For U.S. Autoworkers, Future Hinges on Adaptability

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

WARREN, Mich. If the electric car he is working on at this moment represents General Motors' hopeful vision of its changing direction, then Tom Goddard may be the new face of the American autoworker, someone who after 24 years at GM takes nothing for granted, sees his job as tenuous and prides himself on building his skills in hopes of survival.

Two years ago, Goddard took stock of the ailing corporation and the precariousness of union jobs here in Michigan and asked whether he might be able to work on the Chevrolet Volt, GM's much ballyhooed electric car, still in the pre-production stage and not scheduled for sale until late 2010. In response, one of his supervisors wondered whether they ought to be part of the Volt project, voicing skepticism about the vehicle's long-term chances.

"We need to get involved in this," Goddard recalls telling the supervisor. "This is going to be the future."

Now part of a team of about 1,000 hourly and salaried workers involved in a high-stakes race to bring the Volt into production at a GM facility in Warren, the 59-year-old Goddard says he sees signs that some workers understand the urgency of changing their routines and the culture of the workplace. "Some guys who know I like to work with computers will say to me a little defensively, 'How do you do that? I've never been trained to do that.' And I'll just kind of get to the point and say, 'Do you want to know how to do that?' And if they do, I'll show them. Most do."

He shrugs. There are limits to how far he will go; he does not want to be a nuisance. "I guess some would never ask," he adds. "Some people are just predisposed to being curious about things and others want to be outdoors with their boat or motorcycle, I guess. They just can't seem to get interested. They're stuck in their ways and really don't want to change. There's a lot of talent there not being used, I guess."

Critics of the auto industry express dismay over such explanations. They contend that, as painful as change might be for some veteran workers, a zest for knowledge is a prerequisite for the success of American car companies. The old plant order, these critics argue, must yield to new models that will create a better trained group of laborers adept at working on vastly more sophisticated cars such as the Volt.

"We don't have a large enough knowledgeable workforce," says Ann Marie Sastry, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan and the head of a joint project between the university and GM that has been training a group of the company's engineers in advanced battery technology. The hope is that the engineers' new expertise will find expression in the Volt and other electric cars to follow.

"Will a lot of autoworkers enter programs and receive retraining?" Sastry asks. "I don't know. I can say this: Autoworkers' jobs are going to change everywhere. There will be chip technologies, solar technologies. This is going to be an economy dominated by knowledge workers, not by somebody who we think of as being on an old assembly line."

She is blunt when assessing the future of most middle-aged workers who are not trained in new technologies. "I don't know where that autoworker goes," she says. "You have to be aggressive and get new skills for most of these jobs in the future. Racing for the bottom is a mistake for the country. If we say people are going to perform only a single task on a line, and not utilize intellectual skills, that's the wrong approach."

Building Skills

Like even the smallest of auto factories, the shop that houses the pre-production operations of the Chevy Volt prototypes is huge, as big as three football fields. Its size serves as a reminder of the mammoth ambitions and risks involved in the launch of any hyped automobile, particularly one from a teetering company running out of cash and chances to prove its worth.

Having long served as an embryo for GM vehicles, the plant is not as busy a place these days, but the dreamers still come through it, and the Volt team is just one more. A constant for Goddard, who once worked on Cadillacs here, is the concrete floor, concrete as thick and hard as concrete can get, hard enough to support millions of tons of steel and tires, but concrete that wears on many workers' legs and feet as a day moves along.

Born with club-feet, Goddard is often in pain, but he resolved long ago that his condition would not stop him. As with most union positions, Goddard's nondescript job title, assembly inspector, obscures the arduousness of his task in helping to create Volt prototypes. Short-armed and only 5-foot-5, Goddard must reach more than the average worker when dipping around and beneath such things as dashboards to tinker and build, and two decades of stretching and straining in odd positions have taken their toll.

"My shoulders are shot," he says. Characteristically, he has found ways to compensate, his stature giving him advantages over other workers in small, confined spaces. "I can do some things on electrical [components] that others can't," he says. "But that's not as important as building your skills."

