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Implications of Just-in-Time Production for Union Strategy: Lessons from the 1998 General Motors-United Auto Workers Dispute

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This paper analyzes the spatial and temporal dynamics of the 1998 General Motors-United Auto Workers dispute to examine what implications ‘lean’ production methods may have for organized labor. Whereas much writing on new forms of production organization has tended to see such developments in ‘either/ or’ terms — either as an attack on unions in the workplace, or as offering workers an opportunity for empowerment through teamwork and greater control over job content — in this paper, I argue that, under lean production, the power relations between workers and employers are being refashioned in contradictory ways at different geographic scales. Specifically, while lean production may indeed represent an attack on workers’ traditional ways of doing things at the scale of the shopfloor, the introduction of Just-in-Time production methods as part of the ‘leaning’ of capitalism may present new possibilities at the scale of interplant relations for unions to exploit in their relationship with employers. In this paper, then, I seek to identify key moments in the GM-UAW dispute through an examination of its spatial and temporal dynamics. Identifying such key moments provides insights into the changing landscape of union-employer relations. Based on these findings, I suggest that new forms of production organization may require unions to transform their modes of spatial organization and the geographical strategies that they have traditionally used.

Keywords: geographical scale; labor unions; lean production; worker solidarity

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Georgia

Publication date: September 1, 2000

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