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This study exposes the human side of the decline of the U.S. auto industry, tracing the experiences of two key groups of General Motors workers: those who took a cash buyout and left the factory, and those who remained and felt the effects of new technology and other workplace changes. Milkman's extensive interviews and surveys of workers from the Linden, New Jersey, GM plant reveal their profound hatred for the factory regime—a longstanding discontent made worse by the decline of the auto workers' union in the 1980s. One of the leading social historians of the auto industry, Ruth Milkman moves between changes in the wider industry and those in the Linden plant, bringing both a workers' perspective and a historical perspective to the study.
Milkman finds that, contrary to the assumption in much of the literature on deindustrialization, the Linden buyout-takers express no nostalgia for the high-paying manufacturing jobs they left behind. Given the chance to make a new start in the late 1980s, they were eager to leave the plant with its authoritarian, prison-like conditions, and few have any regrets about their decision five years later. Despite the fact that the factory was retooled for robotics and that the management hoped to introduce a new participatory system of industrial relations, workers who remained express much less satisfaction with their lives and jobs.
Milkman is adamant about allowing the workers to speak for themselves, and their hopes, frustrations, and insights add fresh and powerful perspectives to a debate that is often carried out over the heads of those whose lives are most affected by changes in the industry.
As advanced capitalist economies shift away from manufacturing, and as the manufacturing that remains is radically restructured, what is happening to industrial workers and their way of life? This book explores that broad question through a narrow lens, focusing on the recent experiences of workers from a single factory: the General Motors (GM) automobile assembly plant in Linden, New Jersey. First opened in 1937, GM-Linden was at the core of the mass production economy that flourished over the next several decades. Like the luxury Cadillacs it built during the postwar boom, this plant was a top-of-the-line operation, with high wages, excellent fringe benefits, and a strong union—the best America had to offer to unskilled, uneducated industrial workers. The system began to unravel in the 1980s, however, as GM struggled to meet the challenge of intensified international competition. Management introduced robots and other new technologies at Linden, and began reorganizing the work process as well. The plant also shifted to small car production, and all these changes combined to generate sharp employment cutbacks. In the mid-1980s, GM negotiatedwith the United Auto Workers' union (UAW) to establish a buyout program offering cash payments to production workers who agreed to give up their jobs—an option that proved very popular at Linden. The pages that follow assess these unsettling developments from the perspective of the workers involved—both those who accepted the buyout and left the plant, and those who are still employed there. Their stories reveal a great deal about the dilemmas industrial workers face in the postindustrial age.
Edward Salerno (not his real name)1 went to work as an assembler at Linden when he finished high school. His father, a lifelong GM employee, got him the job—a common arrangement in the days before the auto industry started shedding old workers rather than hiring new ones. Salerno worked at the Linden plant for eight years until he accepted the buyout in 1987. Even before that, he was restless. "Let's face it, auto workers are not in the most intelligent occupation in the world," he said, "and you kind of get hung up in that type of lifestyle." The main thing that had kept him at GM was the high pay. "You come right out of high school, and all of a sudden you're making this big money!"
A couple of years before he left, when he learned that the plant was going to be modernized, Salerno had signed up for an electronics training course, hoping it would help him get a better job. He was laid off during the year-long plant changeover, and GM paid for his training under a union-negotiated tuition reimbursement program. "After I graduated, then they started calling us back, and my mind was pretty much made up: if I didn't get a job in the computer end, fixing the new robotics and all, I was going to leave." When it became clear that he could only return to GM as a production worker, and with his job security uncertain because of his relatively low seniority, Salerno decided to take the buyout, receiving about a year's pay, or $30,000. He got a job installing business telephone systems, but after a few months, he was laid off. So he went back to school again, this time to learn computer programming, and that led to a job in the payroll department of a large insurance company, where he works now.
The pay is less than at GM, but there is an excellent benefit package; and overall Salerno is much happier. "The working conditions and the atmosphere and the people—it's nice. It's such a great change for me, [better] than working on a line like that." He has no regrets about leaving GM:
I'm thrilled that I'm out of there what can I say? The place was a hellhole. I really hated it. It was very belittling. It seemed like they were always trying to play games with you, always trying to degrade you. And there was always that struggle between management and union: we're enemies. You know, it was constantly that. Each side played [its] little games. They didn't likeyou; they were going to do what they could to get you. Where I am now, there's never any yelling or threatening or anything like [there] was at General Motors. The relationship is better. I get along fine with my managers, and there just isn't the need for that kind of nonsense like at GM. As far as my foremen or any of my bosses there, I can't say I hated them, but I've never been brought to such anger in all my life [as] I was at that place. The things that some of the guys would try to do! It's incredible!
