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by Jeffrey S. rothstein
U.S. and Mexican Autoworkers in the Global Economy
a Good Job is hard to find
For generations, the auto industry has been a model for high-wage, secure, industrial employment, with the auto worker emblematic of the bluecollar middle class. Even with the declining fortunes and near collapse of U.S. domestic automakers, the auto industry continues to offer among the most sought-after opportunities for blue-collar employment, maintaining its status as
a key driver of economic development. In both the U.S. and Mexico, politicians scurry to offer automakers incentives to build new plants or save aging ones. And the reason is clear. Regardless of location, firm, or union status, auto work provides a stable source of income unmatched by other manufacturing or service-sector jobs. Still—as this analysis of my fieldwork at three General Motors (GM) assembly plants in Wisconsin, Texas, and Silao, Mexico shows— the value of those jobs has declined. Decades of policies associated with globalization have weakened labor in both industrialized and developing countries. As a result, the pace of work has intensified while wages and benefits have declined. This reality, that even the best jobs are getting worse, highlights a concern far broader than the need to halt the proliferation of sweatshops in the global economy. It points to the need for a new model of globalization that shores up, rather than undermines, traditional labor relations institutions.
Lean Production and the intensification of Work ost-Fordist scholars of
workplace change claim that globalization has spread manufacturing systems that improve working conditions by reorganizing workers into teams and reengaging their
New Labor Forum 19(3): 70-74, Fall 2010 Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000012
These differences among the plants suggest that both proponents and critics of teamwork may be overstating its impact on workers within lean production. in both Janesville (Wisconsin) and Arlington (Texas) each worker performed the task at one designated work station. making their labor more varied. however. addressed the problem. evidence from these plants confirms the fears of critics that. The GMS was implemented far more thoroughly in Silao than in the U. other aspects of lean production are key in shaping job quality. The goal was to keep each assembly worker busy for fifty-five seconds of each minute with as much work as could be squeezed into that time. this research suggests that teamwork does not fundamentally change assembly-line work for the better (as proponents claim) or become the source of intensifying work (as others fear). and Mexico. The GMS incorporated into workers’ jobs all the key characteristics of lean production: standardization of work. team coordinators responded to the Andon system. and alerted a supervisor if necessary. Instead. However. teams of six workers rotated through a series of jobs and administrative tasks under the guidance of a quasi-supervisory team leader responsible for managing all the team’s work. The style and extent of teamwork practiced at each plant affected the Andon system. Lean enthusiasts cast teamwork as a boon for workers. lean production has merely intensified the pace of work in the auto industry. and typically resume production within a matter of seconds. which is meant to allow workers with a problem to signal for assistance and halt production if need be. And though team coordinators in Arlington assumed a small portion of their Silao counterparts’ responsibilities. and ergonomic. California. Inc. rather than empowering workers. workers mostly ignored the Andon system to avoid being scolded by supervisors for slowing production. the teamwork practiced in Silao provided a modicum of relief from the New Labor Forum • 71 In both the U. cerebral. Each of the three plants I studied was under orders to implement a common Global Manufacturing System (GMS) based on the lean production system that GM learned from Toyota at New United Motor Manufacturing. However.S. In Arlington. and the order in which they had to be completed. To be sure. address the problem. all the while improving efficiency and product quality. the entire team converged on the worker to quickly group problem solve.intellects. Andon systems to allow workers to stop the assembly line. and employee participation programs to solicit ideas for improving the system. politicians scurry to offer automakers incentives to build new plants or save aging ones. (NUMMI). In Silao. in Janesville they served mostly to spell workers who needed an unscheduled break. the only component being fastidiously implemented at each of the plants was the meticulous standardization and intensification of work. A Good Job Is Hard to Find . the two automakers’ joint venture in Fremont. In Silao.S. However. teamwork. However. Critics claim teamwork employs peer pressure to manipulate workers into driving the intensification of their own work. Line operators were then expected to repeatedly perform their jobs as choreographed. In Janesville. Each factory mapped the steps of the production process to be performed.
Economic crisis in the early 1980s led to the abandonment of import substitution strategies in favor of those embracing trade and globalization. the automakers began migrating north. in Silao. the process by which they were handed down. The common emphasis on standardized work routines in Silao. Under ISI. it steered clear of any interference with the day-to-day running of the shop floor. However. embraced globalization and labormanagement cooperation. Arlington. The move by GM to Silao followed a national trend of weakening organized labor in the auto industry. where the company hand-picked a union to represent its workers. teams in Silao did appear to regulate themselves. as lean production skeptics fear. Mexican autoworkers enjoyed steadily rising wages and were among the highest paid bluecollar workers in the country. rather than enhancing work through teamwork and participation. the union provided services to help workers acclimate to factory work and take advantage of their steady incomes. the intellectual component of the job was dwarfed by the physical. and Janesville exposes lean production for intensifying work in the auto industry. I GLobaLization and Mexican Labor participation were part of GM’s broader labor relations strategy that began by closing a plant in Mexico City and opening a new one in Silao. Rothstein . For roughly sixty years. and continuing into the early 1980s. But contrary to the professions of lean production advocates. In response. or GM’s broader labor relations strategy that fixed a wage hierarchy among the automaker and J. the government pressured 72 • New Labor Forum n Silao. the companies hand-picked unions that renounced labor militancy. teamwork and employee The common emphasis on standardized work routines exposes lean production for intensifying work in the auto industry. and the work rules that stood in the way of intensifying work. where GM used the threat of plant closure to motivate workers. But the variation in these components of the GMS reflects the different ways that organized labor has been undermined in each country to force concessions in wages. labor activists seeking to democratize their unions organized strikes to challenge the concessions. a function carefully aligned with GM’s own goal of maintaining low labor turnover. However. Both to escape the labor unrest and resituate themselves closer to their new market in the United States. and to demand reform of the labor movement. rather than enhancing work through teamwork and participation. Starting afresh with inexperienced workforces like those in Silao.” limiting pay increases even as inflation spiraled. benefits. Likewise. they did not appear to have been manipulated into working any harder than in Janesville. Mexico practiced Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policies that protected automakers from foreign competition by closing the country to imports.never ending repetition of the assembly line and better ergonomics than in Janesville. In the name of international competitiveness. and ceded control of the shop floor to management. union officials to sign national “pacts. And so.
