Mike Westfall is looking ahead and what he sees coming everywhere are robots. As a member of United Auto Workers Local 598 in Chesaning, Mich., Westfall knows what the auto companies are planning to do-replace tens of thousands of autoworkers with microelectronic automation. After years of forecasting, the robots are now coming fast.
GM Cadillac’s new engine plant in Lavonia, Mich., represents the latest in automatic operations, computerized machine monitoring, maintenance monitoring and automated parts storage.
An executive of Republic Steel recently was reported as saying that before the end of this century 75 percent of factory jobs in this country could be robotized. This is industrial revolution. And the question is whether the unions are prepared for it.
Westfall has organized a program called CERP, which stands for Cost of Living for Retirees, Early Retirement and Paid Personal Holidays. The CERP committee at UAW Local 598 held a conference recently for other UAW locals on the new technology and jobs in the automobile industry. Union members at the conference agreed that they could not oppose this technology but had a duty to control it. Westfall’s idea is to have the workers receive a share of the productivity savings from the new machines for earlier retirement which, like more paid personal holidays, would create more job openings.
CERP has a Technology Newsletter available for autoworkers throughout the country to help educate them about the need for prompt reaction to a fast-accelerating automation tidal wave.
One speaker at the conference, Harley Shaiken, an industrial technology expert from MIT, described how the U.S. auto giants were reorganizing production on a world scale. Automakers are constructing overseas parts plants or contracting with existing foreign auto companies for supplies. Together with automated production in the U.S., this worldwide flexibility to take advantage of cheaper labor and weaker laws can
used against American workers. Not only does this global maneuverability export jobs but it can become a powerful ultimatum to workers in this country to reduce their wages.
Already, this GM and Ford strategy is under way. Workers at several GM and Ford plants are being told that the plants will be shut down unless they take a 30 percent or more wage reduction or unless the workers want to buy the plant.
For the 1,300 employees at the Ford plant in Sheffield, Ala., the company gave them three weeks either to take a huge cut in pay and benefits, tied to a profit-sharing plan, or else buy the aluminum casting plant.
The GM Hyatt bearing plant at Clark, N.J., is being sold to the workers who, having little choice, offered to slash their pay by 30 percent and buy the plant. GM in turn promised to give them a three-year parts purchase commitment instead of buying from overseas.
Of course, this leaves GM free to buy from abroad in three years and not have the stigma of closing down a plant in New Jersey. Other workers at other auto plants are getting the message-cut your wages and benefits or else no plant-long before UAW-auto industry wage negotiations begin next year.
UAW chief Douglas Frasier and his associates in Detroit are in a tight corner. It seems that the domestic auto companies have all the bargaining chips. GM and Ford have planned in great detail what plants in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Japan and elsewhere are going to supply what parts. They are not bluffing.
Four years ago, UAW workers were complaining about too much overtime. Those were the superheated days of record domestic auto production. Those were the days when the union should have been planning for the global plan of a highly computerized auto industry. Back in 1967 Walter Reuther saw what was coming when he called for a uniform worldwide auto laborer wage-up to U.S. standards. But few were listening. And now, fewer will be working.
Westfall’s crusade is starting with the rank and file-which is where it should have started years ago.