Union Perspective on GM Layoffs

Steve Inskeep talks to Mike O'Rourke, president of United Auto Workers Local 1853, about General Motors layoffs at the Spring Hill, Tenn., plant that manufactures Saturns.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays, the business report focuses on the workplace.

There will be a lot fewer people in the workplace at General Motors. The company said this week it is eliminating 30,000 jobs, and this morning we'll hear what that means at one plant. We called Mike O'Rourke, president of United Auto Workers Local 1853. He represents 5,600 workers at the Saturn complex in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 jobs will disappear there, though O'Rourke says this is no surprise.

Mr. MIKE O'ROURKE (President, UAW Local 1853): We've known for a little while that plant 1, which is the car side, was going to be leaving Spring Hill. What General Motors did was move it up roughly three or four months.

INSKEEP: This announcement was packaged to the public as a series of severe cutbacks that General Motors has committed to make...

Mr. O'ROURKE: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...to convince Wall Street that it's serious about cutting costs?

Mr. O'ROURKE: Absolutely. What...

INSKEEP: You're telling me that in the case of Spring Hill, Tennessee, what they announced is a cut that they were already going to do anyway.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Correct. General Motors just announced to America they're cutting out 30 percent of their work force.

INSKEEP: When we talk about 30,000 layoffs nationwide, what will happen in Spring Hill, Tennessee?

Mr. O'ROURKE: You know, we have a work force where there is going to be some attrition, which is retirements, and hopefully, you know, we'll attrit people out to where we won't have to get into these mass layoffs.

INSKEEP: That's an interesting point when you say...

Mr. O'ROURKE: You know, here's one of the points I think the American public needs to look at. We all have children. You know, I have a 25-year-old son that for all his life, all he wanted to do was build automobiles, and, you know, I'm afraid in his lifetime, he may never get a chance.

INSKEEP: You're hoping that somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 workers will retire rather than being laid off. Does that mean that General Motors is still going to have to pay for them because they've got retirement pensions, they've got health benefits?

Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, absolutely. We have contracts with General Motors. You know, our workers have worked 30 to 40 years for these pensions.

INSKEEP: How's that save General Motors any money?

Mr. O'ROURKE: You have plants that are underutilized. That means they're not at 100 percent capacity. What they're doing is going to get these plants at 100 percent capacity. Building cars around the clock, that's where they save money.

INSKEEP: But they will be eating costs in places like Spring Hill at the same time.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Those are costs that they've been liable, that they've been putting money into the pension fund for 75 years.

INSKEEP: This in turn has caused a lot of pressure on the union to give back some of the health benefits.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Right, and that's exactly what is going on right now.

INSKEEP: How can General Motors survive, given the extra expenses they have?

Mr. O'ROURKE: By designing exciting products, by fully utilizing their assembly plants, General Motors can be profitable.

INSKEEP: Do you agree with the step that General Motors has taken this week?

Mr. O'ROURKE: No. No, I don't. I think they need to get in there and design vehicles the American public want. What kind of car do you drive? You mind if I ask you that?

INSKEEP: Uh, I'm afraid you would not be happy with the answer.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, see? Right, and you even stuttered when I asked that. That's the problem this country has. So why don't you drive an American-made vehicle?

INSKEEP: I went looking for a hybrid and I couldn't find one...

Mr. O'ROURKE: There you go.

INSKEEP: ...that was American-made.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Just look around at all the cars, because that's--when I look around, honest, sometimes it makes me sick to my stomach.

INSKEEP: Is that part of the issue, though, that once again, foreign companies have leaped ahead?

Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah, you know, one--yes. Yes, I think that--you know, that--I think that's another one of the issues is General Motors should be out in front of the--let's get out in front of the curve instead of always waiting in the back and lagging behind.

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