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"For the first time in history, our way of life is seriously being challenged by other countries," a top General Motors executive today warned a Buffalo audience.

Alfred S. Warren Jr., vice president in charge of industrial relations, said America is in danger of being the kind of colony King George III envisioned -- a country that produced largely raw goods to be shipped to overseas manufacturers.

Talking to an audience of about 300 union and management officials opening the two-day Western New York Safety Conference, the GM executive said the current economic challenge is equal to the military challenge of World War II.

"It's essential if we are to continue our way of life that we be competitive," he continued.

Warren said General Motors' share of the automobile market was assured until the 1980s. "We are learning for the first time the rigors of competition," he said.

Adding to the threat from foreign competition, he told his audience at the Buffalo Hilton Hotel, are workplace problems of alcohol and drug abuse and lack of education.

Warren said he questions the findings of one report that suggested 40 percent of first-shift workers and 60 percent of second-shift workers in industry are involved in some sort of substance abuse. But, he continued, alcohol and drugs are draining the talents of some of the brightest men and women in America.

He said that, partly because it has been found that 20 percent of the General Motors work force cannot read or write, the giant automaker has become one of the largest educational institutions in the United States. People in their 40s and 50s are learning to read and write at such places as the UAW-GM Resource Center in Cheektowaga, he said.

Much of Warren's talk stressed the stronger role of unions in the automaker's operations since the threat of overseas competition has become apparent. "Our unions are critical to us," he said. "For a long time GM denied workers the right to participate in decisions. Only in this decade have we begun to get workers involved as they need to be involved."

Today, he said, "we believe our unions have the right to know our business." Union officials, he said, are given access to virtually all the information about the corporation that management has, so both sides can jointly meet the threat of competition.

"We've learned that companies exist partly for the people who work there. If people are involved, profits will naturally follow."

Warren was a member of management at the Chevrolet Tonawanda Engine and Buffalo Axle plants in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period he said brought back fond memories.

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