His forte has always been electrical systems, he says, a talent mostly acquired on his own through reading and studying. "I like to keep abreast of everything electrical," he says. "I don't mind learning new things, and I don't want to be the dumbest guy in the room. I don't want to have to say, 'I don't know.' About anything."

A man with eclectic sides -- art aficionado, devotee of complex crossword puzzles, passionate fan of the Talking Heads and Depeche Mode -- Goddard is intent on defying blue-collar stereotypes. "I'm not Joe the Plumber," he says.

In the early 1990s, his inquisitiveness began driving him to find out everything he could about computer programs. What started as a simple effort to learn how to prepare spreadsheets for tracking the ups and downs of his 401(k) account soon grew into an understanding of workplace computer programs. "I'll show things to colleagues interested in learning how to do that," he says. "I think more people are becoming open to that. They need to, sometimes."

If GM executive Bob Lutz is a conceptual father of the Volt, the responsibility for turning it into a reality has rested on the shoulders of hard-driving company administrators such as industrial engineer Shane Leach, one of Goddard's superiors. At 36, fresh off his managerial successes in dealing with GM trucks as the corporation's global build program manager, Leach, who has taken charge these days of making sure that Volt prototypes will be ready for rigorous testing this summer and fall, has swiftly acquired a reputation as a demanding supervisor.

"Shane can be abrasive, a real go-getter," Goddard says. "He'll say to people, 'Just tell me if you can't get this done by Thursday -- you can tell me, but just tell me.' And if you can't do it by Thursday, well, believe me, he'll find someone who can do it. Shane is not everyone's cup of tea. But you need more people like that now. I respect Shane. He works hard. There's no room for mistakes, and these [prototype] cars have to be ready. I'd say to people: It's a different time. There's going to be no hand-holding."

For his part, Leach speaks with a clipped efficiency that makes clear where his priorities lie. The cars "will be going out ready and on schedule -- that is all that really matters; that's our job."

Not all workers like the shop changes that have encouraged more versatility and speed, Goddard says.

"Some workers are maybe saying, 'I'm a little uncomfortable with this,' " he says. "But they're doing it. The union might not have liked how some things are changing. But the union is saying, 'We'll do it. We'll do it quicker. We'll move forward.' If you're an old-timer and you don't like the new ways somewhere and you think people should have fought to keep what used to be, maybe you shouldn't be there. Maybe I shouldn't say that about them, but you always have to adapt in life."

Goddard is the model of what Sastry wants from an autoworker: someone inquisitive, studious, and able to see that his or her professional future hinges on lifelong training and flexibility. All that sounds good to Goddard, so long as professors and GM executives understand that, if it is a genuine partnership that everybody really wants, management could do its part by demonstrating a new interest in the hands-on insights that experienced workers can provide from the factory floor.

"Listening to each other was always something of a problem -- they didn't want to hear us, and so you didn't even want to try after a while," Goddard says, alluding to old tensions in the workplace between union workers and GM salaried managers that both sides agree sometimes hindered efficiency. Nowadays, in the least expected ways, Goddard senses a gentle melting of the frost between the two groups, a change born of the new urgency. Recently, a longtime GM management man surprised him and some other hourly workers by admitting, "Not every decision I make is the right one."

Goddard opened his eyes wide, with mock astonishment. "Write that down," he said sarcastically to a colleague.

The superior smiled. "I mean it," he responded, to which Goddard smiled back, in acknowledgment of a divide crossed. Later, Goddard privately said, "I don't know if I would've expected it from that guy five years ago. It was nice to see. We're all listening more, I think. It's like, we have to get through all this together. We want to be a team. We have to be."

Goddard knows his attitude is not shared by everyone. With the support of some United Auto Workers locals, the transition to a new kind of GM workplace has sometimes brought unwelcome changes, including severe reductions in overtime and the institution of new workplace methodologies that have forced veterans to alter decades-long job habits. Some workers resent the changes, an irritation that baffles Goddard. "It kills me to hear people say, 'That's not the way it used to be done by us where I worked,' " he says. "I want to say to them: Yeah, you're right, that's the way it was done then. You need to roll with it. It's like Darwin said: You adapt or you die. I've always tried to adapt, I guess."

