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LABOR: Sabotage at Lordstown?

4 minute read

General Motors’ Lordstown, Ohio, plant is a hub of superlatives. Its assembly line is the most highly automated one in the industry; it has 26 bellows-like armed robots that can bend around corners and that make some 520 welds in each car. The line is also the fastest in the U.S., capable of producing 100 cars an hour. The labor force—long-haired, pigtailed and bell-bottomed—is the youngest of any G.M. plant, with an average age of 24 to 25. Now Lordstown, the only U.S. plant that turns out subcompact Vegas, has the industry’s worst labor problem, and so far it has cost G.M. about $40 million in lost production.

Hardly anybody calls it sabotage—yet. But last October somebody deliberately set fire to an assembly-line control box shed, causing the line to shut down. Autos regularly roll off the line with slit upholstery, scratched paint, dented bodies, bent gearshift levers, cut ignition wires, and loose or missing bolts. In some cars, the trunk key is broken off right in the lock, thereby jamming it. The plant’s repair lot has space for 2,000 autos, but often becomes too crowded to accept more. When that happens, as it did last week, the assembly line is stopped and workers are sent home payless.

Speedup. Trouble began in mid-1971, about a year after the automated line was put into operation. Partly because the bugs had been worked out of the line and partly because the assembly plant consolidated with an adjacent Fisher Body plant, there were layoffs in what G.M. now will only say was an “8,000-plus” work force. The United Auto Workers claims that 750 or more were laid off; management contends the total was only half that. Those still on the job complained that they were being forced to speed up, do extra jobs and generally work too hard. The grievances got little response from G.M., but as they grew, so did the number of damaged cars. In mid-January, U.A.W. Local 1112 at Lordstown leaked a story to the press that G.M. was shipping defective Vegas to its dealers, a charge that G.M. vehemently denies. Cracks Gary Bryner, the mustachioed, hip-talking, 29-year-old president of Local 1112: “We warned them that we were going to get our story out if they wouldn’t work with us.”

Led by its angry young, the local has threatened to take a strike vote this week unless G.M. makes concessions. Money is not the issue; the workers earn about $4.50 an hour, plus $2.50 in fringes. What the union wants is a redefinition of the work rules that will result in some rehiring and elimination of extra chores, which workers claim rush them as the autos move by at an average of one every 36 seconds. G.M. added some of these chores partly in the hope of alleviating the mind-numbing boredom of endlessly doing just one task.

After interviewing both sides at Lordstown, TIME’S Detroit Bureau Chief Edwin Reingold reports: “There has been much talk of ‘job enrichment,’ assigning a worker more tasks in order to give him a sense of fulfillment. But some union leaders charge that ‘enriching’ a worker’s job by making him do two jobs each 30 times an hour instead of one job 60 times an hour is a ‘con.’ At Lordstown the workers want more time to do their single, simple job—and that is certainly the opposite of what many outsiders think they want. Many workers complain that they do not want to work as hard as they are being asked to do. It may well be that what were considered ordinary norms in the past are no longer acceptable.”

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