Twenty minutes before yesterday's announcement that General Motors Corp. would cut 30,000 jobs and shut down all or part of 12 facilities, Chris "Tiny" Sherwood heard that his beloved Lansing, Mich., plant would be among those closed.
The news had a particular sting for Sherwood. Lansing Metal Center is among the plants he represents as president of United Auto Workers Local 652. It is also the same plant where he started his career in 1967.
Today, there are 1,000 UAW workers who make metal bumpers and other parts at the plant, just as Sherwood did decades ago.
"It's kind of a used term, but they're calling it 'shock and awe,' " Sherwood said of his members who were being informed of the potential closing during their shifts. "I don't know what [GM's] thinking was. We're one of the best, most efficient press plants in the country. We won many J.D. Power awards. It don't make sense."
GM and the UAW expect many of the cuts will come through attrition and early retirement programs.
The company cannot permanently close plants without union approval, but the UAW is powerless to halt layoffs. In yesterday's announcement, chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. said the plants will "cease operations," leaving open the possibility for restarting plants, said the UAW. The union said yesterday's layoffs and closings will be the subject of its 2007 contract talks with GM.
GM is flailing thanks in part to increased competition from foreign carmakers, most of whose employees are not unionized and whose labor costs are much lower. Among the sites scheduled to be shuttered are two of GM's most notable plants -- one made famous by Michael Moore's documentary "Roger & Me," about the downfall of blue-collar Flint, Mich., and a Spring Hill, Tenn., line that produces the Saturn Ion, a vehicle designed to compete with foreign automakers. Vehicles slated for production cutback include sport-utility vehicles, minivans and Chevrolet staples Impala and Monte Carlo.
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and Vice President Richard Shoemaker said in a joint statement that the announcement is "extremely disappointing, unfair and unfortunate."
UAW officials said they would fight to enforce its "job-security program" and other negotiated worker protections.
Workers affected by plant closings can receive pay from what the UAW and GM call a job bank. The bank was designed years ago to support laid-off workers while they retrained or looked for a job at another plant. Now, that pay is more like a generous severance package, according to Clark University industrial relations professor Gary N. Chaison.
GM generally is required to make openings at its other plants available to laid-off union workers by seniority first. Early retirements suggested by GM are subject to negotiation by the union.
"The whole idea behind it was to make it difficult for GM to cut jobs. The UAW has really been at the forefront for developing techniques or programs for income security," Chaison said.
"It's not as if workers will be able to transfer from one location to another," he said. "GM is going to become much leaner company."
The UAW has shown flexibility by relinquishing some of the ground it has gained in negotiations with GM over the years. This month, GM workers represented by the UAW agreed to a proposal that would raise the amount retirees and active workers must pay for their health care.
"There is a serious question as to whether the UAW feels it can mobilize rank-and-file resistance to the company. There was no real resistance to fight off health care cuts or to prevent a Delphi bankruptcy," said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois, referring to the troubled partsmaker. "I think it's a reasonable question to ask what's missing from the UAW . . . that is preventing a more militant kind of resistance. It seems to me like they've been rather silent on galvanizing locals."
The UAW's agreement to reduce employee and retiree health care coverage signaled that it may be willing to let go of more, and it may have to. "They've shown their cards. They were being asked to do their share," said Chaison. "Then GM just essentially said, 'Now we're going to have to take some more drastic steps.' "
Yesterday's job cuts add 5,000 to the 25,000 promised by Wagoner in June. GM has cut 30 percent of its workforce over the past five years.
Although yesterday's news came as a surprise to Sherwood, labor experts said the UAW has known for years that such cutbacks are inevitable. The UAW, which was known as a fight-back union, famous for its historic Flint General Motors sit-down strike of 1936 and 1937, now must determine how to save what it has and cushion the losses for its members.
"The UAW looks at it from longer-term perspective. What they're seeing is GM restructuring now before they have to restructure through bankruptcy," Chaison said.
Although most plant closings must be approved by the UAW, the union will likely agree to the cuts, Chaison said. "The UAW knows that if GM wants to lay off 30,000 workers, it can do that by disabling plants," he said. The union must tread carefully during the GM changes, as too much pressure -- such as a strike -- could cause GM to file for bankruptcy protection. But the union must also continue to be an advocate for the workers, Chaison said.