Chapter 7 Oldsmobile Intrigue: Hearts and Minds

In the summer of 1998, General Motors was hit by the longest strike it had faced since the 1930s. Workers at the metal-stamping factory in Flint, where Mary Barra had attended college, walked off the job on June 5, 1998, and stayed off for almost two months. The plant employed just 9,000 workers—a tiny fraction of the company's North American employees—but they made parts for all of GM's factories in the United States and Canada. Their strike shut down all of GM's assembly plants across the country, idling some 200,000 workers. At issue was new equipment for the plant and the union's perception that the company reneged on a promise to give it more work.

“In the middle ’90s, there was a real attitude from GM that they weren't going to communicate with us very much, and they were going to do whatever the hell they wanted,” UAW Vice President Cal Rapson told Automotive News 10 years later.1 His GM counterpart, Don Hackworth, told Automotive News that the plant's workers “didn't want to give a fair day's work and ignored warnings that inefficiency would have consequences.”

The strike cost GM $2.8 billion in profit that year.

Wounds from the strike were still fresh when GMI-trained engineer Gary Cowger was called back that November from a stint in Europe, where he'd overseen manufacturing and been in charge of Opel, to take over global labor relations. In preparation for the following year's UAW contract negotiations, he thought that ...

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