Last train out GM's Electro-Motive

Plant has assembled its final locomotive

Sorely testing the vision of union leader Carole Travis

(Return to the Locomotive Notes Index Page)

David Moberg.

Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1993, page C1, (Copyright 1993)

"World's Largest Locomotive Builders" reads the sign outside the United Auto Workers Local 719 in southwest suburban La Grange. For more than 50 years, workers at the massive General Motors Corp. Electro-Motive Division plant down the street could claim the title without controversy.

Then last month the last two blue, orange and black diesel locomotives rolled out of the plant and into service for Metra, the Chicago area commuter rail system. The sign became a depressing reminder of past glories.

Only a dozen years ago, the sprawling, 3.6-million-square-foot factory was filled with the clang of metal presses, the hiss of welders, the cacophony of 13,000 skilled workers, and celebratory bell-ringing as they finished each of up to six locomotives a day. These 180-ton, 3,800-horsepower machines selling for more than $1 million apiece were not only industrial behemoths but also computerized, precision-finished, high-tech products.

Now fewer than 3,000 people are on the rolls, including 1,600 active production workers. The main bay where locomotives were assembled, a vast work space covering several football fields and rising nearly six stories, stands empty and silent like an abandoned cathedral.

The remaining workers still build diesel engines and components for locomotives that Electro-Motive now assembles at its Canadian factory. But management is busy shrinking the plant's size and work force and sending work to outside contractors.

It is also shrinking the hopes of union leaders who gambled on working with General Motors to save the plant. Union President Carole Travis has been one of the most ardent advocates of the new union strategy of participation in management decision-making. It was not a view she arrived at easily.

Travis' father, Bob, was one of the legendary figures in the early years of the UAW. A militant communist, he led the famous 1937 Flint, Mich., sitdown strike against GM and organized 47 UAW locals, including the La Grange Electro-Motive plant.

Carole, who grew up mainly with her liberal, social worker mother in Hyde Park, followed in her father's footsteps as a rebel with a cause.

As a student at Hyde Park High School, she led a protest against air raid drills as "absurd and mentally terrorizing." She organized against the war in Vietnam at Lake Forest College. During that time she also struck up a longstanding friendship with iconoclastic comedian Lenny Bruce after he once pulled her from his audience to join in a routine on stage.

After college she worked with a succession of new left "movement" groups, including a small Chicago group that preached the importance of workers for social change. In line with her political strategy, she took a job at Electro-Motive in 1974.

Electro-Motive was in its glory years then. Founded in 1922 to challenge the dominance of steam engines with a "rail motor car," the company was bought in 1930 by GM. In 1935 Electro-Motive broke ground for a new factory in La Grange (technically McCook) and quickly dominated the industry through both technological ingenuity and manufacturing prowess.

A slide after the '70s

In the late 1970s there were so many orders that employees could work overtime every day for months at a time. With only weak competition from one other company, General Electric, Electro-Motive management let its costs of production and prices get out of line, according to Sudhir Kumar, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Academy of Railroad Engineering and Transportation Management at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But a 1980 Forbes article about Electro-Motive jauntily observed, "No downturn appears in sight."

How sadly wrong that was. After 1980 the locomotive business as a whole, and Electro-Motive in particular, plummeted into an unending depression. In 1979 U.S. railroads bought 1,930 new or rebuilt locomotives . From 1981 to 1990, annual sales ranged from a high of 843 to a low of 255. In the late '70s Electro-Motive produced three-fourths of all locomotives sold in the U.S. By the late '80s, it built less than half.

Everything seemed to go awry. Deregulation of railroads led to a wave of mergers, track abandonment and intense competitive pressure that reduced demand for locomotives . Remaining rail lines could often buy used locomotives cheaply. Electro-Motive was battered by Reaganite antipathy to railroads, tax law changes, debt burdens on Third World customers, depressed demand for offshore oil rig diesels, and fierce competition with railroads from deregulated trucking.

On top of that avalanche of bad news, General Electric took advantage of GM's bloated costs and higher prices by aggressively investing in new technology to make its products competitive with GM in quality and much cheaper. GM was saddled with the costly fixed overhead of an underused factory and excess managers.

Layoff bolstered resolve

It was a time of personal tragedy for many laid-off Electro-Motive workers, including Travis. Out of work for nearly two years, she had no money for long stretches and nearly lost her house.

"I had such a difficult, frightening time when I was out of work," she said. "It was just by a stroke of luck I didn't fall off the edge. It made me even more deeply committed than my heritage did to be a voice for those people who are unrepresented and not heard."

In 1986 she ran for local president of the largely male bastion, defeating the union's first woman president, Mary Lee McDaniel, in a landslide runoff. An outside consultant had just advised GM to cut Electro-Motive to bare bones, and, shortly after she took office, the company closed its operations in Chicago's old Pullman plant.

Travis had run as a militant critic of both GM and the international union, and had opposed company demands for monetary concessions. But above all, she said, she simply promised, "I'd tell people the truth."

Influenced by a union friend who had converted from militancy to teamwork with management and haunted by her own unemployment, Travis decided the truth was that the union had to work with GM to devise an alternative to the consultant's slash-and-burn strategy.

"Continued militancy over bargaining unit advances was not sufficient," she now says. "I very quickly understood that if we continued to be a real problem for GM, we'd be a parts distribution and engine assembly plant. If we addressed the organization of production, we could keep much more work."

Travis luckily found that the plant manager, a German-born executive, Lutz Elsner, was more sympathetic to union and worker participation than most American managers. She also won the qualified, skeptical support of the union's shop chairman, George Dakuras. Soon GM and the local set up "joint operating effectiveness teams" to improve efficiency.