Salerno knew when he left GM that the auto industry's glory days were over. Only a generation before, an auto worker could make a decent living. "You could buy a house and raise a family like my father did. Now, forget it. If you're working there, your wife has to work." GM, and with it the UAW, had gone downhill in the 1980s:
Let's face it, the auto workers just aren't what they used to be. They just don't have the power they used to, because there's not as many workers and there's always that threat, well, they can just pack up and leave—which is what they're doing. No one is listening to the union anymore. What are they going to do? They have no recourse. So, I saw all that coming, and I said, "I just don't want to be a part of this anymore."
I think if the unions want to stay, they are going to have to start infiltrating the white-collar jobs, because manufacturing in this country is just going down the drain. I think that if it ever did happen, they could probably become strong again, because in this type of deal, where I work now, you could strike and you don't have to worry, about picketing—because who's going to go in there and do your job? You're the one that knows what is going on. Nobody is going to walk in and take over your work, because they don't know what you're doing. In that respect it would be very easy. But where I work, you even mention the union, and they call you a communist. You start talking about that, and they get rid of you quick. But I'll tell you, I think that's their only hope for right now. I don't think that factory jobs will be around much longer.
Even though he's a lot happier now than when he worked at GM, Salerno is still keeping his eyes open for something better. "Most of the promotions come within the first two or three years over here, and then you kind of level off. I'm not learning anything new now, either." He's going to school again at night, with his employer paying the bill, working for an associate's degree in computer science. "If something else came along, I would take it."
Dan Cooper took the buyout too. He worked at GM-Linden forten years, although he never liked it much, and like Salerno, he had not really intended to stay as long as he did. He was twenty when he was hired. "I was working at a warehouse making, I think, $5.00 or $5.25 an hour," he recalled. "They were starting up a second shift at General Motors and I heard guys talking about it and it was a lot more money. I didn't think I wanted to be an automaker, but while I was deciding what I wanted to do, I could make more money at it. I went there, and when I first got there, I started thinking about maybe going for a foreman or trying to work up the ladder, but then I got turned off by that pretty quick."
Cooper has his own business now, as a chimney sweep, and he does other odd jobs, like stump grinding and landscaping, on a freelance basis. He started the chimney sweep business while he still worked at G M, as a second job.
For a while my wife worked for AT&T, full-time. And so we had it made—we had money flowing out of our ears. Then the children came and she quit. All of a sudden our salary was cut in half, you know. And that's when I started my business. Working days on production, I usually got out between three and four in the afternoon, and so I could set up appointments after work or on weekends. I'd read about chimney sweeping in Popular Mechanics years before. I thought about it during the oil crisis, when people were going crazy buying wood stoves, but back then I didn't have the need for another job. So it had been in the back of my mind for a long time, and then I saw this ad for the equipment. I think I paid $1,600 for the vacuum, brushes, ladders, you know, basic things like that. I attacked my father-in-law's fireplace, and then I did a few for the guys at work, just free cleanings. Then I went around—I had a top hat and tails and I had flyers made up, and I'd go around on a Sunday, handing them out, looking for people working on their front lawns. And people start looking. I'd go in the liquor store and buy a six-pack of beer with top hat and tails on. Everybody in the store wants a card, you know.
For a few years Cooper built up the business while continuing to work at GM. Meanwhile, it was becoming obvious that the auto industry was in trouble. "The last five years or so before I left there, it just felt like I was giving back, I wasn't gaining anything. Once Reagan got into office, unions, organized labor went right down the drain. But before they offered the buyout, there was never any incentive toleave" when did offer him the buyout, Cooper hesitated. "It was a hard thing to do. I had a house, a wife and kids, a mortgage. And benefits—picking up benefits is expensive. And security, you know, you get that weekly income. But I figured that I was young enough—I was thirty years old at the time—that I could fall on my face, you know, working for myself, and I knew I could still go out and get work."
Cooper expanded his business into a full-time operation with the help of the buyout money. "I didn't look at it as a lot of money, but it was something to help tip the scale. I looked at it more like a small business loan, rather than throwing it into our bank account, I bought a new van." He had never intended to stay at GM forever, but he realizes that if not for the buyout, he might have done so. "I was never really happy at GM, but I just never had the guts to say, 'The heck with it, I'm going to throw it in, take my ball, and go home.'" Now Cooper is much happier with his work:
To me, it's a utopia. I love when I'm doing the cleaning . . . . My main thing is getting people to love to use their fireplaces, educating them. That's how I get all the referrals, because Mrs. Jones loves to tell Mrs. Thomas any new information she finds out. And if [Mrs. Jones] can tell her this, that, and the other thing about a fireplace, Mrs. Thomas wants to know. I've got a business that—with advertising, I could probably put three trucks on the road, but I don't want the headaches.
I work probably the smallest area of any sweep in the state. I've got a circle on a map that extends out four miles, and if I go outside of there, people pay fifteen to twenty dollars extra to have me come, I try to discourage them. I don't need the whole county; I just want my little comer of the world, you know. And people love that. They like the idea that I sell myself, not my company. If you call and you have a problem, the only person you're going to talk to is me. There's not going to be a seventeen-year-old kid coming out to clean your fireplace. I like that, being a hometown boy. I grew up here, my father grew up here, and my in-laws live a half mile away.
