Rebranding: The UAW Emphasizes the Importance of World Class Manufacturing


Customer Care News is dedicated to helping businesses improve customer care, customer satisfaction and employee collaboration. To that end, Dr. Keith Levick recently sat down with General Holiefield, vice president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), to discuss the changing face of the UAW in today’s economic climate.

General Holiefield, vice president of the United Auto Workers

CCN: For most organizations and companies during the past two years, it has been economically brutal. And with GM and Chrysler going bankrupt, I’m sure it’s put a major strain on the UAW. What is the UAW doing right now to attract more members?

GH: If you were able to witness what is going on behind the scenes with the parent companies that we have, which are Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, you would be very elated to see…the work relationships…that have not been very visible to the public. And speaking from a Chrysler standpoint, the relationship between the UAW and Chrysler, LLC is just absolutely remarkable. We have recognized that we’re all in the same boat; our attention and detail to quality will not be surpassed by anyone by the time we’re finally done. We’re all 100 percent in favor of world-class manufacturing (WCM). We don’t call it a program, but a way of life.

WCM is a quality initiative that was presented to us by Fiat, first introduced during the negotiation process during the bankruptcy. The UAW, through myself, accepted the WCM as part of the agreement, and after witnessing that particular process and way of life in its natural habitat (in Italy and in Europe), it was unlike anything that I have witnessed before. I don’t think the process exists here in the United States as a quality initiative. But it is certainly going to set Chrysler aside from anyone else in manufacturing throughout the United States.… My coworkers, the employees of Chrysler, LLC, are excited over it. It’s transforming not only our facilities, but also the attitudes and the culture amongst the employees within the workplace. They are excited; they’re on fire.

CCN: Is the UAW looking beyond the United States borders?

GH: Well, we’re in a global competitive fight in today’s market. It’s not like the days of old, when it was just domestic competition. The competition is not only fierce, but it is over capacitated. There are a lot of automotive manufacturers out here in business today and they’re all playing to win…. So we have come to that realization that we’re in a global battle, and our achievements to date are just remarkable, if you could just see the things that we are doing. But with all of us pulling together, we are not only going to take Chrysler to the top of that heap, but everyone will be looking in their rearview mirror, because here we come.

CCN: During the bailout, many in the industry were caught off guard with so many Americans not backing the autoworker. There seems to be this negative stereotype of the members of the UAW. What has changed and why should the general public look differently at the UAW today?

GH: I think we’ve demonstrated largely that we’re not just a union that is seeking dues from its membership; that we’re not a union that’s out to really destroy or bust a company, but to work with them and to demonstrate to the companies at large that we bring a lot of added value. …The membership that we do have realizes that we are truly supporting their best interests. I am on the forefront of world-class manufacturing. I have stepped out there with the company; in some cases, I am ahead of them. I became the guy that is preaching quality to the workers. I am telling them not to let anything that’s not of top quality go out of those factories, that we will pay a price, a tremendous price, provided that happens, and that the very jobs they save may be their own. Also, I have told them they should inspect every part, even if it’s from a vendor or supplier, because we need to know whom it is that is sending inferior parts into those facilities, that it’s not always just the workers on the line that are doing inferior work, but it’s the parts that they receive from their suppliers.

So there’s a new focus on suppliers that President Bob King has brought to the forefront, not just with Chrysler, but with Ford and General Motors alike, and we have become advocates with these companies that we represent. Not just in the car sector, but I also represent Volvo, Freight Liner and Mack within the heavy truck sector, right along with General Dynamics. And we’re looking to foster great relationships. They see another side to us, and it’s not us beating the companies up, or them beating up the unions, but us working together to leverage the best possible employees that we can afford to give to the company, and also us leveraging the best products that are made by UAW American workers. We just don’t believe that there’s any finer work class out there than American workers, and we feel that, in working together with the companies, we can have the best class of work for the money they have to spend.

CCN: You bring up a very interesting point. In August 2002, I read a quote from Bob King, who was the vice president of the UAW at the time, in the Detroit Free Press. I copied the quote and have used it in some of my education and training. He said, “If we want to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States, which is a major objective of the UAW, then we can’t be fighting management where we represent members. And if we have an adversarial relationship, then we’ll see more work going overseas.”

GH: … It’s ironic that you should raise that today, because just earlier this morning we had a meeting, and he echoed those words again. …He is saying we shouldn’t fight with the companies that are very supportive of our members, and that we should give every bit we can give to remove barriers in working with one another, so that we can continue to talk and work through our problems. We have done some tremendous things in the agreements at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler that have made us competitive across the landscape. So we can roll our sleeves up and we can fence with the best of them. The quality within General Motors and Ford are on par with the Japanese autoworkers; in some cases, Ford has surpassed them.

CCN: This seems to signal a shift in the old industrial mindset that’s been prevalent since the 1900s to a more customer-service-oriented philosophy.

GH: Yes, it is, and it is all about us rebranding ourselves to the degree that we would be more effective in bringing people into the union, with a customer service philosophy. The public or private sector would be more apt to say, “Hey, you know, it’s not a bad idea to have unions aboard.” Ron Gettelfinger did quite a bit of that, too, while he was here. He laid a lot of groundwork, and it’s a credit to Bob King that he made that statement in 2002. He’s got that mantle in his hand today. … I’ve seen a shift in a lot of things that I would never have dreamed possible because of his leadership and because of what we’re doing together as a union along with the management. It’s a different mindset altogether.

CCN: In recent years, American cars have begun to take over the lead spots in customer satisfaction and quality. How has the UAW contributed to this growth?