'The Old Days Are Over'

A skilled tradesman represented by UAW Local 160 in Warren, Goddard revolves around routines: get up at 4 a.m. in his Detroit working-class suburb of Allen Park and be ready for a 10-hour shift that begins at 6 a.m. Making about $32 an hour, the top wage for a union autoworker, he has spent most of his career helping to build prototypes and mockups of new GM vehicles, a critical step in designing and honing vehicles before they go into production. "I love doing what I do," he says. "I don't have boats or a [vacation] house. I'm one of those people who likes working, I guess. I've just always been used to it. Keep busy, learn something."

When his father died, he went to work in a pizzeria at age 13, taking home his earnings to his mother. He saw basic life lessons all around him then: Life is hard; misfortune happens; it is foolish to feel completely safe under someone else's seemingly protective arm. Never in the years that followed, as he entered adulthood and the regular workforce, did he really think that a union or corporation could shield him from disaster, particularly a layoff. "That's not life," he says. Not even in the 1980s, when he left his mechanic's position at a Ford auto dealership in favor of gaining the measure of job protection that came with his new union position at a GM factory, did he ever feel the permanent sense of security that other workers basked in.

Revered then for its ability to safeguard jobs and boost wages and benefits, the UAW created a confidence that amounted to an expectation of lifetime security for many workers. "A lot of people had a mindset that if you hired into an auto job then or back in the '70s, that you'd be able to work there until you retired," Goddard recalls. "Their fathers and uncles had done it: worked 30, 35 years and then retired with pensions. So they'd do it, too -- that was the idea. I just never had that illusion. I just didn't think anything was set in stone like some people did."

When the American auto industry began to implode a few years ago, Goddard felt shaken but not betrayed. The lifelong adapter in him, the part always skeptical of the union's ability to protect him, readjusted his expectations of the union and his career.

"I can't blame other people for being upset, but I think there has to be a realism in there somewhere about what's possible for us now," he says. "We all know we can't name our price anymore," he adds, referring to union negotiations with GM management. "Those times are gone -- they're just gone. You have old-timers who have their 30 years [and pension eligibility] and who are angry about the concessions and haven't wanted to give anything up. But we have to survive. There's not a lot you can do about it. You move on."

He has sacrificed like everybody else, he says. For lengthy periods in the past, he worked 66-hour weeks, which meant 26 hours of overtime at time and a half, bringing his annual income to around $100,000. As recently as last year, he worked mostly 58-hour weeks, which translated to 18 hours of overtime weekly. Overtime has ended, with the result that his budget is tighter.

Goddard knows that his position could be considerably worse. He thinks about the union's "tier two" workers, those hired after a 2007 union-management agreement, whose hourly wage of about $14 amounts to about half of what longtime union assembly employees earn. "They start with a foot in the bucket," he says. "And you hope it won't regress from $14. Maybe if we grow at a slower, steadier pace, maybe it will be better for them and everyone else. If GM does better in the next few years, the company should raise wages for them. But until then, we just all have to work with this and keep rolling. We have no choice. The power's just not there to do anything. . . . And you can't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

He takes a breath and shrugs. "It was made clear during negotiations with the federal government that if the UAW ever struck again or we didn't agree to changes, then it was over for us. It puts the fear of God in you. The old days are over. What can we do? We can't do anything."

Union Despair

With GM's bankruptcy announcement and the news of 21,000 more job cuts in the company, Goddard feels fortunate to be working.

In the face of such relentlessly bleak reports, executives such as Lutz have received the gratitude of Volt workers with sunny assurances that the vehicle remains, as Lutz puts it, "a GM priority; that the last thing that [GM] would want to do is shut down the Volt." Although Goddard appreciates the thought, he views such confidence as merely an expression of the executives' good intentions, certainly nothing as ironclad as a contractual commitment. It would take the union to secure that kind of commitment, he observes, and the union has won nothing lately, powerless for now, having scaled back its priorities to just one: agree to sacrifices to keep whatever jobs it can.