When the economy plunged into recession, business became more uncertain, but so far Cooper has managed to hang on.
Usually, February, March, April, I keep myself semibusy; I've got maybe two jobs a day, three jobs a day, and take days off and stuff. But this year, for a while it was like I was getting two jobs a week. Everything went down, youknow, all my income went down, and the bills were still there. Later the chimney cleaning picked up a little bit, and also I started the stump grinding. Now I'm working basically seven days a week. Usually, I don't get home till around eight-thirty; then I usually have about twelve calls on my answering machine. Sunday I was out from eleven until around six o'clock at night, doing stumps and running around. And before that, from like nine till eleven, I was out doing estimates. You know, I can see the end of it coming, but right now I'm working like a maniac.
Mostly he is glad he left GM, but Cooper has no illusions about the future. "I'm never sure if I did the right thing or not, because I don't know what's down the road. I could go for one slide, one fall, and never be able to climb again, you know, and that could be—whew, the whole business totally gone."
Almost a thousand GM-Linden production workers took the buy-out at the same time as Salerno and Cooper. Three thousand others declined it and instead returned to work in the newly modernized plant. Susan Roberts was one of them. She thought about taking the buyout but decided against it in the end. "I was considering buying a house, and I figured that it would be a good down payment," she recalled. "But I talked myself out of it because I didn't have another job to go into. I figured if I wanted to buy a house, I don't need to put that much money down. So then I says, 'What the hell am I going to do? Where am I going to find a job that has benefits like this? Okay, the job security is a little iffy, but I'm going to hang in there.'"
When Roberts returned to the plant, she went through a two-week training program, jointly sponsored by. GM and the UAW, welcoming the workforce to the "new Linden" with great fanfare. Along with the new technology, the program introduced a range of organizational innovations, many of them modeled after the practices of the Japanese auto firms that are now GM's most formidable competitors. In a dramatic reversal of past practice, for example, workers were told to "build the car in the station," meaning that they should do each job in its assigned location rather than marking problems for correction later on, as they had in the past. If extra time is needed to correct a problem, workers were told, they should simply stop the line. In addition, the plant switched to a "just-in-time" inventory system, so that parts were delivered to workers on the line as they were needed, rather than in larger quantities—a hallmark of the Japanese auto industry that is often credited with improving efficiency. The "new Linden" also had Employee Involvement Groups (EIGs) that met to discuss production and quality problems, and there were other efforts to improve communications between labor and management. Workers were promised a larger role in decision making and problem solving on the shop floor as well.
Like most Linden workers, Roberts welcomed these changes. "I feel we're going in the right direction, finally," she said.
General Motors didn't wake up fast enough to what the Japanese were doing. They thought they were just so big that nobody could touch them. GM's a little slow; it took them a little while, but they're finally getting into it. They're finally realizing that it's not quantity—it's quality that is going to bring back the American people to buy these cars again, instead of going to Japan and Korea. And it's good that they have realized it, because they definitely got to make some changes.
The union's working with management more, which, I think, helps. We have to work together. I think there's more communication now; that's the key thing to me, communication. You got to talk. And management is really doing more for the people, you know, trying to get rid of the old dinosaurs and get them more into sync with us, 'cause we're the ones that do the job.
Roberts liked what she heard in the "new Linden" training program. She even volunteered to be an EIG spokesperson. "I like doing a good job; I like seeing a good job done. A lot of people called me Goody Two-shoes," she confessed. She was especially pleased with the just-in-time system. "The plant is cleaner; they cleared all the stock out, you know. [ Before] they had racks of stock, and you couldn't even see outside. Everything was blocked up; everything was stuffy, it felt, you know, claustrophobic. Once they started doing that, it was like a whole new breath of fresh air, believe it or not. You could see sunlight, and that, that helped my day—it really did."
But her enthusiasm flagged as it became clear that the daily reality of life on the shop floor would not be quite what had been promised.
Yeah, build-in-station. If you had a problem—let's say, sometimes on the modules the clip would be shot where I would have to snap in my rod. So,I would stop the line, go over, get a clip, stick it in there, stick the rod in, start the line up again. Which took maybe about fifteen, twenty seconds, you know, but they would go crazy, because, you know, you stop the line, and they're thinking right away they're losing money. Even though the concept was, this was how it's supposed to work. Oh man, they used to come running—unbelievable! You had the line down not even ten seconds, and, boom, they would come running, "Why's the line down? "Uh, a clip is missing, and I was supposed to do my job in my area, so . . ." A lot of people were scared that they would get yelled at and so they went back to the old system where you take a job number down and eventually somebody else in another section would pick it up. They were so used to the old way that that's the way they wanted to keep it. You know, maybe to pamper us or satisfy us, they keep the buttons [to stop the line] in there, but it's kind of frustrating.
