Workers at General Motors SA in Port Elizabeth are facing massive retrenchments. Shop steward, Simphiwe Ntshabalala, reports.
In November 2007, GMSA served Numsa with a section 189A notice with the intention of retrenching 250 employees.
The companyâ€™s justification for retrenchment was because it had moved one of the Struandale lines to the Kempston Road plant (GM has two plants – one at Struandale and the other at Kempston Road).
The company claimed that the consolidation of the two production lines was going to render 250 employees redundant as there was going to be a duplication of tasks.
The union engaged the rationale on this figure and was later given a new figure of 189 employees. The company left the consultation process and unilaterally offered voluntary severance packages (VSP) to employees.
GM workers Vusi Ketelo, Themba Gqokoma, Zamuxolo Hulushe, Xolani Madinga, Clifton Mkatshana, Peter Jones, Sipho Sokutu, Monde Makasika, Collen Abott, Robert Frost, Anastacia Renze, Sarah Stuurman, Building Gazi, Winty Kungwayo and Simphiwe Ntshabalala face difficult times over GM's planned retrenchments
Section 189A noticeBy the end of June 2008, 312 workers had received severance packages. That same month the company issued a section 189A notice to retrench a further 500 hourly employees and 20 salaried workers.
On June 11 2008, the union met with the company. We asked them what informs this 520 workers.They responded in writing with a revised figure of 562 hourly employees and 20 salaried positions to be affected.
They said it was because of slackness of trade.We are currently awaiting the next date of consultation where we will put our position.
We believe that this whole situation is driven by the company's structural cost plan which has already closed plants in other continents like America.
Here in South Africa the domestic products are being dominated by imports dumped in an area called VCDC (Vehicle Conversion Distribution Centre) located in Markman Township which in our view kills the MIDP objectives and is an abuse of its benefits.
We are concerned that our future is not clear. This situation is not only affecting GMSA workers but thousands of other Numsa members in Port Elizabeth local from component manufacturers supplying GMSA that are also faced with a loss of jobs.
The future plans of the company involve moving the whole production to Struandale plant by 2010. The migration of Kempston Road production to Struandale will mean more jobs will be lost as production lines will be consolidated.
Retrenchments – the US experienceMike Leslie was a GM employee in Detroit in the US from the 1970s to 2002.
He recently helped facilitate at a Numsa course in Johannesburg. He told us how the company where he worked has reduced its workforce from 12 000 to 1500 today.
What are the reasons for reducing the plant numbers?There is a drop off in the auto industries. GM was selling big SUVs but now nobody is touching them; a lot of it is because work has been outsourced to non-union companies and GM has lost market share to other companies.
Is there a core of workers that is left?I am not sure. There are newer product lines, the place is spotless.
It's the idea of lean production that is the key to the reduction in the workforce. With the old system, workers will do one part, put it in, screw it in, or bolt it in and the line keeps going. Out of a minute you are maybe working 20 seconds.
What's interesting is that there are these suggestion programmes where you ask workers to become involved.
Management is very smart, it tells workers, 'you know your job better than your boss'. And so what they do is they willingly get workers to redesign jobs, form teams, sometimes they get paid for it. But literally workers redesign themselves out of a job.
Can you give us an example?One of the worst examples I've seen of lean manufacturing is one individual is doing some work and then she waits until the next transmission comes along.
But after the lean manufacturing is brought in, you turn and there's a bin of nuts and bolts and washers; there is a light sensor and you pick up nuts, bolts and washers.
But there is a pattern to the light sensors and you learn the pattern for picking up this bolt and nut and then you turn over there and there might be an overhanging drill gun.
Where originally you were working 20 seconds now you are working 45 seconds. Where the job was originally done by three people, it's now done by only one person.
What is your view of lean manufacturing?It's dangerous stuff. In some places companies have got workers in the union to redesign their jobs.
Management has said 'we want to create a world class company with world class workers'; 'we've got to be the best that we can be!'; 'we are part of one big family!' – I hate this stuff! Companies have also been able to shift this technology to Mexico and countries like South Africa too.
How have other jobs been lost?We also have casualisation and temporary workers. They get less wages, less benefits, there is no job security; it's very, very unstable for the workers involved.
Jobs would also be sourced to another company outside the plant. For example, there are a series of plants in the American south – South Carolina.
The person in charge is a former engineering director from my company. In our plant we were producing transmissions for a specific car or truck. Now this guy told me that these plants in South Carolina 'are doing what you guys are doing'.
These plants usually hire African American and Latinos who can hardly read or write, just out of prison, just out of rehab programmes or immigrant workers. It's perfect for the company.
They donâ€™t belong to a union, they can just get rid of them and bring in more bodies. These plants are literally slave shops.
The guy in charge there said to me, 'why donâ€™t you come down here and we'll get you hired. It's dangerous you could get killed.' I said 'I've done a lot of stuff and I donâ€™t want to be killed!'
How does your average US worker feel about international solidarity?I've been away from the plant for a while but I donâ€™t think it has changed at all. I donâ€™t think the US labour movement has done a good job.
Here (South Africa) workers have a sense of the global issues in the international labour movement. In the US I donâ€™t think workers get it.
They should be getting that from their union. I donâ€™t think they really have a sense.
I think there are activists, students and some officers who get it but for the most part they donâ€™t.