UAW must realize bargaining unit is no sacred cow
For seven weeks, General Motors and the Oklahoma City UAW local quibbled over a small number of jobs at the Oklahoma City assembly plant. When the dust settled, the UAW had saved a few jobs in the bargaining unit. GM was allowed to improve efficiency in handling parts, but not as much as it had wanted.
But in the long run, efficiency is always going to win, no matter what UAW leaders would prefer. GM will continue to lose market share to the extent that it cannot compete on price with the best in the world. The business, and ultimately the jobs, will go to those who build the best products at the lowest prices.
A key issue was 'sequencing' of components - seeing that the seats and other components get from the dock to the line in same order as the vehicle. The UAW local's battle in Oklahoma City was a classic rear-guard action. It wasn't as obvious as requiring firemen on diesel trains, but it was along those lines.
Local UAW workers have handled sequencing. But it's done more cheaply by a combination of the parts supplier and the logistics company. When it's done more cheaply at Oklahoma City, the Malibus and Cutlasses made there can be more competitive.
The UAW local opposed that. Why?
'Any time you look at taking a bargaining unit job ... you're talking about a fight,' said Joe Burkhamer, president of the UAW local that represents workers at GM's Fort Wayne, Ind., truck plant, which struck for two weeks in March.
That's understandable, if all you care about is the bargaining unit. But the customer and the global automotive business don't respect bargaining units. They respect affordable, appealing well-made products.
A revolution has been unleashed in automotive retailing, where nothing is sacred. The revolution is caused by the power of the consumer.
The same revolution has been going on for years in manufacturing. The revolution doesn't respect bargaining units. And the companies and workers who understand that are the ones that are winning.
GM's long, long road
Forget about 33 percent of the market for General Motors this year. Chairman Jack Smith says the long strikes at Oklahoma City and Pontiac have washed out chances of reaching that figure.
But hiking market share to 33 percent? It shows how times have changed for The General. In the 1950s and early 1960s, GM's share of U.S. car and light-truck sales sometimes topped 50 percent. It stayed above 40 percent through 1985. Last year, it was 31.3 percent.
It's a different auto world from the one GM ruled a generation ago.