GH: Again, in today’s morning meeting, Bob King emphasized the importance of quality. It is him reminding us as leaders of the UAW that we cannot forget that we have to play the role as it relates to quality and productivity, and making sure that we’re very supportive of that — that the best goes in, and that we only get the best out.… In the past, we’ve experienced some members and coworkers buying off on inferior work. We have got to tell them that this is just not the way we do things today, and we cannot and will not allow inferior products to get outside of the facilities. And we have to make sure that we’re in lock-step with the management, not only from the facilities, but at the highest corporate level, and also be very transparent with one another in our day-to-day dealings as they relate to quality and productivity. You know that customer satisfaction means everything in today’s market.

CCN: When we talk about customer service, it is beyond just the external customer who comes into a showroom and buys your car. I think that all the people who are working in a facility, in a plant, are customers to one another. We are all each other’s customers, don’t you think?

GH: Absolutely! We are all each other’s customers. …In every facility that we work in, each employee — it doesn’t matter who you are — is a direct customer to one another…. We’re all customers. We should have the respect down the food chain for one another that we’re not sending inferior parts or we’re not doing an inferior job that’s going to prohibit or inhibit him/her from getting his/her job done. I’ve told the employees, “When that product rolls out the door, it’s got to say ‘you.’ …That car ought to resemble you.”

…And the facilities have to resemble the workers. We have to make sure that they are hospital clean; something that we’ve witnessed already over in Italy. The facilities are hospital clean, with no stretch of the imagination.

CCN: I agree with you. When you walk into a place, and it’s clean, people are proud of it.

General Holiefield, vice president of the United Auto Workers

GH: There’s instant pride. We’re going through that same transformation within Chrysler. It was part of an awakening for me when I went to Turin, Italy, and over to Naples and over to Poland to visit the Fiat facilities. I had to put coverings over my shoes. I couldn’t walk in there with just my shoes. I had to put on a white shop coat, and when we walked through the facilities the place was spotless. I mean hospital clean, even the restrooms. …This is a credit to all the employees there that sustain the facilities every day, and I said to myself, “Why can’t we have this?”

During the bankruptcy proceedings with Chrysler and negotiations that was one of the first things that Sergio Marchionne said to me across the table. He said, “General, I’m going to tell you: there are no ifs, ands or buts about this….I’m telling you if I can’t have World Class Manufacturing, I won’t come to Chrysler.” I said to him, “Well what is World Class Manufacturing? I think we build nice-quality products now.” He said, “No. No, you don’t. And I know you don’t know what World Class Manufacturing is.” I said, “Well, I think I do.” Well, I did think I knew.

“Well, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, someone needs to give me a crash course so I can understand what it is that you’re asking for. I can’t either bless it or deny it if I don’t know what it is that you’re talking about,” I said. So he says, “I’ll take care of that.”

CCN: Looking at the Italian workforce, what would you and the UAW like to pull from them and incorporate into the American workforce?

GH: It would be World Class Manufacturing. It’s their attitude toward quality and it’s their attitude toward sustainment of the processes that they have created to help get them to World Class Manufacturing. And it’s their attitude to being the best at what it is that they do, and truly mean it. I see it in every fiber of their beings, in how they work very closely with one another, employee with employee. And I couldn’t tell you who was the management when I walked in that facility…and who were the employees. They all were a very close-knit group.

And I said to the union that we met with over there, “We just launched the Grand Cherokee, and it is heralded as the best Grand Cherokee ever built by Chrysler. When that thing rolled off the line, it had a little bit of you guys in it, because you guys showed us how to make that the best Grand Cherokee ever built.” And I said, “Guess what? It is. It is the best one that we have ever built. And that’s no stretch; it’s the truth. That automobile is solid.”

It’s because of their principles, and we were able to go over and take a look at how they do it with an open mind. When Sergio Marchionne told the employees at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant he was going to shut the plant down, and that they were going to clean it up, they were like deer in headlights. He did that, and he invested in them; he invested the time in those employees and the money, and all the cleaning materials to get the job done. You would not believe what you see down there now; they are so full of pride. That day President Barack Obama went through there on a tour he was blown away…just looking at the processes and the way the employees were presenting to him with all the pride. I haven’t seen that in Chrysler; in all my years, I’ve never seen it.

…The head guy in Italy that runs WCM operations said to me, “General, there’s a culture in every plant. …There is a culture in every facility, and we need to find out what it is in Jefferson. They told me it’s a community thing, them working together. That’s not the culture. There’s something very special that they all share. And we found it in each of the plants in Italy. …And they just took off.”

And he says, “…These are the things that we want to tap into to say, ‘We’re not just a car company. We’re a people company, and we’re an employee company.’ …And if they’re happy, we’re going to get the best out of them…. It’s going to show in the products; it’s going to show in the facility. …Once you figure out what it is that makes them tick, you’re not going to beat them.”

CCN: If you had one thing to say to the American public right now, about the UAW today, what would it be?

GH: We’re not the UAW of old. …Leave the light on for us; we’ll come in, we’ll show you what we can do and interact with you and work with the employees. We are not here to destroy a company, but to work better and in harmony. We recognize that we’re in a global war with our competition. This is America, we want to make it a happy place to live and to work, and we want to see our children grow up [to be]strong, contributing adults. We want to make certain that the family unit survives here in America, and we want our companies and our businesses, our industrial manufacturing base, to be sustained and to surpass everyone. So, in working together, we know that we can accomplish that. We are the new UAW.