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Home / Business / GM's dismissals can be traced back to turning people into machines – Quartz

GM's dismissals can be traced back to turning people into machines – Quartz

When General Motors announced last month that production of small cars was discontinued and the plant in Lordstown Assembly outside of Youngstown in northeastern Ohio was shut down, the news was inevitable. While GM built nine out of 20 new cars sold in America between 1950 and 1980, its market dominance has long since faded. Together with Detroit's other two car makers, "Big Three," GM has been crushing shifts and closing factories for decades, plundering cities like Youngstown across America.

But nothing that would lead to the dismissal of Lordstown's 1,500 workers was inevitable – not that of GM failure, not the triumph of foreign minicars and not even the demise of Detroit's industrial power ̵

1; provided you know where to look , Nearly half a century ago, as the first gusts of global competition bombarded the US economy, the legendary strike at Lordstown GM offered an alternative path – prompting the rest of America to rethink our relationship with work.

In the late winter of 1972, Lordstown employees rebelled against GM's experiment with a bold new leadership style that emphasized automation while treating fitters as small, buzzing parts of a giant machine. Their uprising became a national symbol of worker dissatisfaction. The "Lordstown Syndrome," as the media called it, was fueled by the idea that people needed work for the development of American society, more precisely, meaningful work – a purpose that beyond the simple addition of attaching a spring to a left rear axle of a 1,100 Chevrolet. In the ensuing national debate, America reflected on how a society that does not treat work holistically would affect the competitiveness of its workers and, ultimately, the health of their communities.

The 1972 strike – or more precisely, GM's response This was the beginning of the company's long but erratic descent, marked by a repeated impulse to bet on outlandish, futuristic, but undetected technologies, while its Employees were undervalued. And so, long before the announcement by GM CEO Mary Barra in late November, we knew how GM's story ended. Lordstown's strange moment in 1972 teaches us what could be written instead.

The Factory of the Future

It was 1970. General Motors was the largest company in the world in today's dollars, with sales of $ 22.8 billion ($ 152 billion). It had dazzled the world with the unveiling of the Lordstown Assembly, a highly mechanized assembly line, a computer-controlled quality control system and the highest level of security. Twenty-six robots resting on the crank like praying praying mantises around the chassis and blending steel sheets together. Body of the car. The most automated factory the industry had ever seen was a revolution in manufacturing efficiency – "the dream of an industrial engineer," said John Russo, who worked at a GM plant in Michigan in the late 1960s and later became a worker. Scholar and director of Youngstown State University's Working Class Center.

Just as remarkable as the phalanxes of robots were the workers GM welded next to them. "The working-age population – long-haired, with pigtail and bubble-cap – is the youngest of any GM plant," said a newspaper article (paywall) of February 1972 (Time Wall). In fact, the average age of Lordstown's over 8,000 fitters was 24 years. They were also the most educated and ethnically diverse workforce in the industry's history, says Russo. Many had fought in Vietnam.

Why the radical change? Foreign competition – which had once seemed irritating to a company with GM's dominant position – quickly became a small but real threat.

The company that shook the world

AP Photo

A Cadillac Eldorado circa 1958.

The Model T brought the car ownership to the American masses for the first time when Henry Ford's mass production suddenly made an otherwise luxurious item affordable made. The company that made ownership of the car an important US cultural institution was its rival General Motors. While Ford made the same boxy car in the same gray black for everyone, GM was at the forefront of modern concepts of branding and mass marketing. Each of their brands had a different look, price and consumer base – or, in the words of Alfred Sloan Jr., the visionary of the industry that guided GM in the decades before World War II, "a car for every purse and every purpose".

While Ford produced the same box-shaped car for everyone, GM was at the forefront of modern concepts of branding and mass marketing.

In the 1950s, GM marketing had so thoroughly penetrated the US American psyche that its five iconic awnings became the country's emerging class and cultural ties. Old money has ridden in Cadillacs, explains the economist Robert Gordon in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth as the country's leading positions drifted towards Buicks. Down in the perceived status chain were Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and the omnipresent Chevrolet, America's best-selling car, year after year, eagerly bought by the new unionized working class, which was possible in its transition to a solid middle-class status he will be able to equip his Suburban home with at least one and often two cars, "he writes.

The key to the attractiveness of the cars and the profitability of the company were GM's innovativeness – its ability to constantly innovate ways to make the cars lightning-fast, more comfortable and with more driving pleasure.