the automakers began building factories in North America to produce their vehicles. When they started afresh with inexperienced workforces in Silao. in Silao. the UAW found itself backpedaling. GM offered the highest compensation—$200 a week—to men with a ninth grade education. as was any challenge to the intensification of labor or meaningful demand for better wages and benefits among GM’s employees and those of its suppliers. The most recent manifestations of this were the formation of a union-run trust fund—to which the Big Three offloaded responsibility for their retirees’ health insurance—and the union’s acceptance of a two-tier wage system which cut “new hire” wages in half. they have used the threat of plant closure to play local unions against one another in a competition to relinquish work rules to facilitate the reorganization and intensification of work. until GM did close the plant at New Labor Forum • 73 new workforce in Silao facilitated the wholesale adoption of the GMS. these nonunion “transplant” factories accounted for 30 percent of all auto production in the United States. down from nearly 670. Even before the 2009 bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler. workers have been faced with whipsawing. In Janesville. while outsourcing many other tasks. Down the road.000. As “foreign” nameplates claimed an increasing share of the market. these threats had been ongoing since 1985. In turn. standardized work routines were accompanied by teamwork and employee participation in an environment in which workers knew no other way. they restructured their corporations to become leaner.its local suppliers.2 As the Big Three (GM. and Chrysler) sought to regain their competitiveness. automakers hand-picked unions that renounced labor militancy and embraced globalization.S. the Big Three’s share of the U.1 leaving roughly one hundred thousand autoworkers unorganized. shutting plants and shedding nearly half a million jobs. shrank precipitously. automotive market J GLobaLization and u. So. to $14 an hour. Mexico.S. Since the early 1970s.000 in 1978. Delphi’s wire harness plant paid women with a sixth grade education $7 a day. GM efficiently ran its assembly lines with a core workforce. autoworkers in the global economy and the manner in which they had seen their way of life undermined. workers’ reluctance to embrace the model in Janesville and Arlington reflected the experiences of U. In addition to wage and benefits cuts. Ford. Labor ust as GM’s fresh start with a A Good Job Is Hard to Find . As the automakers have downsized.s. buyouts had left the United Auto Workers (UAW) with an active auto industry union membership of about 172. Whereas industry-wide pattern agreements once took labor costs among the Big Three out of competition and allowed the union to bargain with relative indifference—to the fate of the individual automakers—the inability of the UAW to organize any of the transplant factories left it dependent on the very same companies that responded to the declining popularity of their vehicles by seeking relief from their labor costs. Union activism was minimized. By 2005.
mI: Ward’s communications. and tax and infrastructure incentives from regional politicians. even as auto work remains among the most sought-after jobs. this research points to a more fundamental problem with globalization. Ward’s Automotive Yearbook (Southfield. But workers did not buy into a GMS they viewed as GM’s latest attempt to make them work harder and cut more jobs. Globalization’s ills cannot be addressed through consumer awareness. Globalization undermines the labor relations institutions that shape labor markets and through which workers have traditionally claimed a standard of living otherwise unavailable.the end of 2008. policies that shape globalization must shore up. GM spent several months entertaining concessions to work rules by local union officials. negative impact of globalization on workers. This won’t happen anytime soon. for globalization to be an overall benefit to workers. So. before announcing that the Arlington facility would stay open and add jobs. trade pacts will not reverse the decline. This requires replacing neoliberal policies that treat workers as commodities and corporations as global citizens with international bodies empowered to hold states and firms responsible for protecting workers and promoting collective bargaining through which labor can claim a share of the profits associated with increased global trade. tion of wages. it should be the long-term goal. mI: center for automotive research. benefits. highlights the overwhelming. Economy: An Update (ann arbor. But. for labor activists. more stable. The Contribution of the International Auto Sector to the U. 2005). or pressure from NGOs. the auto industry still offers betterpaid. But this rolling back of labor standards in the 74 • New Labor Forum J. in Janesville. which provided incentive for workers. their union. Michigan plant. Even calls for protecting core labor rights within. 2005). Therefore. state actors. Instead. Arlington “won” perhaps the most public case of whipsawing by GM. or as a side agreement to. rather than undermine. corporate codes of conduct. I LookinG ahead for Labor n spite of the gradual deteriora1. the union and the workers accepted harder work. that the automaker would close either its Arlington or Ypsilanti. and more desirable work than many other industries. auto industry over the last couple of decades. attitudes were a little different than in Janesville because the plant still had long-term prospects. negative impact of globalization on workers. in late 1991. and working conditions. Rothstein Notes . these institutions. In Arlington. and management alike to navigate the most palatable way to implement the GMS—notwithstanding the intensified pace of the assembly line and resentment many workers felt toward GM. 2. and international bodies like the International Labor Organization (ILO) for a basic respect of labor rights. and a greater challenge for labor advocates. After announcing. A good place to start would be to codify all ILO conventions into international law and establish an enforcement mechanism to address violations. and far better conditions than found in sweatshops around the world.S. The rolling back of labor standards in the auto industry highlights the overwhelming.
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