auto workers

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

General Motors is being accused of not caring about the working conditions in its plants in Columbia and India.

About two dozen protesters plan to hound GM CEO Mary Barra at events tied to this week’s auto technology conference in Detroit.

Paige Shell-Spurling is organizing the protests.  She says GM is ignoring problems with unsafe factories that have left dozens of workers seriously injured.

user: Vanillase / Wikimedia Commons

A recent Oxford University report estimates that robots could replace nearly half of the current U.S. workforce.

The report found that office administrators, sales personnel, and those in the service industry are among those at risk of losing their jobs to robots.

Robots have become common in many workplaces since General Motors installed the first robot at a plant in New Jersey in 1961 ("Unimate," as it was called, could weld and move parts that weighed up to 500 pounds).

So can humans keep up, or at least keep ahead of the technology that is changing the workforce?

These are especially important questions here in Michigan, with its historic ties to the auto industry that makes up about 40% of the global supply of industrial robots. 

Stephen Spurr, Chair of the Department of Economics and professor at Wayne State University, joined us today to explore the possibilities (You can listen to our interview with Spurr above.)

There was a fair amount of anxiety in automotive circles over the new contracts hammered out between the United Auto Workers union and Ford and General Motors. GM remains the largest Detroit automaker, and this was the first post-bankruptcy contract.

The pact didn’t give workers as much as some had hoped for, and it did nothing to eliminate the new two-tier wage system that many old-time union members especially hate.

There’s a great deal of celebration going on over the fact that General Motors and the United Auto Workers union have reached tentative agreement on a new, four-year contract.

In the old days, what this would have meant was speedy ratification, followed by a similar settlement with Chrysler within perhaps two weeks, and then Ford maybe a month later.

That was the era of pretty much one-size-fits all pattern bargaining agreements. But that was before the near-death and the resurrection of Chrysler and GM, and it’s now a different world.

I spent some time yesterday with one of the best industry analysts around -- Kristin Dziczek, who heads the labor and industry group at CAR, the non-profit Center for Automotive Research based in Ann Arbor. Dziczek knows the management spokesmen and the economists, and has friends and relatives who are in the UAW. She eats, breathes, and sleeps this stuff.

Screenshot from UAW website / www.uaw.org

Once again Michigan Radio’s political analyst Jack Lessenberry unleashes his knowledge of Michigan history. This time we get a historical perspective about negotiations between the United Auto Workers and Detroit automakers.

Contract talks have already started between the UAW and General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. But these talks are a little different this time around.

Seventy years ago, Ford Motor Company recognized the UAW.  Ford was the last major automaker to recognize the union, and that decision marked the starting point of the union’s “Golden Age.”

In this interview, Michigan Radio's Jenn White talks with Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio’s political analyst about unions past and present. And what lessons can be learned from those "golden years."

In 1941, the UAW signed contracts with General Motors and Chrysler, but Henry Ford remained opposed to unionization. After several days of strikes Ford gave in and soon after the first contracts took effect.

Hundreds of auto workers will be assembling Chevy Sonics and Buick Veranos at GM's plant in Orion Township in just a few months. 

Every one of those workers will go through a simulated work environment training exercise before getting anywhere near a real car. The power tools and the bolts are real, but the cars and parts are made of wood. 

GM recently invited a group of auto journalists to take part in the exercise, to get a taste of what building a car is like.

The press is divided up into teams. Team 3's leader is Sabrina Wills, a member of UAW Local 602. She instructs us how to do the work, with each step meticulously standardized.

"Once the line starts moving, if the line moves at a normal pace, you’re gonna find yourself in the hole," she says.

Joanne Muller of Forbes asks, "So what do we do then?"

Wills:  "You’re gonna pull for help.  Pull your andon cord."

Team 3 will install the headlights, taillights, and bumpers. Wills says dropping a nut is par for the course when you’re new to the job. But the cardinal sin is dropping a part. In real life, that means it’s scrap. 

She drops a part on the cement floor to make a point. The sound reverberates through the big factory.

"You’re gonna hear the part hit the floor.  So don’t try to hide it under the line, because we don’t wanna put that broken headlight on a car."

As we wait for the line to start, Joanne Muller – who, by the way, has red hair – brings up that classic "I Love Lucy" episode. The one where Ethel and Lucy fall behind on the assembly line in a chocolate factory.