In the eyes of its leaders, the General Motors subsidiary in the USA, Saturn Corp., has new life.
At the end of a bad summer, Saturn announced three changes in strategy:
1. Saturn will add products, including a sport utility, and aim at volume of 700,000 vehicles a year. That would make it the No. 2 GM brand behind Chevrolet and ahead of Pontiac.
2. Saturn will continue to make more of its own parts than other divisions, even as it merges with a larger global vehicle platform.
3. GM and union leaders want to introduce Saturn's labor relations and manufacturing practices to more GM operations.
Saturn was less affected by last summer's union strikes against GM than other divisions. According to Saturn, GM management and national union leaders intend to adopt Saturn ideas on worker-involvement to create labor peace.
Saturn CEO Don Hudler said GM wants to emulate Saturn by giving the UAW 'early involvement in terms of design and development, and that leads you into sourcing decisions.'
He said GM will get the UAW 'involved in design to a much higher degree than ever before.'
The new strategy is a turnaround of sorts for Saturn and GM.
In June, the UAW began a seven-week strike that locked up GM's North American production and cost the company $2.5 billion in lost profits. The strike grew out of grievances at two GM parts plants in Michigan over the automaker's plans to turn business over to outside suppliers.
Then in July, Saturn's independent union authorized a strike over a related issue: the fear that GM intended to outsource much of Saturn's parts-making operations. The move could have eliminated hundreds of Saturn's 7,200 factory jobs.
Saturn labor leaders were worried that GM planned to stop Saturn from making its own parts and a sport utility at the Spring Hill, Tennessee, plant. They worried that workers would lose their involvement in influencing design and sourcing decisions.
The outlook is different now, say company leaders.
Mike Bennett, manufacturing adviser for Saturn's UAW Local 1853 and bargaining committee chairman, said that under the new plan, Saturn will retain every component job on which it is competitive.
'The business is ours to lose,' Bennett said. 'If we're competitive, then we could actually bring work in.'
Speaking in a joint interview with Hudler, Bennett said, 'There is now full realization at General Motors that Spring Hill is a model that will work for the rest of GM.'
The change apparently grew out of post-strike meetings in Detroit between Rick Wagoner, president of GM's North American Operations, and Richard Shoemaker, the UAW's vice president for General Motors.
'You can carry lean to an extreme,' Bennett added, 'to the point of being anorexic.'
In recent weeks, Bennett has publicly bemoaned the fact that Saturn's union was losing its voice on future product decisions, a voice that was promised in the company's original mission statement in 1985. Saturn is being folded into GM's year-2002 Delta platform, which will include the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, the sport-utility and the Opel Astra in Europe.
Opel is taking the lead on those designs, and Spring Hill is already seeing designs from the German subsidiary's offices.
Last week, Hudler said Saturn workers will have their voice restored on the upcoming vehicles. He said it is not too late for Saturn's union to play a role in Delta.
Hudler would not provide specifics about the company's planned new products, except to hint that 'the sport-utilities of four or five years ago may not be the way they look in the future.'
He also said the new plan is not limited to only one new vehicle.
Saturn's Tennessee plant now produces 250,000 cars a year.
Next year, Saturn will take over GM's Wilmington, Delaware, car plant to begin producing 200,000 mid-sized cars a year, called the L-series.
Hudler did not set a time frame for achieving the growth of an additional 250,000 units.