The EIG program—eventually abandoned altogether by the plant management—was another disappointment. "It didn't work well at all," Roberts reported. "And it's a shame, 'cause it was a good thing to have, but it just fell apart, and it was lack of communication, lack of interest. One of our complaints when we had EIG was to get the engineers to work with us on the line and see how these parts fit together that they say fit fine together on paper. But forget it. That never worked, we never got them in." She blamed the supervisors and middle managers for these failures. "A lot of foremans [sic ], they never worked on the line, so they really don't know what it's like. And these people higher up, they just come in, they do the job, they get the money, and that's it. Sometimes I feel like they're trying to make me out like an idiot, that I don't know what I'm talking about—and that pisses me off. So I would like better communication, better understanding."
Fred Lawton also turned down the buyout and went back to work in the plant after the changeover. His assessment of the "new Linden" is remarkably similar to Roberts's, even though he is far from a Goody Two-shoes type. "It hasn't changed that much at all," he reported. "The supervisors—they always would refer to them as dinosaurs—the dinosaurs are still here. They may have been put to sleep for a while, but they're still here; they rise up every once in a while, and then theystart hollering and screaming the same way they used to. You have to, I guess, put up with it. I let it go in one ear and out the other."
Like Roberts, Lawton pointed to the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality. "They [management] tell you, 'This is the way we want it; this is the way the Japanese do it.' Okay, if that's the way they do it, then let's do it that way too. But if you stopped the line, most of the time they would start the line and then ask what's wrong. It's going back to the dinosaurs: it's a numbers game; we need so many cars, 430 cars or whatever, and we'll do everything to get them out. They don't want that line to stop for any reason." He also questions the level of commitment on the part of both managers and workers to the EIG program: "I think it was just done to make it look good, as a show. I really don't think they were serious about it. Everybody would go to the meetings because they got a half-hour's overtime pay, so that's why people took part. We used to come up with some good ideas for them, but they didn't want any. You know, 'Okay, okay, okay.' They didn't want to hear us, you know. They would want numbers, not ideas."
In the 1970s, Lawton had been active in a dissident faction of the local union, and through his father, who worked in the plant for forty years, he was familiar with its entire history. He deeply regrets the union's recent loss of power:
My belief is that in the past five years [there have] been less grievances filed than were filed in, say, all of '77 or all of '78. Our local used to be considered the rebels, going way back. We were the ones! The metropolis, this city that this plant is in, has such a wide variety of people. They don't have the hicks from, you know, come off the farm; they got an intelligent workforce up here. But now, our local is just going along with everything. The union is playing more of a management role. Their whole attitude has changed. They seem to be too cooperative, and I think all labor unions are getting that way. I think they're all dying. They say you can't have the militance, but you need something there; otherwise, things are going to fall too easy, and that's when things go downhill. That's what happened to our union.
To him, this is part and parcel of the decline of the auto industry as a whole. Despite Lawton's negative evaluation of recent developments, he remains a loyalist in some respects:It bothers me that we have engineers who pull up to work in Nissans. There's something wrong; there's got to be some loyalty somewhere. I mean, I have two cars; they're General Motors cars. I had a Plymouth before that—I felt uncomfortable buying it at first. I cannot see, especially these engineers and upper management, driving these other cars. People in union-appointed positions, too—[there are] guys driving Mercedes. "Hey, Mercedes is a great car; so is my other car, my wife's car, a Chevy." I said, "Well then, do me a favor; keep your Mercedes home; drive your Chevy to work. Park your Chevy in the lot; don't park your Mercedes here. If everybody bought Mercedes, where would you be working?" But nobody cares.
Although Lawton turned down the buyout, he has long aspired to leave the blue-collar world. He attended college at night and got a degree in accounting back in 1981, "with an understanding that I would be moved into a financial department position" at GM:
But then, when the time came, they said, "Go and be a foreman." Their major concern was "We don't move anybody from the hourly line into the front office."
I said, "Why not?"
They said, "We don't do that; you have to be a foreman first." I had three kids; I did not want to work six weeks days, six weeks nights, like the foremen do. I like to have some time for my home life. I mean, I coach two soccer teams; I coach baseball. I couldn't do that as a foreman, but as a straight salary worker, I wouldn't have a problem.
I was hurt and disappointed, and was ready to leave then. I even had gone to an employment agency, looking for other jobs. At the time, in '81, we were probably making $21,000 or $22,000 a year. I went looking for junior accountant jobs, and they were all starting at $13,000 and $12,000 and no benefits.
So that was tough, but they don't move from the line in. You have to go and be a supervisor first, and that bothered me.
Lawton continues to dream of leaving the plant to become an accountant. He thought hard about taking the buyout. But "I couldn't just do it; I would have to have something to go into. All my résumés went out, and I got nothing back. I have a whole folder in there, probably about two hundred responses back, and they were all: 'Very sorry, we'll keep your résumé on file. If something comes up, we'll let you know.'" So for Lawton, leaving the plant remains a fantasy, at least for now.
