Many members of Dave Morse's family spent their lives in manufacturing. So when he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Michigan in April 2004, his family tried to steer him in another direction. Manufacturing in the United States is disappearing, they told him. It's not a stable life. He could do "new economy" things with that degree.
But Morse took a job at a new engine plant in the small town of Dundee, southwest of Detroit, anyway. "This is definitely a turnaround from the stories I've heard," he said in late August as he strolled through the massive plant wearing the same black-and-white uniform everyone -- including the company's president -- wears.
His workplace is the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance, or GEMA, a joint venture among DaimlerChrysler AG, Hyundai Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. designed to be dramatically different from traditional auto and parts plants. Here, old labor rules that restricted workers to one -- and only one -- job, that designated work on either day or night shifts, and that required employees to plow through lines of management to fix a problem were tossed out like an old, rusty carburetor.
The alliance is no little experiment.
At a time when General Motors Corp. and its largest supplier, Delphi Corp., are demanding wage cuts, implementing massive layoffs and announcing plant closures, GEMA has formed what some say could be a new pattern of bargaining and collaboration between automakers and the United Auto Workers union.
It is the sort of deal that could help the union and companies avert a clash similar to the current one at Delphi. Delphi's chief executive, Robert S. Miller Jr., demanded that UAW workers' pay and benefits be slashed after the partsmaker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October. The UAW is fighting the demands.
GEMA, which opened in October, "is betting on cooperation with a union to succeed," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Morse's faith and hope in the new plant match that of state officials; the UAW; and, of course, the companies, which think a more flexible work arrangement could increase productivity and ensure the plant's success against the implosion of manufacturing.
"The old 'it's not in my job description' phrase is not valid in the 21st century," said Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), a major proponent of the agreement. "In the 21st century, everyone sees flexibility is critical to achieve cost savings and a changing workforce."
"This is a revolutionary breakthrough for auto manufacturing, for relationships between the union and management. It puts the UAW in the position of being a broker of good skills," she said.
A national agreement with DaimlerChrysler means that covered employees at GEMA receive the same pensions, wages and benefits as at other plants.
Union leaders have bought into the need to change work rules.
"We have to change with the times," said Nate Gooden, a UAW vice president. "My job is to try to catch up with Toyota. That's the main force we're chasing, and if we can cut some of our labor costs and get more moderate with job classifications," the new effort may succeed, he said. Toyota, which has 10 manufacturing plants in the U.S., is non-union.
"We cannot continue to continue like we did in the past," Gooden said.
GEMA is located in a town of 3,600 people, 60 miles from downtown Detroit. The plant sits in a 275-acre setting with traditional Michigan prairie tall grasses and sunflowers that was designed by Michigan State University students. The white, one-story concrete-and-glass building is now the workplace for 275 hourly workers and contractors (called "partners" here). The complex is expected to employ 531 workers in two years, when a second plant opens at the site. The initial plant will produce 420,000 engines a year.
The plant manufactures four-cylinder engines designed for the 2007 Dodge Caliber. The engine replaces older models that will be phased out.
The partnership was formed after Bruce D. Coventry, then a DaimlerChrysler vice president, asked if the company -- which had owned stakes in Hyundai and Mitsubishi -- could create more agreements among the companies. All three were hoping to develop new engines. After many meetings, the three companies created an engine that satisfied them all. It was decided that they should continue to refine and manufacture the engine together. Coventry became GEMA's president.
The group looked at the most productive engine plants in the world and used a Toyota plant in West Virginia as its benchmark. GEMA wanted to make the engine for 50 percent less than other engines. In the six-year GEMA contract, teams of workers share responsibilities. They know one another's jobs and change duties throughout their shifts. That allows any team member to work on any part of the operation, "and all are fundamentally skilled," Coventry said while walking through the plant in his black-and-white uniform. "Anyone anywhere can do anything at any time."
"The GEMA structure allows a level of engagement beyond anything we certainly have ever done and perhaps anything our peers have ever done," said Frank J. Ewasyshyn, DaimlerChrysler's executive vice president of manufacturing. The employees are "really the key to running the business," he said. "It's a big cultural shift not only for us but for the industry."
The contract also outlines a different work schedule. Three crews work four 10-hour shifts each week. A typical production schedule allows for 80 hours of production time, but under this schedule, GEMA gets 120 hours of production time per week. This allows workers to work 49 fewer days a year without a matching reduction in days of operation. There is a crew rotation in which workers switch from day to night shifts.
Other plants around the country have started alternative work schedules in recent years, and the team concept is not entirely new. But the job-classification streamlining is unique to GEMA, and GEMA is the first to put so many changes under one roof.
The schedule has not been without its controversy, Coventry admitted. Workers who never had to work night shifts now have to, and the 10-hour days seemed long to some. But "when you start counting the numbers, you see you have three months off," said Don Kingery, a bargaining chairman who works at the plant.
UAW-represented employees at the plant, who earn $21 to $30 an hour, must have at least a two-year technical degree or similar experience, which David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, said is becoming the norm in the industry. "The idea that you could be a third-grade dropout and earn a salary in manufacturing is no more," he said.
Every team is made up of about six people, rather than the more typical 25, with one mechanical and one electrical engineer per team. In traditional manufacturing scenarios, engineers sat apart from the assembly line. Workers typically had to halt the line and wait for an engineer somewhere else in the plant to find and fix the problem.
"We no longer have this boss-subordinate relationship," Ewasyshyn said.
Gooden put it simply: "They work in groups. They do job rotations. It takes the boredom out of going to work every day doing the same job. It's something we should have done a long time ago."
This isn't the UAW's first attempt to forge a new kind of agreement. It created a novel contract for Saturn workers in 1985. Managers reported to a Saturn board on which both management and UAW members sat, and workers had more say in how the plant operated. The contract was also viewed by many as an exciting venture that would change the state of manufacturing. After Saturn sales slipped, workers last year were convinced that the contract stunted growth, and they went back to a more traditional contract. The famed Saturn line in Spring Hill, Tenn., was among the 12 closings at GM factories announced last month.
Toyota and GM formed a joint venture in 1984 called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI, at a Fremont, Calif., GM plant that was slated to close. The labor contract at NUMMI, which is still in operation and is considered a major success, was a model for the GEMA contract.
Shaiken said that despite NUMMI's success, it wasn't copied by other plants mainly because of "general inertia and resistance to change." He said GEMA was able to run with it because they were starting from scratch -- and doing so at a point where the auto industry is in "a deep, long-term crisis." And so, he said, the union and management are much more willing to try something new.
Gooden said he had resistance to the new approach at GEMA from local unions that "thought everything was going to be the same" as at other plants.
But he dismissed their balking as simply a refusal to change with the times.
"I told them this was a new age and a new way of doing things. I said, 'Just be patient.' If the people who get hired there like it, it will trickle down to you, too."
Bruce D. Coventry, GEMA president, said of the versatility of the workers at the Dundee, Mich., engine plant: "Anyone anywhere can do anything at any time."