Making our Union Stronger in Tough Times: ‘Lean High Performance Manufacturing’ Saves Jobs, Comp

IUE: Mobilizing for Competitiveness

In 2005, the 450 workers at the American Safety Razor company in Verona, Va, faced a bleak future. Declining profits and an erosion in sales because of low-cost competition overseas raised the likelihood that their work, producing industrial razors, box and carpet cutters, would be shifted to the company's plant in Mexico.

The move would devastate the members of IUE-CWA Local 82173 and their small Shenandoah Valley community.

Last year, 2,000 workers who make refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines at GE Appliances in Louisville, Ky, also faced a gloomy future. With reduced profits, members were worried about further job losses at the facility where employment was 20,000 in the 1970s.

Today, both plants continue to operate, thanks to an innovative jobs-saving program by IUE-CWA, funded by the CWA Strategic Industries Fund. The program, "Lean High Performance Manufacturing," helps manufacturing companies become more productive and competitive in the global economy. It also saves jobs.

"The program shows what can happen when workers are brought into the production process and when trust is built between labor and management," IUE-CWA President Jim Clark said. IUE-CWA is working to bring lean manufacturing to as many companies as possible.

"The program is in its infancy, but it is what we must do to preserve our members' jobs and help their companies be more productive and competitive," Clark said.

"Lean manufacturing is about changing the culture of the workplace," said Tommy Thurston who heads up IUE-CWA's lean program. "Workers realize that the program isn't just another way for management to get rid of their jobs. And employers recognize and take advantage of the knowledge and expertise that employees have with the production process."

There was little trust between workers and management at American Safety Razor when IUE-CWA urged the company to take part in the program in 2005. Suspicion gave way to greater trust after lean manufacturing experts trained managers and workers on how to work together and identify waste, duplication, and inefficiency in each stage of the production process.

"Our input into the lean process persuaded the company that we could be more productive and save jobs," said Local President Kenny Losh. "It's not a shouting match anymore and management is more willing to listen to our concerns about safety and other issues."

Losh said the company now is working to replace the highly toxic chemical trichloroethylene that is used in the grinding machines with a safer mixture. "Our work environment is improving because of the lean program," he said.

At GE Appliances, the IUE-CWA lean manufacturing program helped create nearly 30 new jobs, with another 70 expected to come online before summer, Local 83671 President Jerry Carney said.

"This is work that had not been performed until now at Appliance Park," said Carney. "We are more productive today because the company listened to our input." The company recently announced that it will be insourcing 23 jobs from China for work assembling washing machine pedestals.

The program helped turn around a hostile work environment. "Now plant managers are actually telling managers at nonunion plants that working with the union has value," said IUE-CWA lean expert Mike Mayes, who helped bring the program to GE Appliances.

"Lean manufacturing is critically important to our industry and union members, especially in today's economy," Clark said. "The companies where our members work are not just competing against overseas plants, but against foreign plants that are subsidized by their governments. So we're competing against China, Korea and other countries too."