A Different Kind of Car Trouble

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The idea of labor trouble at Saturn is rather like hearing Santa's elves have staged a slowdown. After all, Saturn showcases its happy workforce by taking customers on tours of its plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. But with their bonuses shrinking along with the small-car market, Saturn's employees are now voting on whether to opt out of their unique risk-and-reward salary package and instead adopt the UAW's GM-wide deal.

Productivity agreements and bonuses had allowed Saturn workers to earn as much as $10,000 a year more than their GM counterparts. But the swing to sports utility vehicles has hit the company hard. Employees averaged about $4,000 less than their GM counterparts last year, and the parent company initially kept Saturn out of the lucrative new market.

Saturn is now set to produce an SUV by 2002. TIME's Detroit bureau chief Rod Stodghill believes the plant will vote to keep its unique contract: "The harmonious image projected in Saturn's ads is only as accurate as the market allows," he says. "When sales drop, that creates the kind of consternation we're seeing around this vote." Perhaps a "different kind of SUV" can keep those workers smiling for the tourists.