That lack of leverage, at once a function of GM's miseries and the union's waning clout, plagues UAW locals everywhere. An hour away from Warren, in the hurting Michigan auto town of Flint -- where unemployment is about 20 percent and where tens of thousands of layoffs and buyouts have claimed most of the GM jobs from the 1980s -- members of UAW Local 598 recently attempted to land an agreement that would have included a new overtime provision on behalf of about 2,000 remaining workers at the GM truck assembly plant there.

Local 598 has lost about 1,000 jobs in the past year alone, and the overtime request came amid new contract negotiations between GM and the union local. Many of the assembly line laborers, who work 10-hour shifts, four days a week, had hoped that the final two hours of each shift would be regarded as overtime to be compensated at time and a half -- a relatively modest increase, they argued, that would come to less than an additional $30 per veteran employee a day.

Workers' despair already had been heightened by the announcement of a nine-week plant shutdown, a mandatory idleness stripping them on average of more than one-sixth of their typical annual income. News about additional overtime pay would at least be reason for faint cheer. Lutishia Easley -- a 24-year GM employee who makes about $27 an hour for driving a forklift and transporting factory materials around the Flint plant on a shift that ends at 3:30 a.m. -- recalls Local 598's leadership reporting back to its members about the response from management on the overtime request. "We were told by [a union representative] that a GM official made it clear that not only would there not be the overtime we wanted, but that if we didn't sign the contract in 30 days, our jobs here would be gone," she says.

GM set at least one other condition, as Easley recounts: The workers would receive no cost-of-living adjustment in their wages. "So it was like we came away with even less than what we had," she says. After a wave of anger, Local 598's workers realized they had no leverage to undo what amounted to a dictate. "We were afraid," Easley remembers. "So we ratified the contract overwhelmingly. There were some hardliners dissenting, but they've got their 30 years, or they're close to 30 years and retirement, and we don't. What else could we do?"

Easley's boyfriend, a 62-year-old GM retiree and former union local representative named Dennis Shufelt, carefully listens to her, now and then wincing. He interrupts to note how "damn lucky I was," he says, "that I got out just in time." During a 38-year career spent with no serious concerns about layoffs, he sometimes made more than $100,000 a year, which included his overtime at GM plants.

Shufelt collects an annual GM pension of about $37,000. It is more money, he notes, than what is currently made by the second-tier, $14-an-hour workers. The disparity "sickens me," he says. He is sitting in a sports bar on another night, drinking a beer and watching a basketball game on TV. He jerks his thumb in the direction of a group of young adults. "Fourteen dollars an hour is not middle class for these kids in those jobs -- it's the sin of my generation that we didn't protect a decent wage for them." And then he shrugs, having considered the alternative. "But at least some of them have a job. A lot of people around here would give anything for any kind of job."

The retiree remembers the auto industry's heydays in the 1970s, when about 85,000 GM employees worked in Flint plants alone. Today, fewer than 7,000 GM employees work in the city, and Shufelt stays alert for reports about job possibilities, hoping to pass along tips to the desperate. The tips are few. News last year of the production plans for the Volt triggered hopes for a modest rebound in the town, particularly when GM designated a Flint plant as the site for building the car's small gasoline-combustion engine that will supplement its battery power. "For a while you wondered if the Volt might be able to help us," Shufelt recalls.

But the 300 or so Volt factory jobs coming to Flint is a sparse number when measured against the needs and anguish of the town. As word of Volt jobs has spread around the region, a local union president, Art Reyes, has had to tell laid-off autoworkers that the Volt is outside his bailiwick. He cannot even land an auto job for his out-of-work younger brother Dan, to whom Art has counseled, "Keep your head up, have a plan."

Dan Reyes lost his GM job this spring, after working 16 years for the company as a carpenter. From his start in the business, the younger Reyes had regarded a union job at GM as a guarantee of nothing less than lifetime security, as security is what the company and the UAW had given his grandfather and father. "You got a job there with GM and you were set," Dan Reyes remembers. "From GM, there should be some sense of obligation now, just like there was in the past."

