Flint Strike Puts Spotlight on Transfer of Jobs Overseas
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
FLINT, Mich. -- The 12-day-old strike against General Motors began as a little-watched, local dispute at a single metal-shaping plant here, but the walkout has quickly snowballed into a strike of national importance.
Now not just one plant, but instead 17 are closed, as parts shortages created by the strike have shut down most operations at the world's largest auto maker, a company accounting for 1 percent of the nation's economic output.
And although the walkout involves a tangle of issues, the strike has focused increasingly on an issue of paramount concern to millions of workers across America: the transfer of jobs overseas.
"We're on strike to protect our jobs, and that's an issue everyone cares about," said John Falk, a strapping auto worker who spent his 40th birthday on the picket line along with his 11-year-old son. "GM has everyone worried they're going to shut everything down and move our jobs overseas, but we want to save some good-paying jobs so kids like 11-year-old Charlie here can have a good standard of living."
But GM sees things differently. Ever since 3,400 workers walked off the job on June 5 at the metal-stamping plant here, GM officials have insisted that the main issue in the dispute is the company's need to trim costs further so it can compete better with Ford, Chrysler and Japanese automakers. To do that, GM is demanding greater leeway to rely on lower-cost plants, usually nonunion and often overseas, to supply parts now made at GM plants, a practice known as outsourcing.
"The union has accused GM of putting America last," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of industrial relations at the University of California at Berkeley. "This dispute is the most visible example of offshore outsourcing becoming the issue in a strike with major national implications."
Corporate America began embracing outsourcing in the 1980's, but the phenomenon has gathered steam in recent years as tariffs and trade barriers have fallen, making it easier and cheaper for companies like Caterpillar and New Balance shoes to buy many parts from abroad instead of making them in the United States.
As the practice has spread, unions have fought back, with mixed success, mostly at the bargaining table and rarely through strikes. But now, with General Motors aggressively pushing to move more work to nonunion plants, at home and abroad, the United Automobile Workers, emboldened by a booming economy and low unemployment, has decided to strike. The auto workers' tough stand against outsourcing is being watched closely by unions and other industries where outsourcing is growing: machinery, apparel, electronics and aircraft.
The strike pits the nation's largest manufacturer versus the nation's most powerful and arguably most respected union -- a union at the top of labor's firmament, one known for its toughness on the picket line and shrewdness in delivering at the bargaining table.
With some analysts predicting that the dispute could become the biggest auto industry showdown since the 1970 walkout that shut down GM for three months, the way this strike turns out could cast a long shadow on labor-management relations nationwide and on how hard or easy it will be for other companies to turn to outsourcing.
"The labor movement has to be watching this very closely because the UAW is standing up for every union that is worried by the transfer of jobs overseas," said David L. Lewis, a professor of business history at the University of Michigan. "It's a life-and-death struggle. General Motors is determined to transfer many of these jobs out of the country, and the UAW simply can't have it. If the UAW fails, many unions will find it all the more difficult to prevent outsourcing. This trend, this outsourcing will be accelerated."