GM in More Trouble

Early in February, workers at GM’s Vega factories in Lordstown, Ohio, voted by a 97 percent majority to authorize a strike over working conditions. The struggles which preceded the strike vote are by now famous: a change in plant management, layoffs, a disciplinary crackdown, an increase in car defects, complaints ‘by workers about the speeding up of monotonous assembly line tasks, slowdowns, high absenteeism, repeated allegations by GM of worker sabotage. It is claimed that workers have attacked the paint, bodies, upholstery, and controls of the Vega cars, and GM has offered a $5,000 reward for information about a fire in the electrical controls of the assembly line itself.

Whether or not a major strike takes place at Lordstown, conditions there are bound to be important for years to come. For General Motors, the Lordstown plant has been a model of all future auto production. The factories were opened in June, 1970, to rapturous acclamation. The general manager of Chevrolet wrote that the new factories incorporated “a quality level that has never been attained before in a manufacturing operation in this country, and probably in the world.” He added that there was a “very intensive motivation program” at the plant, and that Lordstown employees had “taken to this thing very strongly.” The cover of last year’s GM Annual Report shows a panorama of the Lordstown assembly plant, with two Vegas parked outside. The report also contains photographs of three men working on the Lordstown line, and of a “solid-state computerized tester” for Vegas.

As recently as this January, Richard C. Gerstenberg, the new chairman of GM, mentioned the Lordstown operation as the major example of his company’s efforts to increase worker productivity: “Every attempt was made to design out costs in the assembly process.” The Wall Street Journal has quoted an auto industry share analyst who returned from an official tour of Lordstown “excited” about the prospects for reducing labor costs: “The essential point made was that the Vega line is a prototype, a schooling place for everybody in the GM system…. It is the wave of the future.”

During the present disturbances, GM executives have restrained their public enthusiasm for Vega technology. They have suggested that the discontent at Lordstown is a consequence of exceptional worker emotions: Lordstown workers are undisciplined or too young (their average age is twenty-four) or have a mysterious modern attitude toward work. One national journal, following GM’s hints, describes Lordstown as an “industrial Woodstock,” and another writes that the factories are “Utopian,” a “Paradise Lost” which has “fall[en] from grace” because of “balky” workers. GM management has now introduced “sensitivity sessions” at Lordstown, occasional small group therapy meetings for assembly line workers. It allows the factory to operate at half its potential weekly capacity; meanwhile it is making arrangements to transfer part of the production of the Vega to another factory 500 miles away, at Ste. Therese, north of Montreal.

GM’s sudden interest in worker psychology has …

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