New Internationalist

Working For The General

Issue 104

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Working for the General
The livelihoods of working people both in the Third World and the West are intimately linked to the profits and policies of multinational corporations. But this common interest is often blurred against a background of daily survival and local trade union concerns. We spoke to employees of one of the world’s largest corporations, General Motors, in Kenya, Brazil, Britain and Australia. They talk candidly and sometimes cautiously about their fears and concerns. And what it is like working for ‘the General’.


FRED BAILEY:
Vauxhall (GM-UK), Luton, Great Britain

FRED BAILEY is a draughtsman in his 40s, married with three children — one of Britain’s 23,000 Vauxhall workers. Vauxhall has been owned by General Motors since the 1920s. The firm came under US control in the 1950s and has gone downhill for the last two decades. This year 2,000 layoffs are planned.

‘Thefirst thing I did when I got to Vauxhall was to join the trade union.’ He is still on the Vauxhall payroll, now as a full-time organiser for one of the white-collar unions.

Fred is wary of the press. A fellow worker recently interviewed was warned by GM for ‘indulging in speculation harmful to the company'. With hundreds of lay-offs each week ‘it’s too easy to become a martyr’, says Fred.

Britain is the fifth largest motor vehicle market outside the US: ‘Too big for General Motors to ignore’. But GM finds it can make cars cheaper elsewhere. The Cavalier, most popular of Vauxhall’s medium-size family cars, has 80 per cent imported parts. It is identical to the Ascona made by Opel — a GM subsidiary in West Germany.

Vauxhall is no longer an independent manufacturer but more of a GM assembly plant. ‘A pawn’ argues Fred, ‘in the game of multinational investment strategy’. ‘The company keeps telling us we haven’t made a profit in ten years. GM and most of the media say it is because of high wages and low productivity. But what about transfer-pricing, asset-stripping and outmoded technologies?’

‘It’s not unprofitable for General Motors to make vehicles in Britain’, says Fred, ‘It’s just more profitable to make them elsewhere.’

‘The factory here is virtually falling down — there are holes in the walls. It’s impossible to get new equipment. We pay through the nose, buying dear from GM in Germany and selling cheap to GM in Portugal. There are no mechanical robots and only one or two multi-welders — other companies use nothing else. Brazilian plants for example have far more automation than we do — they are even more productive than Germany.

Fred thinks strong trade unions scare off multinationals. ‘We don’t allow what they get away with in other countries. We had some say over how computer technology was introduced. But when a country has a new plant or when the government is not really democratic there is no choice: there’s the job — take it or leave it.’

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Auto worker Fred Bailey tinkers with his own car - ironically not a GM product.
Photo: Chris Sheppard

But the unions are powerless to stop General Motors shutting down Vauxhall if it chooses. All they can do is persuade the government to introduce import controls or regulate the percentage of the product made in Britain.

If GM wants to sell in Britain, the unions stress, it must also invest here. This can put Vauxhall workers in conflict with GM workers in other countries. ‘The new S-car, our answer to the British Leyland Metro, is to be made in Spain and imported to Britain. That means redundancy programmes here and recruitment programmes in Spain.’

‘That’s why international negotiations in the motor industry are always on a shaky footing. For the company the way ahead is clear— they go for the most profit irrespective of people. But when the workers sit down and start to talk about jobs, we know markets are finite and so expansion in one country means taking work from another. Finance operates internationally, but socialism tends to be introverted — we say ‘look after our own’?

‘Workers in this country have a rough job setting up union relations between British plants. We have no dealings at all with German workers, let alone those in Brazil or South Korea. Of course it is important to co-operate with workers everywhere but the thorniest problems to answer first are the very ones we conflict on — how to get more investment and more jobs. It is fairly easy for multi-nationals like GM to manipulate governments and make them rivals bidding for GM plants. It’s just as easy to divide workers in the same way'.

Internationally there is no balance of power between corporations and trade unions because there is no opposition. ‘That means that when General Motors makes a new policy we don’t bargain on the decisions; we only bargain on their effects.’

Meanwhile trade unions have already got a bad name. ‘It’s a David and Goliath situation, with the trade unions as an overgrown David’. But to Fred it looks like a case of mistaken identity. ‘We’re seen as the baddie who has too much power. But how can you chop a midget down to size?'

By Chris Sheppard


JOSE MARTINS DE OLIVEIRA.
GM do Basil, Sao Paulo

Jose Martins de Oliveira, 34, has worked at General Motors do Brasil for eight years. This is not common at the factory; turnover is high in a deliberate company policy to reduce promotion costs. ‘Of the 52 men who came when I joined, only four are left now,’ says Jose.

Indeed, Jose’s position in the union is his only protection from dismissal. ‘This year General Motors has sacked some 3,400 according to union estimates. The foreman told me if it wasn’t for my union job, I’d already have got the sack.’ says Jose.

Mass layoffs this year are the result of economic recession. Brazil depends heavily on the West for export markets. And international bankers, to whom Brazil owes $60 billion, pressed for strong recessionary policies at the end of 1980 to improve the $12 billion balance of payments deficit.

Demand for cars has plunged by 60 per cent and factory yards are bulging with unsold vehicles. The remedy has been layoffs: ‘On the night shift there were 3,000 men; now we’re down to 500. Instead of 135 Opalas a day we are producing around 35.’

Married with three children, Jose’s job as quality control inspector brings him about $480 a month before taxes. His salary is ‘average’ for the factory. Production line workers earn between $120 and $420 a month.

