Orion plant's new wrinkle: UAW leaders will evaluate team members

David Barkholz
and Mike Colias
Automotive News -- July 11, 2011 - 12:01 am ET



Some UAW members at General Motors' Orion Township assembly plant and elsewhere in Michigan believe the carmaker may be taking the team-production concept too far.

The sore spot: About 200 hourly production team leaders at Orion, who supervise groups of co-workers in much the same fashion as foremen of yesteryear, will prepare written performance evaluations of their hourly group members.

Although team leaders review work at other GM plants, the reviews at Orion will be the most detailed ever and actually name the individuals performing the work rather than the job itself. Orion is building preproduction units of the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact and will start building retail vehicles in August.

GM has used the evaluations for several years as a "communication tool" to identify employees who need additional help or training, the company says. But UAW sources say the system is being expanded at Orion, where GM hopes to profitably build a small car.

The individual evaluations by co-workers have stirred up UAW members, who see a threat to union solidarity. Written performance reviews should remain solely the responsibility of management, said one team leader at Orion, who requested anonymity.

The team leader said he is concerned that his judgments of co-workers could influence promotions, lateral job moves and maybe even compensation if the UAW and GM agree in upcoming contract talks to institute bonuses based on quality and performance measures.

"I don't feel it's my place as a UAW member to evaluate other employees," the team leader said. "Now the boss can evaluate me or anybody else, if he wants."

As part of their next contracts, the UAW and Detroit 3 are likely to replace the profit-sharing portion of their agreements with a bonus plan that rewards hourly workers based on quality and performance as well as automakers' corporate profits.

GM North America President Mark Reuss has publicly supported such a change as part of auto talks to replace GM's current four-year contract with the UAW that expires in September.

But one auto executive who asked not to be named said GM is unlikely to base bonuses on team leader evaluations.

The executive said last month that if the UAW agrees to peg bonuses to quality and performance, those standards likely would be on companywide measures of quality or, perhaps, plant-specific quality.
It would be too hard, the executive said, to measure the performance of individual workers or departments to determine bonuses.

"We've even thought about a hybrid model in which 80 percent [of the measure] is across the entire manufacturing enterprise and 20 percent plant-specific," the executive said.

GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter said the company's North American plants have used hourly team leaders for several years.

Team leader evaluations of team members, typically done twice a year, are "not meant to be punitive and will not be used to impact an employee's pay," she said in an e-mail. The goal is to improve plant processes and determine training needs, Carpenter said.

Team leaders are hourly UAW members who earn between 50 cents and $1 an hour more than other team members for their extra responsibilities, team leaders said. At Orion, team leaders in production lead teams of five to six workers, while teams in materials handling can be as large as 11.

At a number of GM plants, team leaders evaluate their groups' performance in categories such as safety, people interaction, quality, responsiveness, cost and environmental awareness.

In a statement, the UAW said that the team leader system has "given our members more autonomy and a far greater voice in their daily operations."

A team leader at GM's Flint, Mich., assembly plant voiced concerns that the evaluations can hurt worker solidarity. The Flint plant builds full-sized and heavy-duty pickups.

Team leaders at the Flint plant are not doing individual evaluations of team members, the team leader said. But if it happens at Orion, it soon will happen in Flint, the leader said: "I believe it's coming."

The team leader adds: "It's not right for a union brother or sister to put a co-worker on the Man's radar screen."
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