Social commentators in the past often lamented the destructive effects of capitalist industrialization on ordinary people; today, however, the focus of critical inquiry has shifted to the results of de indus-trialization. Despite the irony of this reversal, there is ample basis for concern—particularly from a labor perspective—about the structural transformations now under way. Radical economic restructuring inevitably renders less powerful groups newly vulnerable, and it threatens whatever forms of self-protection they have developed. Indeed, as manufacturing has moved to regions with cheaper, more tractable labor, and as GM and other American firms have seen their formerly unchallenged market position dramatically eroded by foreign competition, millions of people have been thrown out of work, and employers have launched bold attacks on labor organizations. Particularly in monoindustrial communities where alternative sources of work are few or nonexistent, many victims of plant closings or mass layoffs who once enjoyed middle-class incomes have been forced into long-term unemployment or into marginal, poorly paid jobs and have suffered a radical decline in their standard of living. Discarded, like obsolete machinery,, by their former employers, they face a bleak future of economic deprivation and social humiliation. A considerable literature already exists documenting the devastating social effects these developments have produced in recent years.2
Even if this proves a transitional phenomenon limited to a single, lost generation of "displaced" workers, it represents a tragic and inexcusable failure of social policy. Without denying its importance, however, one can also recognize that this is only part of the story of industrial decline and restructuring. Some former high-wage factory workers like Edward Salerno and Dan Cooper have been able to make a relatively smooth transition into other types of employment; others, like Susan Roberts and Fred Lawton, are still employed in basic industry, although technological and organizational innovations have transformed their work. To be sure, neither those who left GM-Linden under the buyout program nor those still employed there are representative of the industrial labor force, past or present. The buy-out takers are a self-selected, relatively youthful group who are in manyways atypical of the larger population of displaced workers; those who remain at GM-Linden are dependent on a firm that is undergoing extensive internal restructuring and whose survival, given the continuing shake-up in the global automobile industry, is far from assured.
But it is precisely their peculiar yet strategic social locations that make these two groups of workers particularly interesting. The buyout takers' post-GM employment trajectories suggest the problems and possibilities confronting young workers in the growing service-based "postindustrial" economy, whereas the situation of their co-workers who stayed at GM exposes the complexities of the process of work reorganization now under way in the shrinking, but still important, manufacturing sector. The recent experiences of workers like these may be more relevant for understanding the prospects for future generations of non-college-educated workers than the more dramatic stories of emiseration among former industrial workers in other settings that are so extensively documented in the literature on deindustrialization.
For both those who left and those who stayed at GM-Linden, the future is extremely uncertain, and they are painfully aware of this fact. Although so far, both groups have escaped the long-term unemployment, downward mobility, and accompanying social distress that has afflicted so many other workers, they know very well that they remain vulnerable to such a fate. As Dan Cooper put it, "I don't know what's down the road." And yet surprisingly few GM-Linden workers, past or present, express any desire to restore the old industrial system that is now collapsing around them. Their lack of nostalgia highlights a sad fact that is all too often forgotten in the age of deindustrialization: factory work in the golden age of mass production was deeply problematic in its own right. However much it fascinated some left-wing intellectuals, workers themselves never romanticized the assembly line—instead they mostly yearned to escape its relentless and dehumanizing rhythms.
In twentieth-century America, alienation at work has been a perennial theme of public debate, and the automobile industry has always been its prototypical symbol. In the prosperous 1950s, for example, Ely Chinoy's classic study Automobile Workers and the American Dream drew attention to the lack of opportunities for social mobilityfacing GM workers and to their daily frustrations on the line.3 Two decades later, following the 1972 strike at the GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio, "blue-collar blues" were rediscovered and became the focus of the U.S. goverument's high-profile 1973 study Work in America .4 But not long afterward, the frustrations and degradations of daily life in the factory were displaced from center stage as capital mobility and technological change suddenly brought up new questions. Whether mass production work would survive at all in the restructured, down-sized economy, what to do about the abrupt erosion of real wages and fringe benefits, and the implications of the precipitous decline of organized labor—these were the issues that now captured the attention of social commentators. In the wake of the economic upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s, the classic questions of worker alienation and degradation have been virtually obliterated from public memory.
Yet for workers at places like GM-Linden, the daily humiliations of the assembly line continue to rankle. Even in the anxious 1980s, their long-standing desire to leave the factory was what motivated so many Linden workers to accept the buyout offer. And those who did so appear to have surprisingly few regrets, even though most are economically worse off now than when they worked at GM. Among the buyout takers I followed over a five-year period, almost all reported without hesitation that they would make the same decision if they had it to do over again—in large part because of their bitter memories of working at GM. Significantly, the few who did have regrets were disproportionately African Americans, who fared significantly worse in the outside labor market than their white counterparts.
