By: Otis White
By the time Mike Westfall walked into Detroit’s Cobo Hall one morning last winter, he had already put in a full, predawn shift at the Chevy truck plant in Flint, Michigan where he works, slipped on a tie and, with a friend, Bob Evans, driven 57 miles to Detroit to view the Auto fact 5 trade show, where the latest in computer controlled automated equipment was on display. Unlike the hundreds of managers and engineers tramping about the blue carpet of Cobo Hall, Westfall wasn’t there to buy anything- not a robot, a computer-design system nor even an electronically controlled machine tool.
He was there to spy- although Westfall never personally uses that term. “I just call it attending trade shows,” he says with a shrug. Like most spies, Mike Westfall believes deeply in a cause. His cause is simple: He wants to save jobs. To that end, he has been trying to convince unions and companies to change the way electronics is entering the American work place- the kinds of electronics that were on display that day last fall in Detroit. If the gathering storm of computer automation isn’t diverted, he believes, it will destroy much of what he associates fondly with Industrial America; good paying factory jobs, assertive labor unions and prosperous auto towns like Flint, where he works.
“We aren’t saying we’re going to stop automation,” Westfall says speaking for himself and U.A.W. activists who share his fear of the electronic workplace. “We’re not going to stop it. It is a force of nature, and it’s not going to be stopped. What we’re saying is, do these things, but do them with social responsibility, so that the victimization is minimized and so our communities don’t suffer”. Westfall has been preaching his sermon on the looming dangers of computer automation.
If Westfall’s crusade seems a bit remote to Florida businessmen, try this: What if Florida’s tourist industry, like Michigan’s automakers, was faced with automation and promised to leave the industry in place, but eliminate the cost of most jobs? How would Disney workers feel?
To help spread his message, Westfall mails a monthly newsletter about technology to U.A.W. officials and others who are interested in the subject (in his occasionally vitriolic newsletters, he referred to the auto companies as “pirates of the high seas”). He appears on televised public affair shows.
*But for all his efforts, Westfall’s campaign has made little impact on the U.A.W. hierarchy, in either Flint or Detroit. At U.A.W. local 659 in Flint, President Bob Breece says he is as gloomy as Westfall about the ultimate effects of computer automation on the U.A.W. and on Flint. Still, “You can’t stop it. They own the business,” Breece says, nodding his head in the direction of the Chevrolet plant across the street. “And I tell you what, if I owned the business and I found a way to fatten my billfold a little more, I’d do it too.” *****On the other side of town, at a union hall in the shadows of the giant Buick complex, local 599-president Al Christner says that, over the years, automation has taken a toll on his local’s membership rolls. Even so, he is glad his members aren’t paying much attention to Westfall’s efforts to stir them against GM’s program of automation. In the auto Industry these days, Christner explains, every General Motors plant is competing against every other GM plant for work. Too much labor strife, he says, and GM shifts the work elsewhere- a predicament that puts him as a labor leader, in a delicate situation. Says Christner, “I don’t want to give GM the impression we’re against robots.”
Almost anyway labor turns; it faces a long period of wandering in the wilderness. Even if it should adjust to the turbulence of the Industrial Revolution and attunes itself to the era of the white-collar worker, it will come at a great cost to the old-line workers, the U.A.W. Mike Westfall, the U.A.W. point man believes it doesn’t have to be that way.
It was to prove that point that Westfall drove from Flint to the Auto Fact 5 trade show in Detroit- to look over the latest in electronic labor-saving gadgetry and perhaps, to gather some material for his next newsletter. Inside Cobo Hall he and Evans, one of his people, wandered among the exhibits for factory software and industrial robots and electronic inventory systems. He chatted knowledgably with the salesmen, discussing some of the finer technical points of the machine, as he took mental notes of how many workers each machine could displace. At nearly every booth he gathered printed material, explaining with a smile to the salesmen that he was taking some brochures back to his “colleagues”.
On his green and white Auto Fact name badge, which everyone attending the show was required to wear, it read: “Mike Westfall, Materials Specialist, General Motors.”
It also gave an address in Chesaning, Michigan, where he lives. What Westfall actually does for a living is deliver parts to the Chevy truck plant’s assembly line: hence, he is a “materials specialist.” If the salesman, who scrutinized carefully his name badge before they talked with him, chose to interpret anything else for that vague sounding title, he said, arching his eyebrows that were their problem!
Before long though, Westfall was bored. There wasn’t much new at this trade show, he sniffed. He had seen too much of this stuff, and some that was more advanced, at other robotics shows.
After a couple of hours, of wandering around the convention hall, he was headed for the last door, when he stopped by one last booth, this one a software company.
A well-groomed young man with brown-framed eyeglasses and a neatly tailored gray suit stepped up and eyeing Westfall’s name badge, offered to show him some of the features of his company’s software. By using his company’s system, the manager could keep tabs on every person and machine in his factory. He punched a few keys, and up on the computer screens a row of numbers appeared- a report on a fictitious group of metal cutting machines.
“I’m giving you my reject counts, and the net pieces,” he said, pointing to a couple of numbers. He pointed to another group of numbers. “It also tells me I’ve got, lets see one . . . two . . . three bad machines.”
“So, actually you could monitor individual workers, as well,” Westfall, asked innocently.
“Oh, absolutely, the salesman said. “I could do this”- he punched some more keys- “and here I can see what this machine- machine number 11- is doing. You see, here’s the job at hand, here’s what my 3rd shift gave me, here’s what my previous 1st shift gave me, and my second shift. I could look at that and say, why did my 1st shift give me only 195 pieces? Is it the operator’s fault?”
The salesman stepped away from the machine and glanced at Westfall, who nodded as if impressed. “Or look at this,” the young man said, after a moment. He stepped back to the terminal and began punching in more information. “If you think that was impressive, wait until you see the rest of it.” As the salesman bent down over the computer screen, Westfall looked over the salesman’s shoulder at Bob Evans, smiling knowingly and winked.
* The International UAW finally listened to Westfall and 4 years after this article was written, GM and the U.A.W. set Westfall up offsite for 2 years to write the retirement program that has been used to minimize job redundancy due to corporate restructuring. The program has saved thousands of jobs.
**Mr. Breece never did listen to Westfall. Since this article was written, Mr. Breece’s U.A.W. local 659, which he was president of has had its membership decimated for the very issues Westfall was addressing.
***Mr. Christner never did listen to Westfall. Mr. Christner was the president of this very large and historic UAW local representing the Buick workers. Since this article was written the Flint Buick complex has been torn down and Buicks are no longer built in Flint. Mr. Christners local union has seen its membership shrink from 20000 to 2000.
Copyright 2004: " Web Site Creator/Editor : Bernie Lowthian / America's Workers For Historical Accuracy ": October 15, 2004