Workers at General Motors' only U.S. plant still turning out cars - the Saturn division, where the company boasts of harmonious labor-management relations - voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.
"We can't continue to live a lie that this partnership is alive and healthy and well when it's not," said Mike Bennett, bargaining chairman for the union local at Saturn Corp.The strike-authorization vote Sunday was another blow to the strike-crippled automaker. Negotiations have slowed and the United Auto Workers union has called a labor summit for Monday in Flint, Mich. Talks between the union and the company also were to continue in Michigan Monday.
Saturn promotes itself as "a different kind of car company." It uses a team approach in the factory and has a reputation for strong management-employee relations.
Of the more than 5,000 Saturn workers who voted, 96 percent cast ballots for strike authorization. A strike technically could be called by the end of the week, though negotiations were scheduled to resume Tuesday.
The UAW often authorizes strikes to put pressure on management during negotiations. The union has obtained authorizations in recent months to call strikes at an assembly plant in Flint and three parts plants in Dayton, Ohio, and Indianapolis but has yet to order walkouts there.
Saturn President Don Hudler played down the vote, saying it does not indicate a strike is imminent. He said Saturn will maintain its operating schedule and continue turning out cars.
"We recognize we have critical issues to work through," Hudler said in a statement. "We will continue to talk through each one of them and resolve issues as we've always done in the past - in the spirit of partnership."
The vote came four months after dissident employees forced a referendum on their unique contract with GM. Workers voted overwhelmingly to keep the "risk-and-reward" contract rather than abandon it for the contract all other UAW workers have.
Under the "risk-and-reward" pay program, Saturn employees average about 12 percent less in salary than GM's other workers but can add to their base pay by hitting certain goals.
In earlier years, annual bonuses reached $10,000 and Saturn workers made about $4,000 more than their GM counterparts. Last year, because fewer cars were made as a result of shrinking demand, it was about $4,000 less.
Now, union officials say Saturn is shortchanging workers for their second-quarter efforts this year. Officials say workers are owed a $1,400 bonus, but the company plans to pay only $390.
Union leaders and employees said they would prefer to work things out.
"We figured our days of strike and conflicts were in the past by coming to Spring Hill. . . . I hope it's a warning shot and a signal to management that we're serious about having a partnership," said Mike Herron, a floor leader at Saturn who voted for strike authorization.
Saturn workers are concerned about possible job cuts from work being sent to other plants, sliding bonus pay and a decreasing role in management decisions.
"They're walking all over us," worker Luis Gonzales said before voting for authorization. "It's time to show some muscle."
GM has lost more than $1.2 billion since workers at two parts plants in Flint, Mich., walked off the job June 5 and 11. More than 100 of GM's North American plants have been affected and 186,000 workers idled.