The relationship between General Motors subsidiary Saturn Corp. and its United Auto Workers employees is like a marriage - and it's been on the rocks for the last few months.

But Dennis G. Finn, Saturn's "people systems team leader," or personnel director, said a new agreement between company and union officials should keep the relationship out of divorce court."We've spent a lot of time and energy on our relationships," Finn said Friday during the 1998 Utah Best Practices Symposium in Salt Lake City. "My belief is that we are stronger now . . . from a relationship perspective than we were before."

UAW leaders said this week that key GM officials have approved a plan to build a sport-utility vehicle at Saturn's plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., which could lead to an investment of more than $230 million in the plant and hiring of up to 1,000 new workers.

Finn confirmed Friday that Saturn will produce a new, larger car in 1999, and he said he thinks the company will start building a small sport-utility vehicle "in a couple years."

The agreement would head off labor problems at Saturn, where workers in July gave union leaders approval to call a strike if no headway was made in discussions about job security, bonuses and input on management decisions.

"The discussions with the union were a little disheartening at times," Finn said.

But with the resolution of problems, he said, Saturn can focus again on making cars in its own, unique way.

Finn, who began his career at GM in 1969, said Saturn was incorporated in 1985 as an experiment. He said GM wanted to see if American workers could build and sell small cars that could compete with Asian imports.

The first Saturn was finished in June 1990, Finn said, and the company's production has now topped 1.6 million cars.

But in addition to producing cars, Saturn also was challenged to develop a new corporate culture, he said. To that end, Saturn invited its 9,500 employees and the UAW to serve as partners in forming "a new kind of company."

"Partnership is a key word in our company," Finn said.

Under the new structure, he said, management agreed to offer job security, an all-salaried pay system (no one punches a clock), improved benefits, full information sharing and a "risk and reward" compensation plan.

Finn said the pay structure is unique because it lets everyone who works for Saturn share its "pains and gains."

"In bad times, we've agreed that our people are not going to be laid off . . . but you may take a financial hit," he said.

For example, Finn said, low gasoline prices have caused a decline in demand for smaller cars, so Saturn had to stop production for a week this spring.

But instead of facing layoffs, Saturn employees received additional training and worked on community projects. Finn said the company's employees painted five miles of fence around the plant, turning it into a fun experience with a picnic, music and other activities.

"It was quite an event, and the fence really looks great," Finn said.

As the pay schedule stands now, Saturn workers have a base pay that is about 12 percent lower than other GM employees. But through a series of quality, productivity and financial goals, employees can raise their pay to the same level as other GM employees, or even higher.