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News: Analysis & Commentary: DETROIT

WHAT LABOR TALKS?

The big story is about a black GM exec and an exclusive club

For many top General Motors Corp. executives, joining the Bloomfield Hills Country Club in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, was a rite of passage. But things changed in late 1994, when the club rejected an application from GM's ranking African-American exec, Roy S. Roberts. GM CEO John F. Smith Jr. and one of Roberts' sponsors, Chief Financial Officer J. Michael Losh, quit in protest. The 450-member club was widely castigated as racist: Leroy C. Richie, Chrysler Corp.'s general counsel, remains its only black member.

Now, Roberts and the club are giving it another try. Recently, the 57-year-old GM vice-president, who in February was tapped to manage the tricky merger of GM's Pontiac and GMC divisions, quietly reapplied. Chagrined club leaders encouraged him. "We are dedicated to playing this right," says one member. "We don't want anybody to feel they were treated unfairly." Roberts, a onetime factory worker who worked his way up from hardscrabble roots in Magnolia, Ark., won't discuss the situation. But he has previously acknowledged, candidly and without rancor, the obstacles he faces within the Motor City's white-dominated power circles.

GLAD-HANDER. This time, Detroit's power brokers are rallying around him. Sponsoring his latest Bloomfield Hills application are motor magnate Roger Penske and J.T. Battenberg III, a top GM executive whose soaring home overlooks the club's eighth green. Neither will confirm his role, but both are already gearing up for the intense networking, letter-writing campaigns, and get-acquainted receptions required to build support for any applicant to the staid, 87-year-old club.

Roberts' admittance still isn't certain. For the privilege of forking over the $42,500 initiation fee, plus $450 in monthly dues, candidates endure up to six months of scrutiny. The reasons for rejection remain secret, but members privately say Roberts' original sponsors, Losh and now retired Executive Vice-President William E. Hoglund, didn't build a broad consensus of support for him. They also say Roberts' glad-handing style put off some members.

Rejecting Roberts again could be costly. If he is accepted, Smith and Losh may return. If not, some members fear a mass exodus by remaining GM members and executives from GM's many suppliers--as much as 15% of the club's membership, one insider estimates. Members insist GM isn't pressuring them, but many clearly are worried about their image. The nearly all-male club is now recruiting women as well as more blacks. Change comes slowly to places such as Bloomfield Hills, but it may finally be coming.By Kathleen Kerwin and Keith Naughton in Detroit


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