25 years ago: GM, UAW deepen collaboration with Saturn car brand

This week in history: July 26-August 1

26 July 2010

This Week in History provides brief synopses of important historical events whose anniversaries fall this week.



25 years ago: GM, UAW deepen collaboration with Saturn car brand



UAW head Owen Bieber with GM President Roger

On July 26, 1985, the Executive Board of the United Auto Workers (UAW) approved a new, more highly exploitative labor contract for workers to be hired at General Motors’ Saturn venture, to be based in Tennessee.

The agreement was explicitly anchored in a renunciation of labor militancy and embrace of the corporatist conception of union-management partnership. All union bodies and representatives at the Saturn plant would function as part of joint structures with management. The UAW claimed that Saturn would demonstrate the ability of GM and US-based auto companies in general to produce small cars sufficiently cheaply to compete with Japanese auto makers.

Saturn was hailed as the model for labor relations throughout GM as well as at Ford and Chrysler. The Saturn contract did, in fact, prove to be a milestone in the transformation of the UAW into an appendage of the auto companies.

In exchange for agreeing to low wages (80 percent of the industry average) and the elimination of most work rules, the UAW was given 6,000 new dues-paying members and a plenitude of quasi-managerial positions for union bureaucrats at the new $5 billion plant.

The pact was billed as an emulation of Japanese labor relations. Attempting to present the corporatist agreement as a boon to the workers, the New York Times wrote that Japanese workers were “highly motivated” while US auto workers were “regarded as little more than hired hands.”

GM had pitted all 48 contiguous US states in a bidding war for the plant, a competition which Tennessee won due to rich tax incentives and its low wage structure. “This is a day of joy and celebration for Tennessee,” remarked Senator Al Gore, Jr.


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