Striking Against Overtime in Flint
— Peter Downs
THE STRIKE BY members of United Auto Workers (UAW) at the Buick City complex of the giant General Motors Corporation attracted worldwide attention in late September. The stunning victory after only five days on the picket lines could be a turning point for labor.
The strike at the complex of twenty-five factories in Flint was unusual because the main issues were the amount of work and work time. Pay, the central issue in contract campaigns in the '60s and most of the '70s, was not a concern. Job security, the main union concern in the concessionary bargaining of the last sixteen years, was not an issue either.
Workers wanted more time for themselves and their families, and they wanted to have enough energy at the end of the work day to enjoy that time. A central concern, according to Local 599 President David Yettaw, was the high level of mandatory overtime, often reaching sixty or more hours a week. “But we can't strike over overtime,” says Yettaw, “so we struck against the negative effects of that overtime,” such as increased injuries.
The 11,500 workers at the complex walked out on September 27. In addition to the popular Buick LeSabre, the workers made parts used in thirty-one other GM plants around the world. They knew they had the power to bring car production throughout the corporation to a halt.
On the second day of the strike, Wall Street analysts urged the automaker to “hang tough.” They said the company already had too many workers doing too little. National media trumpeted the claim that what was at stake was the very existence of the of the company in the competitive world economy. They called the workers “extortionists.”
After four days, the strike cost GM $300 million in sales due to lost production. Seven assembly plants and two transmission plants had been forced to close. Each additional day that the Flint workers were out would multiply the losses, and the absence of parts cascaded throughout a GM system where world production was tied together with lean “just-in-time” inventories.
On day five, management caved in and agreed to hire 779 new workers.
The conventional wisdom among union activists is that nothing can be done about overtime because workers, no matter how well off, never have enough. Advertisements inflame their desire for new things, for which they will always need more money.
The strike by Local 599 explodes that myth. Time was more important than money, and the reduction of overtime that workers will see will reduce the amount of money in their paychecks.
Earlier Attempts to Oppose Overtime
The Flint strike was not the first struggle to contradict the “workers only want more money” mindset, but the widespread media attention it received makes it the most important and dramatic one.
* A few years ago, workers at Chrysler's St. Louis minivan plant won the seven-hour-day at eight hours pay, with the addition of a third shift. The reduction in overtime hours meant a reduction in weekly earnings, but by all accounts the overwhelming majority of workers are very happy with the new system.
* IBEW Local 1 successfully struck against St. Louis building contractors for “work-sharing” to create jobs. Electricians work eight weeks then get two weeks off. Every news reporter who revisits the plan finds workers saying, “it cost me $6,000 a year, and it was worth it.”
* In mid-September, an unknown worker (or group of workers) at GM's Livonia engine plant gained hero's status, and the nickname “Edward Scissorhands,” when he cut the wires tying power to the assembly lines and trashed the plant's electrical blueprints, forcing the plant to close for two days.
* The same day that workers walked out in Flint, members of IBEW Local 1654 struck against a Philips picture tube plant near Toledo. Picketing workers Marcia Herring and Ginny Schroeder told the press that forced overtime was the “major issue” because “It takes away your family life...You can't plan anything.” They won a reduction in the number of forced labor Saturdays to fourteen a year. Wouldn't it be ironic if all the politicians' and media hype around family values is leading workers to reject the work ethic for the “right to be lazy” proclaimed by socialist Paul LaFargue over 100 years ago?
Dean Braid, education chairman at Local 599, points out that the work time issue didn't just suddenly pop out of nowhere. Braid, like Yettaw, is an activist in the New Directions Movement, the rank-and-file reform organization in the UAW. For several years, says Braid, New Directions members hit on the overtime and shorter work time issues in the handbills they distributed in the plants. “At first,” he says, “people didn't like it.”
“But as the work got harder, faster and longer, as we had predicted, it made sense to more and more people.” It got to the point where hundreds of members showed up at union meetings to demand that the union do something about workloads and work times, says shop committeeman Max Grider, also a New Directions activist. Then, even though New Directions activists held a minority of the union positions, they were able to take the lead in organizing an effective union campaign against the problems.
During the spring and summer, the New Directions Movement mounted a modest national campaign against speed-up and forced overtime. New Directions activists distributed hundreds of thousands of handbills and newsletters in UAW-represented factories and discussed the issues with thousands of coworkers.
The national office, and academics forming a North American Network for Shorter Hours of Work, arranged for commentaries and news articles on excessive hours of work in dozens of newspapers in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Missouri.
Sources at the UAW national headquarters in Solidarity House, who prefer to remain anonymous, say the success of the New Directions campaign prompted UAW Vice President Steve Yokich to change his rhetoric.
For nearly a decade, as director first of the union's Ford department then of its GM department, Yokich had tolerated extensive overtime. In July, as he prepared to ascend to the presidency of the UAW, he dropped his public attacks on New Directions and Dave Yettaw.
Yokich suddenly announced in meetings and to the press that he “greed with Dave Yettaw” and something had to be done to curb overtime. When Local 599 struck, he gave it his full support.
The Flint Agreement
The Flint settlement included an agreement to add 779 new workers, 531 in production and 248 in skilled trades. Those workers were to come from the ranks of laid-off GM employees who had lost recall rights.
Ripple effects of the Flint victory quickly appeared. GM faced strikes over similar work load and overtime disputes in transmission plants in Warren, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio.
Rather than risk further crippling strikes, management, within a week of the Flint settlement, agreed to add hundreds of workers and reduce mandatory overtime at those plants. Yokich, who negotiated the deal, agreed not to submit the settlements to the respective memberships for ratification, so as not to risk rejection if the members thought they should, and could, win more.
GM management also announced it was postponing by one year the closing of a foundry in St. Catherines, Quebec, because of “manpower shortages” at the U.S. plant that was to accept the work. (Workers at the St. Catherines foundry are represented by the Canadian Auto Workers union.) On November 7, GM, the company that stock analysts, consultants and its own managers had said was still “too fat” and “not productive enough,” announced that it would hire new permanent employees from off the street for the first time since 1986.
The Flint victory gave a boost to the reform caucus New Directions. It vindicated New Direction's advocacy of aggressive union action, and boosted the group's membership. More importantly, the Flint victory put strikes and shorter work time back on labor's agenda. Activists from other unions, from Teamsters to Service Employees, have begun pointing to Flint as an example of the demands and actions their own unions ought to pursue.
ATC 54, January-February 1995