Many of these breakthroughs came in handy: self-starting engines (as opposed to hand cranks), air conditioning in the vehicle, automatic transmission and power steering. But the design was critical. The pace of innovation was so great that in the late 1950s, every new model that GM made was very different from its predecessor.

"After fitting Ford with cars in the 1920s that were changed every year, GM made sure that was the case, the styling and technology leader," wrote Alex Taylor III, a longtime industry reporter for Fortune in Sixty to Zero: A Glimpse into the Collapse of General Motors – and the Detroit Auto Industry . "Their 50s cars were all new, their design captivating the pent-up desire for wartime change with an exciting spirit abutting the Flamboyant: two-tone color schemes, outrageous fins, and highly-compressed V-8 engines." [19659002] The distinctiveness of the GM brands was largely due to the fact that they operated as separate business units. This meant that the Chevy engineers not only competed against Ford and Chrysler, but also against Pontiac and Oldsmobile to define the cutting-edge technology of performance, comfort and style. What the brands had in common, however, was that their cars were getting longer and were packed with profitable new features – and therefore harder.

Constant improvements in style and quality were commercially critical, as GM faced a similar challenge facing Apple today with its iPhone: a well-saturated market. In 1970, 29% of US families owned more than one car, compared to just 7% two decades earlier, according to economist Emma Rothschild in Paradise Lost, her book on Lordstown Assembly (1973). American consumers had enough cars to get around. In order to tie them to buying new models, they had to be convinced – and GM had perfected with its steady stream of must-have models, such as.

These talents of ingenuity made GM the first company in history to earn more than $ 1 billion over the decade and over the next ten years, making it the most profitable company in the world. The dominance of GM in the US auto market was undoubtedly absolute. With the exception of two years between 1950 and 1970, Americans have struck more with new GM vehicles than with Ford's and Chrysler's together.

From this dominant perch it was easy to reject the competition. Anyway, anyway.

Foreign Invasion

AP Photo

The Toyota Corona of 1968.

The German Volkswagen brought America into the Beetle in 1949. He sold exactly two.

Within a decade, these assets had improved significantly. The squat cars that Volkswagen and other European automakers specialized in had found a market among the Americans that could not afford Detroit's expensive steel giants. Soon after, Japanese cars – Toyota debuted in 1965 and rolled out the Corolla the following year – began to hit the streets of the American West Coast cities. In addition to the sticker price, foreign cars tended to be cheaper in the long run. They were smaller and lighter than US models and continued to gas per gallon. Their reliability also resulted in lower repair costs. Word of this call spread. In 1963, only 5% of cars purchased in the US were overseas. This share had risen to 13% by 1967.

GM obviously had enough of the climbers. "Annoyed by the popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle, GM brass decided in the late 1960s that it was time the general remembered the pipsqueaks as to who the boss was," veteran car market reporter Paul Ingrassia writes in his book comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automotive Industry .

In 1968, GM announced that it was launching its first small car and dropping the glove.

The Lordstown "Import Killer"

The company doubted it would prevail over the bugs and corollas swarming the American highways, it did not show it. GM proclaimed that his new car would weigh less than 2,000 pounds and cost $ 1,800, just like a Beetle, while GM's signature was a novelty.

In order to produce what the industry expected as the world's subcompact car, GM chose its $ 100 million crown jewel factory to equip the facility with state-of-the-art robots, automated equipment and computer-aided quality control systems for which they are known has been. Lordstown Assembly would be the only US plant to manufacture GM's new "import-killer" compact, which it named Chevrolet Vega.

The hype was enormous. In May 1970, GM issued ads that said nothing but two words: "You'll see." When Vega finally hit the dealers four months later, GM had again defied expectations. But for the first time ever, not in a good way.

The Vega was GM's first major flaw – a result of faulty work management, half-finished engineering, and patchy quality control.

The Vega looked very chic – certainly slimmer than the dwarf shapes favored by foreign automakers. But it was also nearly £ 400 stronger and $ 300 more expensive than promised. And the disappointments did not end there. Due to the features that should make the vehicle lighter and increase mileage, it is prone to oil leakage. "Chevy dealers replaced so many Vega engines that they joked that the engines were" disposable, "notes Ingrassia Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Path to Bankruptcy and Bailout-and-Beyond Shortly thereafter, United Automobile Workers began a 67-day national strike on GM shortly after Vega's production began, making the new car scarce among dealers.