Most of the Linden buyout takers landed on their feet; almost none of them joined the ranks of the unemployed, and a sizable subgroup became modestly successful small business owners like Dan Cooper. However, even among the majority, who were downwardly mobile and who now hold relatively poorly paid jobs, few have any nostalgia for GM. The Linden buyout takers had several key advantages over most displaced industrial workers: they were self-selected; they lived in a region with low unemployment; and crucially, they were relatively young (typically in their thirties) when they reentered the labor market. To be sure, in stating that they have no regrets, some may be making a virtue of necessity. Perhaps the buyout takers in serious distress are those whom I was unable to track in the later phases of the research. These caveats notwithstanding, the overwhelmingly positive outlook of those with whom I did maintain contact suggests that most former auto workers are not mourning the world they have lost.
Like the buyout takers, those who remain employed in the Linden plant have no kind words for the traditional system of mass production, GM style. Contrary to the popular assumption that blue-collar workers are committed to the work rules and other features of the status quo ante, few current GM-Linden employees complain about the new forms of work organization they now confront. However, many do express resentment about management's failure to implement fully the changes it promised to make when the plant was modernized in the mid-1980s. Those changes did not include the introduction of flexible teams of workers who rotate jobs Japanese style (the "team concept"), which have been the focus of so much debate among auto industry analysts.5 But GM—with the local union's active cooperation—did introduce a range of other organizational innovations at Linden at the same time as it updated the plant technologically. In the postchangeover training period, workers were explicitly told to expect improved treatment at the hands of supervisors, better communication with management, and a larger role in decision making and problem solving on the shop floor. The build-in-station concept, just-in-time inventory systems, and EIGs were among the changes introduced. Most workers were enthusiastic about the cluster of organizational reforms that constituted the "new Linden," but like Susan Roberts and Fred Lawton, they were deeply disappointed when the much-touted promise of increased worker participation and responsibility proved empty.A Lost Opportunity?
Many commentators presume that labor is deeply committed to defending the work rules and job classification systems that were embedded in the postwar mass production system, and is thus opposed to teams and related forms of work reorganization. For example, Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, among the first and most insightful critics of teams, state: "In most instances where the team concept has beenimplemented, it was a management proposal which met opposition from the workforce."6 However, there is surprisingly little research about what rank-and-file workers actually think about these matters.7 Consider, for example, the highly influential 1990 book on the auto industry The Machine That Changed the World, based on research by scholars at MIT. The authors assert that the "lean production" system first perfected by the Japanese auto firms, key features of which are flexible teams and just-in-time inventory systems, offers workers a "humanly fulfilling" alternative to traditional mass production. Regrettably, however, the book presents no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. Apparently, none of the considerable resources supporting the research (the dust jacket boasts of a "5-Million-Dollar 5-Year Study") was used to investigate blue-collar workers' own evaluation of the lean production system.8
Other commentators have criticized the team concept and the lean production system on behalf of workers, pointing out the ways in which these innovations can increase the pace and pressures of work, but here too there has been little effort to document systematically the views of ordinary workers. If these critiques reproduce workers' perspectives at all, they tend to draw primarily on the statements of dissident unionists who have been vocal in their opposition to teams and other organizational reform efforts, notably the New Directions group within the UAW.9 While this viewpoint certainly merits discussion, there is little evidence that it is widespread among workers. In fact, the typical rank-and-file viewpoint may be more accurately reflected in the dominant UAW policy, which generally has been one of cooperation with management's efforts to introduce work reforms—precisely the policy that motivates the dissidents' critique.
A major reference point for both advocates of lean production and for its critics is the GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, California, known as New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI. This plant is run by Toyota, using flexible teams and various other so-called Japanese management techniques. (GM's responsibility primarily involves the marketing side of the operation—ironically, the only area where the plant has had serious problems.) The workforce is comprised almost entirely of former GM workers who were employed at the same plant before it was closed in 1982. In contrast to the whollyJapanese-owned auto plants in the United States, called transplants, NUMMI's workers are all UAW members. Under GM, the plant had a reputation for low productivity and frequent strikes, but when it reopened as NUMMI in 1984, with the same workforce and even the same local union officers, it became an overnight success story, with productivity and quality ratings comparable to those of Toyota's plants in Japan. Efforts to emulate it inspired the organizational innovations at Linden and at other Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) automobile assembly plants around the United States.
