What has become known as the "China Project" has aroused concern among some of the 4,350 union employees at the Tonawanda engine plant of General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada Group.
Under the project, the first squads of what eventually will total about 200 Chinese automotive engineers and managers are being taught the intricacies of manufacturing a discontinued General Motors engine.
GM officials see the project as a step toward making millions of Chinese eventual buyers of Chevrolet cars and trucks made in their country. But despite the assurances of management, many workers fear the long-range result will be creation of another Asian maker of motor vehicles to compete with cars and trucks being made in the United States.
"It was a corporate decision," notes Thomas J. Monaghan, area director of the United Auto Workers, which represents approximately 4,000 production and maintenance workers at the engine-making complex.
"The union wasn't involved until after the fact. At that time, we informed our workers they didn't have to participate in the training."
One measure of the UAW resistence was its refusal to sell GM an unused building it owns near the plant that the automaker wished to convert into classrooms for the Chinese.
"We learned a painful lesson with the Japanese," says Donald L. Rust, manager of the Tonawanda engine plant off River Road. "We reacted to the Japanese competition. With the Chinese we're trying a pro-active role. We're trying to become an exporter to the Chinese, rather than being an importer."
The second group of about 20 Chinese completed two months of training Friday. In about two weeks, a third group of about the same size will begin training. Management fears that union resistance ct' as threat to engine plant hereeal with another domestic or foreign automakerwill make the training more difficult. It is expected to take two years to train all 200 Chinese.
Plant executives and leaders of Local 774 of the United Auto Workers, which represents hourly paid workers, were reluctant to comment on the program for fear of intensifying underlying antagonism and fear.
Employees at the plant are well aware of the erosion of jobs in the U.S. auto industry this decade because of the inroads made by foreign competition. They have expressed fears that once the Chinese learn the technology of modern engine making, they will become competitors in the world auto market, as have the Japanese and Koreans.
Workers at the Tonawanda engine plant already are competing with two other CPC plants across the U.S. borders. One is in St. Catharines, Ont. The other is in Mexico, where wages average 85 cents an hour.
"I feel it's a threat to us," union official Thomas A. Ameno says of the China Project. Ameno is a trustee of the local and one of the most outspoken critics of the project. "It doesn't matter if they sell the engines back to us or sell them to another country," he said.
Ameno, who is also a union shop committeeman, said he has been told that the contract between GM and the China National Automotive Industry Corp. (CNAIC) specifies that the engines be built for internal use only. But, he adds, "I haven't seen the contract" and he is skeptical that its terms will be followed.
A flier distributed to members of Local 774 by the union leadership last month asked the membership to ignore what it said was a call by Ameno to picket the plant to protest the China project. "Your local leadership does not condone, nor support Brother Ameno's call for picket action," the flier states. "We do not intend to pursue this avenue to put our members out of work."
Ameno denied demanding that a picket line be put up at plant entrances. He claimed the flier was distributed by his political enemies within the local.
The flier reprints a letter to the local leadership from William Reno, international representative in the UAW's General Motors Department in Detroit, which commends the local leadership on its handling of the situation.
Reno notes, "This corporate decision, as well as many other corporate decisions, in which our union has no voice, still has an impact on our membership."
The training of the Chinese here is part of an agreement between GM and Beijing under which the machinery to make the engine was shipped from Flint, Mich., where the engine had been made, to the Chinese capital.
At the time the announcement was made, it was called a first step toward the manufacture and sale of GM vehicles in China.
The engine itself is a four-cylinder, cast iron head engine that was discontinued by GM four or five years ago.
Donald Gray, general superintendent of manufacturing engineering at the Tonawanda engine plant, spent two weeks in Beijing in 1987 wrapping up details of the agreement.
The Chinese auto industry is centered in its capital. That's where most of the engines currently being made for the country are being made and where the two-liter, 4-cylinder line is being installed.
Currently, he said, the Chinese plant makes two models of gasoline-fueled engines and two models of diesel-fueled engines. One of the diesel engines is a recent German model. The other three engines date back at least 40 years.
He found the Chinese were very intelligent, "but they have never designed engines. They don't have time to design the wheel and they know that," he said. "If they don't get an agreement from us, they will deal with another automaker, either here or in Japan."
He said the Chinese consider trucks their biggest transportation need. Although it is small for medium-sized trucks by U.S. standards, the two-liter engine is expected to power them when production starts in 1991.
Currently, the Beijing engine plant produces 20,000 engines a year, which is less than the Tonawanda plant produces in only three days. The equipment shipped to China will swell the plant's production capacity to 350,000 to 400,000 engines a year.
But, Rust said, "it will be a while before they can produce at that rate."
Rust, who headed the Flint engine plant before being assigned to Tonawanda, said much of the machinery shipped to Tonawanda was installed in Flint in 1978. Because a new generation of two-liter, four-cylinder engines is being produced here, it was logical that the Chinese be trained at the Tonawanda plant.
The Chinese do not work on the production line here. According to plant officials, half their time is spent observing. The rest is spent in the classroom. Most of the Chinese, reportedly, do not speak English. They brought an interpreter with them.