Das It was GM's first big mistake – a result of faulty work management, but also half-finished engineering and patchy quality control – the company could have regrouped the Vega and brought it to its usual snuff, but firmly believing that The state-of-the-art automation of Lordstown Assembly's quality – and the production volume that is necessary to one n make low-cost smallholders profitable – guaranteed, doubled GM.

Initially, hundreds of Lordstown employees were dismissed. Reports vary, but the number was somewhere between 350 and 700. Then GM suspended the extra work for the remaining ones. Many of them worked on quality control. To compensate for the production lost by the 1970 strike, GM accelerated the pace of production lines. These decisions would have a major impact on the way the Lordstown workers felt about their work, and ultimately on the way American consumers saw GM.

Life on the assembly line

AP Photo / Richard Sheinwald

Workmen at Chevrolet's Willow Run plant has completed the last Corvair that General Motors will build in May 1969 in Willow Run, Michigan.

Kenneth Picklesimer, now 72, works in Lordstown in 1967, shortly after he opened. His first task was to put carpets on the chassis of Chevy Impalas as their steel skeletons ran past him. When each new car appeared, the workers tried to add parts and make adjustments before 60 seconds had passed, and the line brought the car to the next station.

In the early 1970's, his job was to mount a coil spring backwards. Axel bolted it with a gun, and his arms were in the same position most of his eleven-hour day. The spring weighed 10 pounds; Fumble was known to snap his fingers and smash his wrists. But that was nothing compared to the work done by the man in front of him who was responsible for fixing the axle to the body with a 40-pound air pistol. "If it turned," says Picklesimer, "it had so much kick that it would almost take you off your feet."

"We had a lot of people who were hired and fired the same day they could not stand the mental effects."

In addition to the physical strain, assembly work was a difficult combination of tormenting effort and relentless focus, says Tim O & # 39; Hara, 59, who recently retired from Lordstown I worked there for 41 years, the pressure was immense.

"We had a lot of people who were hired and quit the same day because they died "Harald, who is currently vice president of United Auto Workers Local 1112, says," You can not go to the bathroom without someone coming to the bathroom to replace you, "says O & Hara You have to be mentally able to bear it, and not everyone was. "

When Picklesimer started in Lordstown, he worked for Chevy, but in 1971 this ended nk the creation of a final fire element in this already flammable situation: General Motors Assembly Division – or as the workers called it, GMAD.

GM's Gestapo

To this point GM's five brands – Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Cadillac – worked well and allowed for coordination between designers and plant managers on parts design and assembly organization as well as through dealers a direct feedback channel loyal customers. However, GM broke these ties in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it took control of its factories under a single central location, GMAD. According to a April 1972 New York Times article, in 1972, around 93,000 workers across the country and about three quarters of GM's production had been transferred to the division's control.

GMAD embodied the new strategy of centralizing GM and automating it to increase spending and reduce costs. And his head, Joseph Godfrey, embodied GMAD. Godfrey, the crewcut sports son of a former GM president, was anything the hippies of the Lordstown business halls were not. He spent his days leafing through computer print pages, focusing on the big picture.

"We have to compete with the foreigner," Godfrey told The New York Times. The way to do that was to cut costs. And the key to was technology – Lordstown's robotic welder, high-tech assembly line, and a new suite of computer systems that monitored both output and quality.

"We are the only plant in the whole In the whole history of automobile manufacturing, this world has done 100 hours per hour.

How did the workers fit into this vision? For Godfrey, her contribution could be reduced to a simple calculation of the amount of activity. "Within reason and without jeopardizing their health," he said, "if we can employ a man for 60 minutes [per paid hour]we have that right."

How? Line speed for one. At Lordstown's usual pace of 60 cars per hour, assembly on the assembly line was tough but feasible. In fact, GM could have squeezed out a few more cars an hour by increasing the speed to 65 or even 70. Instead, management accelerated the pace to a staggering 100 cars per hour. "These steps were sensible because the Lordstown lines were able to build up to 140 cars per hour," writes Ingrassia in the Crash Course .

In other words, Godfrey's plan should not be Increase productivity by letting workers do the job more and do it faster. Instead, they simply had to be forced to do so. That was unknown then and now, says O & Hara. "We're the only plant in the world to ever reach 100 hours an hour in the history of automotive engineering."

The acceleration of the production lines meant that the fitters had to do the same job they did in the 60's Years have done seconds in just 36 seconds. In order to reconcile the workers with this frenetic pace, the higher groups took new rigid disciplinary action, Russo said, increasing the harassment and threats.