Travis and Dakuras, as well as shop workers, often sat in on high-level management planning sessions and had access to a wide range of financial information. The union and GM jointly sponsored detailed educational programs on the locomotive business, union history and management strategy. The union changed contractual work rules. In 1987, Travis said, the company accepted union arguments to retain production of some critical large components that were scheduled to be shipped out.

Not just efficiency

"I think she's exactly what this country needs in labor leadership," says Elsner, who is now president of ABB Traction Inc., the U.S. division of a big Swedish-Swiss engineering and manufacturing firm. "Her real strength is that she cares about people's well-being. She spends her time on the shop floor motivating people and promoting teamwork among people."

Elsner was especially impressed with Travis' actions when the union and management were trying to keep a major component, the traction generator, at La Grange.

"To equip herself for that," he recalled, "she went down and worked in that area and got to know every individual person intimately and worked off-shift hours so she could get her regular work done. People saw a real statement of credible involvement."

Travis wanted more than efficiency. She wanted workers to see themselves as noble producers-as poets in steel and copper-and as co-managers. "People went into that factory and built incredible things," she lamented, "and they were made to think of themselves as slugs."

Despite the apparent progress, Electro-Motive announced in 1988 its intention to shift all final locomotive assembly to its Canadian factory. Electro-Motive personnel director Richard Fleming said Canadian assembly was cheaper in large part because Canada has national health insurance, thus reducing company costs.

Every time Electro-Motive moved an operation out, overhead from the giant plant was spread over fewer parts, increasing their costs. A potential Metra contract to build and rehab passenger cars became crucial to keeping the main plant open. But a year ago Metra awarded the contract to Idaho-based Morrison Knudsen Corp., which would assemble cars made in Japan in Electro-Motive's old Pullman plant, over a joint bid by Canadian-based Bombardier Corp. with Electro-Motive.

Travis was outraged. Winning the Metra contract would have not only brought in about 200 new jobs but also helped preserve another 500 at Electro-Motive.

Travis questioned Morrison Knudsen's promise-which ultimately tipped Metra's decision-that it would use three times as many local labor hours as Electro-Motive in manufacturing the cars. She mounted a public protest and sued Metra for not fully disclosing its contract selection criteria.

Morrison Knudsen had stirred up anti-Japanese sentiments in late 1991 and early 1992 in a successful campaign to overturn a Los Angeles County Transit Commission contract with a Japanese firm, Sumitomo.

But as a self-described "internationalist," Travis was unwilling to focus a highly emotional attack on Morrison Knudsen's own ties to a Japanese company that will ultimately manufacture most of the Metra car components.

The union lost its lawsuit and now is losing more. Travis complains that management has a long list of components it intends to buy elsewhere. Despite union efforts to prove that Local 719 workers can compete, management often says there's simply no room for the jobs as the company concentrates all its operations in one building.

Also, for a year and a half, GM has been looking for someone to buy a majority stake in Electro-Motive. Many workers fear the company wants to shut the plant. More than 700 recently opted for early retirement.

'A slap in the face'

Elsner is gone, and so is the early cooperative spirit, even if the forms and rhetoric persist. Although Fleming praises Travis as a "visionary" who looked out for her members but was also a "smart businesswoman," he noted, "I think Carole was looking for more input from the employees than we were comfortable with."

There is growing disillusionment in the union ranks. Joe Schey, now laid off, led a joint effectiveness team that figured out an efficient way to rebuild the engine. But GM sent the work to a contractor in Kentucky.

"That was like a slap in the face," Schey said. "They'd say, `You got to do better,' and you'd do it, and they'd still ship the work. But I'd do it again tomorrow."

Shop chairman Dakuras, never as hopeful as Travis, isn't so sure he would do it again. "Just when we were making progress with joint effectiveness," he said, "we ended up getting new managers who decided they didn't need us to save this business."

After the union worked hard for a year and a half to meet a company production goal for electrical coils, he said, "last week they said they were going to ship it out anyway. It's difficult to get people to cooperate when they see jobs continue to go away."

Struggle for survival

Travis, a striking 50-year-old redhead with an engaging smile, still commands respect in her local as a tough, smart, effective leader. She takes flak for cooperating too much with management, but there are still big differences between the two sides.

"Management is worried about survival," she said. "They want to survive as a competitive, lean and mean unit. We want (the plant) to survive as a big employer. Business looks at the bottom line. We're attempting to preserve pride in product, skillful manufacturing, humanity."

Building railroads and locomotives makes good sense as national energy and environmental policy and as an economic development strategy for the Chicago region, Travis argues. Now there is growing interest in high-speed passenger trains. But all the locomotives are likely to be imported, much to her dismay.

Travis does not imagine that labor-management cooperation is the pathway to utopia. She still believes in fundamental change in society and works with coalitions to fight utilities, defend the social safety net and provide universal health care.

Yet, compared with her youth, she is less certain what the path to a better world might be.

"When I was younger, I had more confidence," she said. "In the '60s we were fighting for a better world. Today we're fighting for survival. You have to take different things into account if you're fighting for survival. But I'm not comfortable with that shift."

The last locomotive may be gone for now, but Travis wants the workers and the romance of their manufacture to be remembered. Maybe, she still dreams, the railroads will revive, and the sign outside the union hall will be more than a museum piece again.

PHOTO (color): The efforts of UAW's Carole Travis to involve workers in management decisions haven't stopped the exodus of jobs from Electro-Motive. Tribune photo by John Kringas.

PHOTO: Carole Travis, president of the UAW Local 719 in La Grange, talks with Electro-Motive employees Wayne Neyhart (left) and Larry Hendricks at the plant. Tribune photo by John Kringas.