Saturn Plant's Union Leaders Are Voted Out
By KEITH BRADSHER
DETROIT -- All of the local union leaders who made General Motors' Saturn one of the nation's most prominent experiments in labor relations have been voted out of office by union members, who chose new leaders who have advocated a more traditional and less close relationship with management.
General Motors Corp. set up Saturn in Tennessee in 1986 in an effort to create a car company with labor relations that would be less rancorous and more cooperative. For the last 13 years, the local Saturn union had been led by Michael Bennett, who frequently defied the national leadership of the United Automobile Workers union by linking pay to productivity and encouraging workers to participate in a wide range of decisions with management.
Bennett and his entire slate of other union officials were defeated in elections on Wednesday, according to results that became official late Wednesday and were confirmed Thursday by union officials. Replacing Bennett will be Robert Williams, a vice president of the local union and a critic of current labor relations at Saturn.
Specialists in labor relations have come from around the world to study and praise Saturn's experiment at its 7,000-employee factory in Spring Hill, Tenn. But many of the workers have increasingly felt that they were making too many concessions to management, like irregular workweeks that included work on Saturdays without overtime pay.
Workers' anger boiled over last summer when a strike at two GM parts factories in Flint, Mich., forced the closing of almost all of GM's assembly plants in North America. The Saturn assembly plant remained open then because the local union leadership agreed to let GM use parts from other companies, including Japanese spark plugs.
The factory's membership voted for the first time ever then to authorize a strike but never walked out.
Williams, who won this week's election, was the only local union official who, in a union vote two years ago, advocated ending the existing labor contract at Saturn and replacing it with the national UAW agreement in force at every other GM factory in the United States. Williams, who goes by the nickname "Jeep," won 55.5 percent of the vote at Saturn's factory, while Bennett received 38.6 percent. Two other candidates had the rest of the vote.
In this week's election, Williams and his fellow candidates did not call for replacing the Saturn contract. But they did say that Saturn should stop linking pay to productivity and should adopt many work rules from other GM factories.
The vote comes at a particularly difficult time for GM. Local union elections are usually held in late spring, but Bennett called early elections this year because the local union must decide what concessions to offer GM in exchange for a corporate commitment to build a car-based sport utility vehicle there in two years. Now, GM is likely to face a series of union demands even as it seeks promises of further improvements in productivity.
In another, apparently coincidental setback for Saturn, its vice president for sales and marketing, Joseph Kennedy, resigned on Wednesday to work for an Internet company in California. Kennedy had been one of GM's young star executives but was passed over late last year for the chairmanship of Saturn when the man who built the car division, Donald Hudler, announced his retirement.
Bennett said Thursday that he would not challenge the election results and planned to resign as of March 29, even though his term runs to the end of May. "I'm going to remake my life and find another career," possibly as an author and consultant on labor relations, he said in a telephone interview.
Cynthia Trudell, who replaced Hudler as Saturn's chairman and president last month, said she was surprised by the vote's outcome and would miss the current union leaders. But she insisted that Saturn could continue to grow with the new leaders.
"I'm very committed to working with the new group," she said in a telephone interview. "They share the values of Saturn. They want to see the plant and the relationship grow."
Union dissidents were delighted with the vote. "It's the greatest day of my life," said Thomas Hopp, one of the organizers of the factory floor-level campaign to unseat Bennett. The men and women who won the election were working in the factory Thursday and could not be reached for comment; Hopp, who installs side windows on the assembly line, had the day off Thursday, partly because his work schedule this year includes 32 Saturdays without overtime pay.
Williams was an ally of Bennett in Saturn's early days. But the two men developed differences and Williams lost his position as an appointed, full-time union leader in the early 1990s and returned to work on the assembly line, Hopp said. Williams then ran successfully for an elected position as one of the local union's four vice presidents before taking on Bennett and winning the top job this week as the local union's "manufacturing adviser."
"He kind of rose like the phoenix and defeated his old adversary," Hopp said.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company