Strikers at GM's Delphi Flint East plant cite the usual reasons for last week's walkout, such as health and safety violations.
But the real issue is survival.
Local UAW members fear General Motors may tag the sprawling parts plant for extinction, eliminating thousands of jobs or moving them to low-wage Mexico.
'GM claims it is not making enough money,' said one employee. 'Any plant that does not go along with the program is history.'
The 5,800 hourly workers at the Flint plant walked off their jobs Thursday, June 11, joining 3,400 UAW workers who struck a Flint metal stamping plant June 5. The strikes started a huge domino effect of parts shortages, closed plants and lost production.
The two walkouts highlight GM's painful drive to cut costs, reduce its payroll and go global. A bigger global presence means new plants outside the UAW domain.
'GM didn't invent globalization,' said Donald Hackworth, vice president and group executive of the North American Operations car group. 'It is fundamental to our business and a fact of life.
'The Daimler-Chrysler merger is just one more example of this. We cannot choose to invest only in the U.S. or overseas: GM must do both to remain strong, especially here in the U.S.'
For the past six years, GM's Delphi Automotive Systems has waged a controversial campaign to upgrade, sell or close uncompetitive parts plants. The issue is especially acute at plants, such as Flint East, that make low-tech, low-profit parts such as spark plugs and oil filters.
General Motors no longer is willing to pay higher prices to buy commodity parts from Delphi, said Craig Cather, president of CSM Corp., a consulting firm based in Okemos, Mich.
In past years, 'Delphi was protected from the outside world, but those protectionist barriers are starting to come down,' Cather said. 'It is exposing operations at Delphi that won't make the cut. And that is when things get hairy.'
Flint East makes instrument clusters for nearly all GM cars and trucks. In effect, the plant is a valuable choke point for the UAW, which can use one local strike to shut down all of GM's assembly plants.
The dispute at Flint East has been building ever since mid-decade, when it was one of a dozen 'problem plants' considered to be unprofitable.
Three years ago, GM assigned one of its 'plant doctors' - Guy Jones - to be site manager of Flint East.
Jones previously had managed a Delphi plant in Grand Rapids, Mich., where workers say he implemented a program to cut waste.
According to hourly and salaried sources at Delphi East, Jones organized workshops to encourage workers to make the plant more efficient.
Jones told the employees: 'My job is to show you how to save yourself, or we will shut you down,' said one salaried employee.
Employees in Grand Rapids got a similar message from Jones.
'Guy told us that he was the doctor,' said an employee who did not want to be identified. 'He said he could try to make things comfortable while we die or he could help make things better.'
Grand Rapids employees say they made great strides with Jones, but Flint employees say he left last September very unsatisfied with his stay in Flint.
Workers say GM has warned them that it wants to reduce the work force from 5,800 employees down to 3,000. And now workers fear GM might shut or sell part or all of the facility.
This year the company took steps to make each parts-making operation a self-contained entity, employees say. If each operation is separate, GM can more easily sell the plant in chunks. Delphi spokeswoman Cheryl Kilborn denies any plans to sell the plant.
'We have not offered this plant for sale,' she said.
Still, the relationship between GM and Flint East has not been the best.
In 1995, workers at Flint East staged a three-day shutdown that forced GM to close 10 assembly plants.
The union went back to work after GM agreed to hire an additional 600 workers and pledged to invest $72 million. In 1997, GM told union leaders the plant was profitable.
But world prices for spark plugs and filters began dropping, and early this year Delphi warned the UAW that Flint East was not competitive with non-GM suppliers.
'Prices were sliding, and GM was very anxious,' said Ken Little, a spokesman for Local 651. 'This is part of GM's global sourcing. They are taking a look at all our businesses.'