"GMAD was known as a kind of Gestapo that knows no boundaries." You do not like it when you get away from here. "

" GMAD was known as a kind of Gestapo who has no hold. If you do not like it, you can get out of here, "he says (In addition to studying Lordstown's history, Russo has some first-hand experience with GMAD's methods.) He worked during the division's reign of terror at a plant in Michigan's Oldsmobile to the foreman who told him, "Shut up, college boy and do your job," suggesting suggestions to improve the workflow.)

Many GMAD tactics seemed short-sighted – and sometimes quite insignificant. Employees who marked faulty parts were chewed by their supervisors, even though the loss of quality would ultimately lead to an increase in warranty costs and would result in a profit Foremen forbid the widespread practice of Lordstown workers to join each other on the line Protect so everyone could take breaks, Kenneth Picklesimer says. "Managers were just e Really stuttering, "he says.

Many of the roughly 700 workers that GMAD had fired in its cost-saving crusade were quality control inspectors, who were rendered redundant by the new computer systems and new computers, which left little room for human error.

That's what GMAD went out anyway. However, the new technology has not been tested. And even the most draconian surveillance could not change the fact that the Vega, as Ingrassia notes, was too complicated to mount at warp speed.

GM wanted to find this out the hard way.

Guerrilla Warfare The Factory Hall

Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

A strike in Lordstown in 1974.

First, Vegas tells that Vegas was rolling off the assembly line and the seats were bent. The windshields had jumped, ignition keys stuck in locks or other seemingly deliberate errors. As the Time Magazine reported in February 1972, the sheer volume of defective cars soon overburdened Lordstown's overflows. With no room left for the finished Vegas, managers had to do the unthinkable: stop the assembly line. According to Time, GM lost about $ 40 million in lost production.

Lordstown's workers had launched a guerilla attack on the world's most powerful corporation, and the media could not get enough of it. The obvious acts of vega vandalism turned out to be an irresistibly dramatic event of a new source of anxiety that struck the American public in the early '70s: absenteeism, turnover, labor crime, and general dissatisfaction, commonly referred to as "blue-collar."

Despite the press reports at the time, it is not clear if most of the Vega defects were intentional.

"The line was too fast and the workers did not have enough time, so they simply left their parts in the front seat. "

" The line was too fast and the workers did not have enough time, so they just left their parts in the front seat. This became a symbol of industrial sabotage, but in reality it was only an answer to the speed of the line, "says Russo. "I'm not saying that some people did not say" to hell with it "[and vandalize a car] .The reason for that was originally that the line went too fast."

This fits the memories of Picklesimer.

"Me I've heard from reliable sources that a few people damaged some vehicles because they were furious outside of me. I do not think the company said that, "he says, adding that his experience underpinned the far more banal explanation: the assembly line was moving In the end, GMAD slumped back and the people in charge accumulated compulsory overtime hours and increased arbitrary harassment and disciplinary punishment in March 1972, about five months after the takeover of GMAD, the workers of Lordstown voted for a strike.

Lordstown Syndrome

This was not a ordinary strike money was not the problem. At around $ 4.50 an hour ($ 28.50 in today's dollars), excluding fringe benefits of $ 2.50, Lordstown's wage was about 25% higher than the nationwide average salary. But as Gary Bryner, the 29-year-old head of the local UAW during the strike, said, employees' attitudes to their jobs were more than just wages.

"The almighty dollar is not the only one in my opinion," Bryner said, as reported in the book by Studs Terkel from 1974 Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they do feeling about what they are doing . "There's more – how I'm treated, what I have to say, what I do, how I do it."

The union wanted, above all, GM's dismissal Retired workers and returned to the more flexible labor practices before GMAD, but the frustrations of the workers were greater than what the union was targeting, for many the problem was the monotony of their jobs – the brain-burning boredom and physical exertion that resulted that a single task had to be repeated for eleven hours.

"[Despite GM’s robots] Some are thinking about assembling cars, there still have to be people When they get up and fight, they also become robots, "Bryner said in 19459004 Working . The increased speed of the assembly line affected the ability of the workers to feel completely human. "Thirty-five, thirty-six seconds to get your job done – that includes walking, picking up the parts, and assembling. Go to the next job without taking a break, never a second to stand and think. The guys in our factory have done everything to keep it right. "

" I had half a million Vietnamese who tried to kill me, and I survived. What can management do to me? "

Godfrey dismissed his concern and told Automotive News," It seems to me that we have our biggest problems when we disrupt this 'monotony'. "He continued," The workers I can complain about monotony, but the years I spent in the factories make me believe that they like to do their job automatically. When you insert new things, you spoil the rhythm of the work and the work becomes corrupted. "

But it was indeed something new and a challenge the Lordstown workers longed for. For example, they considered the Swedish automobile factories, where workers performed a series of duties and various abilities, as a "far-distant industrial nirvana," as the historian Jefferson Cowie in Stayin & # 39; Alive: The 1970s and the last days of the working class. Other Lordstown workers were anxious about how Japanese auto workers could play ping-pong during their breaks, like Rothschild's Paradise Lost .