In the past, that "obligation" took the form of agreements between the union and management that effectively safeguarded the jobs of thousands of autoworkers in a volatile business climate, whether their labor was needed at a given moment or not. During the mid-1980s, spurred in part by GM's outsourcing of jobs to some of its foreign plants and by its introduction of robotics intended to reduce the number of workers needed on American assembly lines, the Big Three automakers and UAW agreed on the establishment of a program designed to protect large numbers of idled autoworkers from being officially laid off.

Called "jobs bank," it enabled the hourly employees to continue collecting virtually full pay and benefits while they did such things as perform volunteer work in their communities or take college classes.

Some workers did not do this much, sitting in halls each day. Union officials, long mistrustful of the company's cost-cutting efforts, heralded jobs bank as a necessary tool for protecting workers against corporate greed and sudden industry changes. Critics assailed the program as a costly union welfare system that harmed the Big Three's competitive position. National estimates placed the number of jobs bank workers at 5,000 during the '80s and '90s, at a cost of about $100,000 a year per worker, with analysts noting that the program cost GM $400 million to $550 million annually at its high points.

After working about 10 years for Cadillac, Tom Goddard spent about 10 weeks in jobs bank, while he awaited a new job at GM's truck operation in Pontiac, Mich. But other workers did not leave the program for much longer periods. Dan Reyes, who says he found himself in jobs bank by 1997, was in and out of the program several times during the next four years, sometimes spending months away from regular work, using the opportunity to attend college while being paid in full.

Critics charged that the program reflected GM's paternalism and the UAW's sense of entitlement -- that the two institutions unwittingly instilled a sense of dependency around towns like Flint that made programs such as the jobs bank feel like corporate obligations to workers. Even Dennis Shufelt, who ran a local jobs bank and staunchly defends the employee-protecting motives behind both the program and the establishment of strict "lines of demarcation" between different union auto jobs, acknowledges the occasional excesses that resulted from such classifications. "You'd have people sometimes sitting around, but that's the way the program was written and agreed to by both sides," he says.

Early this year, the UAW leadership agreed to walk away from the jobs bank program, after GM said it could not bear its cost and the government made its elimination a condition for any loans to the company.

As GM's image has plummeted, so, too, has the union's, the evidence of which could scarcely have been starker than on a Saturday in late March, eight days after Dan Reyes lost his job. The Reyes brothers attended a golf equipment expo in Michigan's capital city of Lansing. Two lines formed at the entrance, one for the paying public, the other exclusively for UAW members, who were admitted free. It was a familiar perk in a state that for generations has made a habit of institutionalizing its appreciation for union workers and romanticizing their cause. But the reverence has faded. From the paying line, a man called out in the direction of the union workers: "They're lazy and they get their own line, too? Go figure."

Hanging On

For Goddard and others on the Volt team, the Memorial Day weekend brought a respite from work and their preoccupation with GM's woes. But last week, as the corporation filed for bankruptcy reorganization, a collective shudder went through the ranks with news of fresh calamities: Fourteen more GM plants will be closed, seven in Michigan alone. In Flint, a GM engine and transmission plant that employs more than 500 workers will be shutting down late next year.

Amid the despair, union officials tried to provide a measure of comfort by speculating that most of the newly displaced Flint workers will be able to transfer into building gas engines for the Volt and another Chevy vehicle. But the Volt project will not be an employment savior for everyone. Aside from the approximately 300 slots for work on the engine in Flint, and the 1,000 Volt pre-production employees in Warren, jobs will be relatively scant for the time being -- a few hundred spots for workers to put together the lithium-ion battery packs in Michigan, and about an equal number to work in assembly when the approximately 10,000 Volts begin coming off the line.

With its limited production run, the electric vehicle will create or sustain only a couple of thousand jobs or so during the next year, paltry numbers for a company that once commonly employed tens of thousands in a single Flint plant alone.

Meanwhile, Goddard continues devouring his manuals and magazines, looking to stockpile his knowledge, thinking about life beyond GM should catastrophe push him out the door. He would like, ideally, to remain a part of the Volt team -- but he cannot see what is coming, he says. "I've dealt with challenges before," he mutters, standing and slowly walking across a parking lot, his legs and feet hurting at the end of this day. "I'll do anything I need to. I'm ready if this doesn't work out -- I'll be okay."

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