Another showcase of workplace transformation is the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, a wholly GM-owned subsidiary of that corporation. Saturn opened in 199o, five years after the UAW and GM signed an agreement to launch it as an experiment in maximizing worker participation. Saturn too has self-directed work teams but carries the principle of labor-management cooperation even further, involving workers and the UAW directly in long-range corporate planning, as well as hiring and personnel policy.10
Many have praised the NUMMI and Saturn plants as models of workplace democratization; others, however, have severely criticized them.11 Detractors argue that despite the rhetoric of worker control, the team concept and similar participatory schemes are basically strategies to enhance managerial control. In this view, far from offering a humane alternative to traditional assembly-line production, workers at team-concept plants participate mainly in the intensification of their own exploitation, mobilizing their detailed firsthand knowledge of the labor process to help management speed up production and eliminate wasteful work practices. As Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter argue in one of the first and most trenchant such critiques, "[T]he little influence workers do have over their jobs is that in effect they are organized to time-study themselves."12 They argue that the team concept is a system of "management by stress," and see it as extremely treacherous, undermining union power in the name of a dubious form of participation in management decisions.
Despite its merits, this critique underplays a crucial point: namely, that workers themselves often find intrinsically appealing the idea of participating in what historically have been exclusively managerial decision-making processes, especially in comparison to traditionalAmerican management methods.13 This may be the case even where worker participation is confined to a very restricted arena, such as helping to streamline the production process or otherwise raise productivity. Parker and Slaughter themselves acknowledge that at NUMMI, "nobody says they want to return to the days when GM ran the plant."14 Unless one wishes to believe that auto workers are simply dupes of managerial manipulation, the apparent preference of the workforce for the new system suggests that it has some positive features and cannot simply be dismissed as the latest form of labor control. It further suggests that whatever the obstacles U.S. companies must overcome to meet the challenge of Japanese competition, the problem is not resistance from workers to more participatory systems of factory organization.
At GM-Linden and in most other Big Three auto plants, things are far different than in NUMMI and Saturn. Management has made only tentative, surprisingly timid efforts (and in many cases even these have failed) to introduce truly participatory systems. What has stood in the way of change is not resistance from workers, who are ready to try anything in their desperation to escape the traditional system. Rather, management has proved itself unable (or perhaps unwilling) to implement even relatively modest changes like those announced with such fanfare at GM-Linden in the late 1980s. Since such reforms are typically introduced in the name of enhancing the plant's—and ultimately the firm's—competitiveness in a context where failure to compete can mean closing down entirely, any sustained resistance from workers would be surprising. But what is striking is not the mere acquiescence but rather the enthusiasm with which so many workers have responded to restructuring efforts of this sort. They dislike the traditional system of management so intensely that they desperately want to believe in the promise of a new one. Yet GM has failed to capitalize on this opportunity, and at most of its plants, the traditional system—with a few cosmetic modifications—has been preserved intact.
At GM-Linden, some local union leaders are skeptical about the team concept, but to date, local management has not proposed this particular form of organizational change, even though it has had several opportunities to do so. The changes management has initiated atLinden, however, that do move in a participatory direction have been accepted by the local union with little difficulty. Indeed, at the time of the changeover, the "new Linden" program was jointly developed by the local union and management. As for the rank and file, those who are not particularly active in the union, my research suggests that the vast majority welcomed the reforms introduced at Linden with great enthusiasm. Like their co-workers who left to take the buyout, the workers who returned to the plant after the changeover detested the old system and were delighted by the prospect of replacing it with something new—especially since they were led to believe that the degrading and humiliating treatment they had so often endured from supervisors would be eliminated. Ultimately, workers' criticism of the postchangeover situation focused, not on the reforms themselves, but rather on management's failure to live up to its professed commitment to carry them out. In all this, GM-Linden is far more typical of American auto plants than such highly visible showcases as NUMMI and Saturn.Uncertain Futures
The responses of both former and present GM-Linden workers to the dilemmas and challenges they now face are powerfully influenced by the past. But their view of that past is complex and ambivalent. On the one hand, with their high pay and strong union, auto workers see themselves as they often have been seen by others: as an aristocracy of labor, the supposed millionaires of the working class. But on the other hand, as far as their actual shop-floor experience is concerned, they see themselves as victims. It is not so much that their jobs are unimaginably boring and routinized—the classic prototype, after all, of alienated labor—because most workers accept that as an inevitable feature of mass production industry. What they hate far more intensely, and what virtually none sees as inevitable, is the abusive and degrading treatment that so many workers routinely endure at the hands of first-line supervisors. This has created a deep reservoir of resentment and frustration (and also an important foundation for the adversarial industrial relations system for which the United States is now famous worldwide). Their bitter memories of all this are preciselywhat lead so many past and present GM-Linden workers to welcome the possibility of change, even without knowing whether they will be winners or losers in whatever socioeconomic order emerges from the present disarray.