Would earlier generations of factory workers have GMAD tyranny in silence? Probably. Workers of the past were far better acquainted with unemployment and disadvantage, not least during the Great Depression. Their children and grandchildren, however, came of age for many years.

With their beards, pearls, and afros, Lordstown workers believed in self-respect and self-expression. During the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and the rise of anti-war activism many years old, many authorities distrusted and were familiar with militancy. "They smoked dope, socialized between races, and dreamed of a world where work made sense," Cowie wrote. Bryner signed official phone calls with "Peace." In fact, the prominence of veterinarians at the factory undoubtedly influenced the views of many workers. Russo recalls what a Lordstown worker named Ed York said in an interview for his book Steeltown USA "I had half a million Vietnamese who tried to kill me, and I did survived. What can the management do to me? "

But pure anti-authoritarian resistance was not the impetus of the strike. In the workers' own words, their main goal was "how to treat American workers and people," says Cowie, "and not as part of profitable machinery."

This novel approach to work soon brought a catchy new name: "Lordstown Syndrome," as it had called Business Week was the country in publications published by The Nation until Playboy spoke. While Newsweek hailed the strike as "Industrial Woodstock," the editorial site of Wall Street – hardly a friend of the working class – lamented the dehumanization of Lordstown workers in an editorial titled "The Soul Must Panic , "GM managers were undoubtedly in a panic, too

. By mid-March, lost production, including 50,000 unsold Vegas, had already cost an estimated $ 150 million (now around $ 916 million), according to The New York Times. With Vega production in limbo, GMAD had to admit more than Godfrey expected. Viele der 1971 entlassenen Arbeiter erhielten ihre Arbeit zurück. Die aus Disziplinargründen suspendierten Personen wurden mit Lohnausgleich wieder eingestellt. Im Wesentlichen kehrte die Fabrik zu den Bedingungen vor GMAD zurück – obwohl die Fertigungsstraßen ihre Höchstgeschwindigkeit von 100 Autos pro Stunde beibehielten, berichtet Bryner in Working und Berichterstattung über die Fabrik durch The New York Times . Die Lordstown-Arbeiter waren mit den Bedingungen zufrieden genug und stimmten am 26. März für die Beendigung des Streiks. Am nächsten Morgen, 22 Tage nach Beginn des Streiks, machten sie sich wieder auf den Weg nach Vegas.

Während der Streik beendet war, kauten die Wirtschafts- und Politiker der Nation weiterhin über das gleichnamige Syndrom und die tiefere Malaise, die der Streik aufgedeckt hatte. Diese Beschwerden lösten einen intensiven Moment kultureller Introspektion aus, darunter Anhörungen im Senat und ein fehlgeschlagener Versuch von Ted Kennedy, einem Senator aus Massachusetts, das "Worker Alienation Research and Technical Assistance Act von 1972" zu verabschieden.

Am bemerkenswertesten von allen jedoch, war die Arbeit einer massiven Spezialtruppe, die von Elliot Richardson, einem langjährigen Staatsdiener, beauftragt wurde, der damals als Sekretär für Gesundheit, Bildung und Wohlfahrt des Präsidenten Richard Nixon diente. Das Produkt dieser Bemühungen, ein Bericht mit dem Titel Work in America bot Unterrichtsstunden, die den Arbeitsplatz – und möglicherweise die amerikanische Gesellschaft – zum Besseren hätten verändern können.

Der Kampf um die Produktivität

AP Photo

Präsident Richard M. Nixon und HEW-Sekretär Elliot Richardson im Jahr 1971.

Der 1972 veröffentlichte Mammutbericht untersuchte die Qualität des Arbeitslebens und seine Auswirkungen auf die amerikanische Gesellschaft. In seinen unnachgiebigen und unnachgiebigen Feststellungen war GMs Werk in Lordstown A.

