While overtime is the norm at many plants, overtime-related pressures have either plateaued or are decreasing at others.
This year, for the first time in several years, American Showa Inc. won't expand production.
That is allowing the supplier of power-steering components for Honda Motor Co. and other automakers to move toward using overtime more as a strategic tool rather than relying on it as a safety valve, said Gary Gombita, general manager of administration. The company, in Sunbury, Ohio, is the American arm of Japan's Showa Inc.
This fall, workers can sign up for a significant number of overtime hours that will be spent in voluntary programs, such as quality task forces and ergonomics committees. 'Employees can plan for when they're going to be really busy with this stuff and anticipate the overtime,' Gom-bita said.
Scattered concerns are emerging among industry executives that vehicle sales may lose some momentum heading into 2000, which by itself would ease the pressure for overtime.
At GM's Saturn Corp. plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., overtime became a matter of course over the past several years. For much of that time, production workers averaged an extra 10 to 15 hours a week, and skilled tradespeople notched as much as 20 to 30 hours of overtime each week, said Michael Bennett, former president of the UAW local at Saturn.
'When the car was selling well, GM opened up the floodgates here and didn't really manage overtime and it was unlimited,' Bennett asserted. 'After 10 years of good times here, people don't remember when the industry was really down like in the early '80s, and they've come to think this overtime is unlimited and perpetual. People are expanding their buying habits, buying houses that are way beyond the means of a 40-hour work week.'
Over the last couple of years, however, Saturn sales have eased, as has the U.S. small-car market in general. The company has just introduced a larger sedan that is being built in Wilmington, Del. Next year it plans to introduce a sport-utility that will be built in Spring Hill.
To try to match overtime levels with gradually declining sales, Bennett said, Saturn management has been cutting the typical worker's overtime hours by 10 percent to 12 percent a year during each of the past two years, 'but that's a slow and agonizing way to do it,' he said.
'Now, with restraints in place in terms of sales, management is having a hard time convincing people here that overtime is not something they need to be doing so much of,' Bennett said. 'With workers here counting on it so much, that's a particular problem.'