The Wall Street Journal
Decades of dumb decisions helped send General Motors to a bankruptcy court yesterday, but one stands out.
The year was 1998, and the United Auto Workers was striking at two factories in Flint, Mich., that made components critical to every GM assembly plant in the country. The union was defending production quotas that workers could fill in five or six hours, after which they would get overtime pay or just, you know, go home.
Most strikes are forbidden during the life of a labor contract, so to provide legal cover the union started filing grievances. GM lawyers contended the walkouts violated the contract anyway and drafted a lawsuit - the first by the company against the UAW in more than 60 years. But GM's labor-relations department freaked out because the lawsuit would antagonize the union.
Just think about that. The union had shut down virtually all of GM, costing the company and its shareholders billions of dollars, and yet the company's labor negotiators were afraid of giving offense. After heated internal arguments, the suit was filed and GM seemed on the verge of winning. But the company settled just before the judge ruled.
UAW members marched victoriously through downtown Flint. GM executives who advocated a tougher stand got pushed out of the company.
The picture of a heedless union and a feckless management says a lot about what went wrong at GM. There were many more mistakes, of course - look-alike cars, lapses in quality, misguided acquisitions, and betting on big SUVs just before gas prices soared. They were all born of a uniquely insular corporate culture.
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