The reporting of local strikes at General Motors Corp. must be very confusing to the public because it seems like no sooner is one settled than another pops up.

The impact of local issues on the company's competitiveness is subtle and generally misunderstood when reported by the media. On the other hand, issues negotiated in the national contract - such as wages, insurance and pensions - are easily defined. The media, with its experts and analysts, do a fairly good job of reporting the implications of national contract settlements. When it comes to reporting local issues, it's a completely different story.

Local issues almost always pertain to health and safety. A definition of health and safety is ambiguous at best, but they could be defined differently for different processes, different locations, and different times for the same location, for that matter.

To deal with this complex situation, each local has a grievance system. This system gives each worker the right to process a grievance if he/she feels that contractual rights are being violated. The company must respond, and the system allows for negotiation and arbitration if necessary.

Over the years, this system has successfully processed and resolved thousands of grievances, so I would say the system works quite well when the spirit of the agreement is applied to both sides. There is one thing, however, that skews this whole arrangement. Each local has the right to strike over any health and safety issue - perceived or otherwise - that cannot be resolved through the normal grievance procedure (with approval of the international union). This gives the local presidents the opportunity to politicize the process, which they sometimes do.

This is a powerful tool that a local president can use against the company because when you talk about health and safety, it includes just about everything not pertaining to wages, pensions or insurance. For example, workers could perceive a safety problem create by an increase in line speed or a heavy overtime schedule. Grievances could be submitted because someone believes there's not enough female restrooms or not enough drinking fountains or coffee machines, or maybe all of them aren't in the right locations. Outsourcing is another favorite grievance, despite the fact that sometimes the whole plant might be on a maximum overtime schedule.

Just about anything an employee gets involved with from the time he gets out of his car in the parking lot to when he gets back in it to go home can be twisted around to create a health and/or safety issue. These issues can often change with the times. Years ago a new father would pass out cigars and everyone would light up. Do that today and I'm almost sure a grievance would be submitted because of the secondhand smoke.

So you can see health and safety issues are not hard to create. The union and/or the company can become obstinate in resolving some issues through the normal procedure, thus creating a strike situation. Strikes almost always occur when sales are up and the plant is running flat out. The environment is right, people have been working heavy overtime for a long time, they have money in their pockets, the company is making lots of money, etc. Local strikes hardly ever happen when sales are down, production schedules are erratic and inventories are high.

Local strikes usually don't last very long. After awhile, the company makes some concessions: a couple of more drinking fountains here, some more people added there, or maybe some more exhaust fans and restrooms. It all sounds somewhat trivial when you look at it by itself, but you can't look at it that way, and that's the important point most people miss. No sooner is one local strike settled than another one looms on the horizon. But it's important politically for the president of the next local to get more concessions than the previous local. The same thing is true when, the next local strike comes up, and on it goes.

When all the local strikes are finally settled and the costs of all the concessions are added up, the impact on the company's operating expense and productivity are usually very significant. What the employee really has to ask himself is, were all these concessions worth it?

Remember, you and your company are competing against the Japanese, the Germans and everyone else in the world that makes cars. When your company must add operating costs or loses some productivity, it also loses some of its competitiveness in the world markets. What this could mean to the employee is loss of job, plant closings, reduced wages, benefits, and so forth.

It's funny. It seems that U.S. workers are almost willing to self-destruct when dealing with U.S. carmakers. Their attitudes are completely opposite dealing with Japanese carmakers. For example let's quote the best selling book The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry: "The workers had to give total commitment to the job. That meant no radios on the assembly line, no smoking, and little time for lollygagging. Make-work job categories - the kind that in the past meant the operator of a machine couldn't fix the machine if it broke - were eliminated. When GM ran the plant (New United Motors Mfg. Inc., a GM-Toyota Motor Corp. joint venture), workers were divided into 82 hourly job classifications, each with narrowly and rigidly defined duties. Toyota had just three."

Let me assure you that every U.S. carmaker manager has attempted, on any number of occasions, to obtain these very same concessions. The union would not hear of it; it was never even accepted as a point of discussion, let alone negotiation. Yet this same union that passes out "Buy American" bumper stickers willingly gave concessions on local issues to Toyota that it would not give to GM.

I think it's time that we review our labor practices at a higher level.