sequence the parts.
'This is what we all want to do,' said a Chrysler spokesman who declined to be identified. 'Basically, you're saving the area in the plant and the labor.'
The Chrysler spokesman said his company tries to eliminate in-house sequencing jobs wherever possible. He said workers have not been eliminated by the practice, but moved to more efficient jobs.
'You have to have a reliable supplier or you will pay the price,' the Chrysler spokesman said. 'If you have the room and people, you can continue to do it the old way, but you generally need the room.'
JUST THE BEGINNING
Outsourcing of the sequence work is a key issue at Oklahoma City and other GM plants as well.
'Outsourcing sequencing jobs is one of the things GM is trying to dictate,' said Joe Burkhamer, president of the local that represents workers at GM's Fort Wayne, Ind., truck plant. Workers at the plant walked out for two weeks in March over staffing levels.
Burkhamer said the company also tried to persuade the union to agree to new sequencing rules when the plant begins building the next generation full-sized truck next year. That plant has about 120 material handlers.
'Hell, no,' the union didn't agree to that, Burkhamer said. 'If they want to sequence parts, they need to create work in-house.
'Any time you look at taking a bargaining unit job - when you start talking about that - you're talking about a fight.'
It is not clear to what extent GM is having parts delivered to its plants fully sequenced.
At Saturn Corp.'s assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., all parts produced by outside suppliers are sequenced by Ryder Integrated Logistics in Ann Arbor, Mich. (See related story below.) Parts made inside the Saturn plant are sequenced by UAW workers.
A company called Mackie Automotive Systems Inc., based in Oshawa, Ontario, was doing some of the sequencing work at Oklahoma City, and was the center of dispute in that matter.
'This is volatile, and it's changing,' said Miles Raper, vice president and general manager at Ryder. 'Right now there is as much logistics work going on inside the plants as outside.'
Raper said Ryder is also doing some sequencing work at GM assembly plants in Hamtramck, Lake Orion and Flint, Mich.
'It's my opinion that all the auto manufacturers want to do is assemble vehicles, period,' Raper said.
At Oklahoma City, the company and union compromised on the sequencing issue.
Some commodities, such as front bumper fascias and mud flaps, were removed from Mackie. Several commodities, such as headliners, center pillars and carpet moldings, scheduled to go to Mackie for the 1998 model year, will stay at Oklahoma City.
Mackie keeps components such as outside door mirrors and handles and airbags.
'I don't think we can call (the strike settlement) a gain' at Oklahoma City, said GM Chairman Jack Smith, 'but we're on line to get those cars competitive.'