House payments, clothing, shoes, light and water bills soak up $270 a month and a new washing machine about $50 a month. Food and transport to work are another $130. Until last year, Jose lived in rented accommodation, but now he is buying a house via the government’s National Housing Bank.

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Photo: Marcelo Leoni

Though employed with one of the world’s biggest multinationals, he is not particularly critical of GM. ‘The work’s no different than with national companies. We’re all concerned about more layoffs. Problems at GM mean bankruptcies and cutbacks amongst Brazilian companies that supply car parts.’ Indeed, the crisis has hit not only supplier companies, but also local merchants who depend on car workers for their customers.

But what of a new international economic order or nationalisation of multinationals? As might be expected in a country which has tried to muzzle trade unionists for decades, Jose has no opinion, although he thinks the government would perhaps like to see General Motors and other multinationals become national companies.

Jose’s long experience at GM together with his union office have given him a considerable understanding of the day-to-day problems of the workers. But broader issues like controlling multinationals and co-operating with trade unionists elsewhere are at best distant concerns.

By Rik Turner


ALFRED HORNETT
GM Holden, New South Wales, Australia

Australia’s car industry is foreign owned. The government maintains high tariff and quota barriers against foreign imports but still no Australian car industry worker enjoys job security. Not long ago GM-H (General Motors-Holden) — known as ‘the General’ by its workers— closed down its Pagewood, New South Wales plant, eliminating 1,500 jobs.

Alfred Harnett has worked for GM for more than 20 years. All earns $6.15 an hour as an unskilled worker at the GM-H plant at Dandenong near Melbourne. The average wage for Australian workers is pushing $300 a week. So Alf Harnett is just about Mr Average. He lives with his wife, three children (including a 20-year-old son who earns more than his father in an unskilled transport job) and a variety of pets, in a single-brick house in a Melbourne suburb. It is comfortably furnished. In the carport is a sixties model Holden Sedan.

AIf remembers the days when disputes were rare at Dandenong. Now he feels boss-worker relations are ‘getting worse’. He accuses management of ‘trying to put worker against worker’. ‘A foreman can be your best mate. By the time they have him up the office and brainwash him he comes back a bastard’

GM is an American firm and that looms large in Alf's consciousness: ‘You have trouble in Dandenong, it goes to Fisherman’s Bend (GM’s Australian HQ) then to Detroit. The Americans have the final word. Once Australians made their own cars but then the Yanks were allowed to buy them out.’ GM took over Holden Motor Body Builders Limited, an Australian family company, in 1931.

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For the first 13 years of his GM-H working life Alf says he kept his mouth shut. He was paying for a house and supporting children and needed all the overtime he could get. But then with no further promotion prospects he began to speak up. Now because he speaks his mind he is regarded as a ‘stirrer’. But he does not see his job threatened: ‘If they try to sack me, my mates would walk off the job.’

By Hong Kong sweatshop standards, the disputes Alf Harnett and his mates get involved in look very much like trivia — demands for ceiling fans, disputes over pollution from petrol-powered forklifts and standardized work breaks. But the battle for good working conditions is long and slow and the demands vary from country to country.

He barely stops to ponder my question about the Filipino worker who gets 75 Australian cents an hour to make the transmissions destined for vehicles at Dandenong. He is much more concerned with what’s happening at home: ‘There’s enough poverty here in Australia, let alone worry about poverty over there.’

By Bob Hawkins


CHARLES OTIENDO OMONDI,
GM Nairobi, Kenya

‘I came from 600 miles up country to join General Motors in 1976. I am a panel beater. I work 40 hours for $150. The minimum wage is $110 per month. I live 16 miles from Nairobi — about 30 minutes by company bus. I am living in a mud house and pay one-third my salary in rent. I must buy my water and maizemeal nowadays costs $12 a month.

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Charles Otiendo Omondi

My wife, sometimes after a six months period she comes here; sometimes I go there, 600 miles away. Transport is very expensive — $28 a single fare. The rest of my family live up country too. So I normally get to see them twice a year. My wife ask me to send money for use when she is up country. I used to send her $30 per month. Now that money is not enough. I have six of my family up country, so that forced me to borrow from friends. We are earning very little. You imagine $150 is a good wage but I must borrow.

As a panel beater here in Kenya, I should be paid as panel beater in USA. I am doing same job as someone in US — anywhere it is the same job.

Most employers here do not supply safety gear, even at GM which is reckoned to be better. In the paint shop there is phosphating, very dangerous but no one has proper shoes.

Better now between managers and union. When we had the old management they used to give warning letters very much. Thirteen employees got letters threatening dismissal.

The government owns 51 per cent so there are six foreign managers and eight Africans. Warning letters always come from the top Africans. Management are paid very high, four times my salary. Management superintendents in factory make $1,125 per month and personnel about $2,000.

Management have company cars. But for people like us it is difficult. Even bicycle I can’t afford. Bachelors can afford it, but not I.

The minimum wage is $108 but still that is too low, even with benefits. They should at least pay half the management salary because the gap between management and us is too big. I get $150, my boss $600 a month.

GM when they started employed 400 in factory. At the moment, 219. They reduced it to 219 — people being dismissed, some resign or can’t survive with little money. We find work harder now, it will force person to work twice as much.

It is better for foreign industry to invest only in big city. That’s why workers come here. If foreigners can invest in rural areas then we be doing well up country.’

By Ian CoIdwell


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