From an outsider's perspective, the auto workers' future prospects hardly look promising: they have few economic resources; little education (the average level for both the buyout takers and those remaining in the plant is eleventh grade); and the political influence they formerly could exercise through the UAW, always modest, has declined precipitously. Yet having thus far successfully eluded the unambiguous marginalization so painfully inflicted on the obvious losers in the restructuring process—the long-term unemployed and the growing underclass—the workers whose voices are reproduced in these pages are remarkably hopeful. Those still in the plant, who retain most of the economic advantages historically associated with employment in the auto industry (despite some erosion in pay and benefits after a wave of concession bargaining in the 1980s), have difficulty imagining that a reorganized work process or a changed industrial relations regime could be any worse than what it would replace, and many dare to hope that it will be better. As for those who took the buyout, they are well aware of what they gave up economically, but they still hope that the noneconomic advantages of their pact with the devil will be worth the price of lost wages and fringe benefits.
The hopes of both groups may well be disappointed. But it is crucial to understand their contempt for the dinosaurs of the old industrial regime and their eagerness for something better. To take their perspective seriously is to abandon any effort to restore the world of mass production industry as it existed in the past—which is probably impossible in any case. If we look forward rather than backward, the real challenge is how to enhance the resources with which workers might confront the newly transformed world of work now taking shape. Unionism, their major resource in past years, is now hopelessly besieged in the shrinking manufacturing sector and largely nonexistent (outside the public sector) in the vast new postindustrial service-based economy. How can an organization like the UAW, once widely admired as a paragon of democratic industrial unionism, adapt to the radically new situation facing its current and former members?
The record so far is not inspiring. At the national level, the union has yet to forge an alternative to its long-standing habit, institutionalized in the aftermath of World War II, of ceding basic decisions about how to organize production to management. The UAW faces vast new challenges in the shape of huge job losses in the domestic auto industry, as well as the rapid erosion of unionism in the industry (thanks to the growth of the nonunion Japanese-owned transplants and of a growing domestically and foreign-owned nonunion auto parts sector). In this crisis the auto union has concentrated on trying to preserve the security of both employment and income for its dwindling membership. That has led to some positive achievements, among them the buyout program that was so popular at Linden. But the UAW has yet to come to terms with the changes in work organization that are now under way in the plants, changes that often render traditional modes of resistance to managerial domination obsolete.
Even more tragically, in view of the vast overcapacity that still exists in the domestic auto industry, and especially at GM (a reality that makes future plant closings inevitable), the national UAW has failed to prevent management from pitting workers in one factory against those in another run by the same company—what auto industry insiders call whipsawing—leading to dramatic erosion in the power of local unions. In this context, challenging management too forcefully at the local level simply invites the ultimate sanction of a permanent plant closing. This is one reason that Linden's local union, UAW Local 595, which enjoyed a reputation for militancy until the mid-1980s, has been largely quiescent in the face of the dramatic events of recent years. Linden's former and present workers may be hopeful about the future, but few express any faith in the ability of the profoundly weakened UAW—or any other union, for that matter—to assist them with their current dilemmas. The union's diminished strength is far more troubling to many of them than the erosion and transformation of factory employment itself.
The GM-Linden story, then, is largely one of the failure of both management and union to respond effectively to rapidly changing circumstances. On the management side, GM's internal organizational structure and traditional corporate culture have remained largely intact, despite much ballyhooed efforts to institute changes. GM hasbeen unable to reap the full advantages of new technologies or to make a successful transition to a more participatory system of workplace management, even though the firm has invested considerable resources in both areas. Sadly, management's own inertia has been reinforced by the weakening of the UAW in this critical period. Long habituated to a reactive stance toward management initiatives, in recent years the union has left the challenge of reorganizing the workplace largely to management while warily embracing "cooperation" in hopes of slowing the hemorrhaging of jobs in the auto industry. The net result has been an increasingly uncompetitive status for GM, which in turn has further weakened the union, creating a vicious circle of decline.
Because so much of the recent behavior of both GM management and of the UAW and its members is rooted in the past, the first step toward understanding the current situation is to look back at the history of the system of mass production in the automobile industry and the accompanying pattern of labor-management relations. Chapter 2, accordingly, explores the experience of workers under the traditional system as it existed at GM-Linden in the postwar years. The role of the UAW in that system and the ways in which the dramatic transformations of the 1980s affected the union are the subject of chapter 3. Chapter 4 examines the effects of the job security programs the UAW negotiated with GM and takes a closer look at those who chose to leave the factory entirely—buyout takers like Edward Salerno and Dan Cooper. Finally, chapter 5 returns us to the factory itself, exploring the ways in which the new technology and the new industrial relations introduced in the 1980s affected Linden's work-force.
Excerpted from Farewell to the Factory by Ruth Milkman Copyright © 1997 by Ruth Milkman. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Figures and Tables|
|2||Prisoners of Prosperity: Auto Workers in the Postwar Period||22|
|3||Adversarialism and Beyond: The UAW in Uncertain Times||51|
|4||Farewell to the Factory: The Buyout Experience||93|
|5||The "New Linden": Rhetoric and Reality||137|
|App. 1||Selected Data on Linden-GM Production Workers, 1985||182|
|App. 2||Auto Workers' Hourly Earnings, 1958-1992||189|
|App. 3||A Note on Methodology||191|