Mike Bennett has spent years fighting for a different kind of labor-management agreement.
As chairman of Saturn Corp.'s UAW Local 1853, Bennett succeeded again in March in holding together Saturn's 'memorandum of agreement.' The plant's 7,000 Spring Hill, Tenn., workers considered abandoning the radical contract, which did away with factory time clocks, involved assembly workers in designing processes and choosing suppliers, and promised auto workers they would not be laid off.
In the end, they voted by a 2-to-1 ratio to keep the agreement intact. For Bennett, it was a vote of confidence in the new participatory factory management.
'What we've done here over the past 12 years is rethink the definitions of management and unions,' says Bennett, who helped hammer out the Saturn agreement between General Motors and the UAW in 1985. 'I believe we've changed some of the stereotypes people have about what unions are. We've shown how workers can take the responsibility and initiative to solve quality problems without supervision.'
Bennett credits the Japanese transplant auto industry with stimulating the Saturn concept.
'In my mind, there's absolutely validity to what the Japanese are doing in America,' the UAW leader says.
'The Japanese have learned very well how to get their work force to be part of the solution.'
Bennett's personal campaign started in 1980 in his hometown of Flint, Mich. The auto industry was pulling out of the city in search of more efficient locations. Thousands of workers were laid off.
Bennett helped launch a community economic development organization with a mission of encouraging workers and companies to work more cooperatively.