Der Bericht begann mit der kühnen Behauptung, Arbeit sei eine wesentliche Quelle nicht nur des Selbstwertgefühls und des Selbstwertgefühls, sondern der Menschheit. Wenn die Arbeit routinemäßig und in hohem Maße standardisiert wird, so der Bericht weiter, bleibt den Arbeitern nichts übrig, um ihre Arbeit von der von Tieren zu unterscheiden. Das schlimmste Beispiel für "unzufriedenstellende Arbeit" kam aus der Automobilindustrie, "der Montagelinie, sein Inbegriff".

Das Problem lag bei den von Frederick Winslow Taylor entwickelten "wissenschaftlichen Managementprinzipien", mit denen die beiden kritischen Variablen ermittelt wurden Die Effizienz einer Fabrik waren die Stückkosten und das Produktionsvolumen. Taylors Strategie überwand die individuellen Qualifikationsunterschiede, indem er das Handwerk auf die grundlegendsten Teilaufgaben reduzierte und es möglich machte, die Arbeitsqualität von Tausenden von Arbeitern zu standardisieren. Dieses Konzept hatte schon vor langer Zeit zur Steigerung der Fabrikproduktivität beigetragen, indem Massenproduktion möglich wurde. Die Automatisierung förderte diesen Prozess einfach weiter, indem die Technologie bestimmte Aufgaben in der Aktivitätskette übernahm.

„Diese Haltung stand hinter dem Bau des Automobilwerks von General Motors in Lordstown, Ohio, dem neuesten und effizientesten Automobilwerk in Amerika ", schrieb der Verfasser des Berichts.

" Was bringt es dem Arbeitgeber, wenn sein Streik in Streik geht? "

Der Streik von 1972 in Lordstown unterstreicht die Rolle von das menschliche Element in der Produktivität “, sagten sie. Das Problem bestand darin, dass das Management die Produktion weiter in immer einfachere Aufgaben aufteilen konnte, und die Arbeit selbst wurde so langweilig und abstrakt, dass sie die Arbeiter "entmenschten", so der Bericht. Dieses „aktuelle Konzept der industriellen Effizienz ignoriert die soziale Hälfte der Gleichung bequem und irrtümlicherweise.“ Ohne die menschliche Befriedigung von Handwerkskunst und Kreativität, die die Arbeitnehmer motivieren sollte, schlug der Bericht vor, dass die Mitarbeiter immer auf autoritäre Maßnahmen angewiesen sind – eine Strategie, die zum Scheitern verurteilt ist. Schließlich fragten die Autoren: "Was bringt es dem Arbeitgeber, einen" vollkommen effizienten "Fließband zu haben, wenn seine Arbeiter wegen der drückenden und entmenschlichen Erfahrung der Arbeit an der" perfekten "Linie streiken?" [19659002TatsächlichhabedieTechnologieihrVersprechendieMenschenvonPlackereizubefreienundvonihrenTalentenzuprofitierengescheitertsagtendieAutorenOnthecontrarythenewjobscreatedgenerallyrequiredminimalexpertiseandthereforepreventedworkersfromhoningtheirskillsThatstymiedcareermobilityandleftpeoplemiredinthesametorporofboredomfordecadesDespitethisAmericacontinuedtoofferitsyoungpeopleincreasinglyrigorouseducation—evenasworklifeleftlittleopportunitytoapplyit

These dynamics were exacerbated by the economy’s changing structure. Huge corporations and bureaucracies that had emerged in the previous decades organized work so that it maximized top-down, central control and stifled worker independence. And though Lordstown’s unrest put “blue-collar blues” front and center, the rise of computers were creating similar “white-collar woes” too, the authors argued.

“With the shift from manufacturing to services,” they wrote, “the tyranny of the machine is perhaps being replaced by the tyranny of the bureaucracy.”

“The tyranny of the machine is perhaps being replaced by the tyranny of the bureaucracy.”

Corporations hadn’t adapted to their outsize impact on American society, though. Under the status quo, corporations were free to ignore the social costs they incurred, including “job-related pathologies” like alcoholism, drug addiction, mental and physical illness, violence, welfare dependency, and political alienation.

The report’s extensive recommendations could be distilled into a simple two-part reform. If America was to treat the underlying cause of Lordstown syndrome, and not just its symptoms, US companies had to manage workers in a way that encouraged their participation, and allow them to share in short-term profits. These changes, the report said, would help lead to “healthier and more productive workers and citizens.” While undertaking these changes would fall to firms and labor unions, government had a role as a catalyst for reforms, the authors noted, citing the Swedish government’s initiative in helping companies like Saab and Volvo change their assembly line operations.

Might this analysis have prompted the government to spearhead the cultural shift its authors advocated? We’ll never know. Whatever momentum the report might have had was soon overwhelmed by political scandal. In 1973, Richardson was appointed Attorney General. Mere months later, in what became known as the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered him to fire special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. In a move that stunned the nation, Richardson resigned. Less than a year later, Nixon stepped down too.

The larger hopes and ambitions of Work in America—the vision that saw satisfying work itself as essential to the health of American society and democracy—exists now as little but a curio in the footnotes of academic journals. The free-market ideology that became Republican party doctrine in the late 1970s (and by the 1990s heavily influenced the Democrats as well) rejected altogether the report’s holistic notion that people and their work are community resources—and, consequently, that choices of how to value and allocate those resources should ultimately be up to society, as well as businesses.

GM treats the syndrome

In the end, GM did eventually back away from its authoritarian management style. It began involving workers more actively in the production process and increased attention to ergonomics improved the physical strain of working conditions. Though these reforms took place throughout the 1970s, they were largely in response to the Lordstown strike, says Youngstown State’s Russo.

For most assemblers, though, the tedium and inflexibility continued. Kenneth Picklesimer, the former Lordstown worker, wound up putting springs on axels for 17 years. “I would have preferred to mix it up but I didn’t have opportunity or choice because…there were too many people with more seniority able to bid on and get other jobs.”

Meanwhile, GM continued to lavish spending on big capital investments, confident that the secret to competitiveness lay in replacing humans with technology. But as in Lordstown, the spending bore little fruit. As automotive analyst Maryann Keller recounted in her 1989 book Rude Awakeningone GM executive observed that, between 1980 and 1985, the company shelled out an eye-popping $45 million in capital investment. Despite that spending, its global market share rose by but a single percentage point, to 22%. “For the same amount of money, we could buy Toyota and Nissan outright,” said the executive—which would have instantly bumped GM’s market share to 40%.

One casualty of the showdown in Lordstown was the Vega. After a solid debut, sales peaked in 1974; in 1977, GM retired the car altogether. Though the strike undoubtedly sullied the Vega’s reputation, GM’s quality problems proved to be much deeper and more enduring. By the mid-1980s, the flaws in design and engineering epitomized by the Vega had congealed into reputation.

“General Motors is the object of suburban dinner-table scorn,” wrote Harvard management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her influential 1984 book, Change Masters. “Cars are a common topic of conversation, and everyone I meet seems to have an anecdote explaining why American car manufacturers are losing ground to the Japanese. In all these stories, cost is not the issue so much as a perception of quality difference.”

Plus, the US auto market dynamics changed profoundly in the intervening years. After two oil price shocks rocked America in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, leading to a permanent increase in gas prices, GM’s albatross—its inability to make a small, fuel-efficient car for the masses—became a real vulnerability.

By the late 1970s, Japanese carmakers had triumphed decisively in the battle for the subcompact market—and they’d won it on performance, reliability, and cost. As? Automobile quality, it turned out, wasn’t strictly a function of the fanciness of a factory’s machines. In fact, the Japanese formula for success could have come straight out of Work in America: Trust that people want to do good work, and treat them accordingly.

In workers they trust

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The NUMMI assembly line in 1985.

When Honda set up the first Japanese-brand US auto plant, in Marysville, Ohio, in 1978, it brought with it starkly different values from those that prevailed in Lordstown.

At GM—and at Chrysler and Ford—factory life was organized by stark, ubiquitous hierarchies. Managers enjoyed heated parking garages, where their cars were washed and tanks filled with free gasoline each day. They wore ties and ate lunch in posh executive dining rooms.

Not at the new Honda plant. Parking was on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. Managers wore the same uniforms as assemblers and changed clothes in the same locker room. As Ingrassia recounts in Crash Course, Honda insisted that its assemblers be called “associates,” not just “workers.” The point, explained Shige Yoshida, the man leading Honda’s effort, was to get both managers and “associates” to see themselves as having a shared sense of purpose.

“American companies tend, fundamentally, to mistrust workers.”

It wasn’t just Honda. When Nissan launched its first US beachhead, in Smyrna, Tennessee, in 1983, it hired a Ford veteran named Marvin Runyon, as trade expert Clyde Prestowitz recounts in his 1988 book Trading Places. Runyon wore the same blue jumpsuit as assemblers and ate lunch alongside them in the company cafeteria. Erasing the symbolic gap between the assembly line and the executive office was key to building the worker’s sense of identification with the company, he said.

Of all the Japanese carmakers, Toyota is the most famous for translating culture into consistently high productivity and quality. Toyota’s success lay in the trust its management invested in its workers to catch and correct defects. The company grouped its assembly line into “quality circles,” small teams that were responsible for quality control. These teams were tasked with looking out for flaws as the cars went down the line. When a worker spotted a defect, he had a range of choices for fixing it. Of these, the most extreme options—and symbolically important—was the Andon cord, a sort of emergency brake that would­­, once pulled, immediately stop the assembly line.

Economist Paul Collier offers some useful financial context for the significance of this responsibility. “By its nature, assembly line production is so integrated that stopping the line is spectacularly costly. In the Toyota factory, it cost $10,000 per minute,” explains the Oxford professor in his new book, The Future of Capitalism. In other words, yanking on the cord unnecessarily would cost the company in the course of a few seconds more than the worker himself might earn in the entire month. That power, says Collier, “indicated that the management really trusted their workers to work for the company, not against it.”

The Andon cord example hits on something deeper than just management strategy. Rather, it plumbs a core difference between Toyota’s and GM’s underlying assumptions about what motivates people to work.

“American companies tend, fundamentally, to mistrust workers,” writes Keller in Rude Awakening. “There is a pervading attitude that ‘if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile’ because they don’t really want to work. The idea, for example, that a worker in the plant would have the power to stop the line in order to eliminate a problem was heresy. Wouldn’t such permission lead to widespread line-stoppage for every whim?”

Not, obviously, at Toyota plants. The operating assumption was that everyone was there to do good work. Management’s job was to help assemblers have the resources they needed to do that. The company had neither a concept of “quality control” nor inspectors charged with enforcing it. That everyone held their work to the highest standards went without saying. Ensuring flawlessness wasn’t a final step in the production process; it was expected throughout.

GM’s mistrust of its workers ultimately prevented it from making great cars.

By contrast, GM’s mistrust of its workers ultimately prevented it from making great cars, argues Keller. That was why the company turned assembly work into an interlocking chain of discrete tasks, to be executed by robots whenever possible. Responsibilities were narrowly defined. Workers were to perform their specific task, again and again. Managers made sure they did that. But no one was focused on the product as a whole. In this highly fragmented process, “quality” wasn’t a shared standard; it was a step in the process that came at the end, when the “quality control” inspectors (or, under Godfrey’s watch, computers) checked already-finished cars. By that point, it was already too late to be exacting.

Instead of making flawless cars, workers simply did their assigned jobs. Workers had no big-picture goal of building cars together to motivate them. They had no control over the effectiveness of the process or the quality of parts they used. So management relied on threats and intimidation to keep them moving—in the process, deepening the us-versus-them divide.

GM missed the chance to learn these lessons from the Lordstown strike. As luck would have it, another chance came along a decade later—at GM’s own initiative.

In 1983, GM made the bold move of teaming up with Toyota to build small cars in a plant near Oakland, California—a venture better known as NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc). The goal was for GM managers to master the secrets of Japanese competitiveness. GM bosses had expected to find that Toyota’s manufacturing prowess came down to its automation, says Keller. What the 16 American employees GM execs dispatched to NUMMI to work learned instead was that Toyota’s superior quality and efficiency was largely thanks to how it trained and valued its workers. The results were impressive.

“At the time, GM had a scoring system in which 145 was perfect. Most GM factories would celebrate if they hit 120,” Ingrassia writes in Comeback. “Nummi quickly began turning out cars that averaged 15 or more points higher. Eventually, Nummi even had some cars hit a perfect 145.”

But nothing came of it. “Instead of coming back to the 16 of us and saying, ‘There’s some secret sauce here, what is it? How can we use it to our advantage?’ No one ever asked us that question,” Steve Bera, one of the 16 employees, told NPR in 2010. Bera quit in frustration, ending his 20-year career at GM—and taking his NUMMI-gleaned expertise with him.

Nearly three decades after the Lordstown strike, GM’s quality still suffered from the deep distrust between labor and management. “The factories tend to have the least flexible work rules of the Big Three auto makers, forbidding assembly line workers, for example, to perform other tasks when the line stops,” the New York Times’ Keith Bradsher reported in 1998. “Workers fear there would be unreasonable demands from foremen if the work rules did not exist.” By comparison, Ford and Chyrsler prioritized labor relations and, more generally, treated their workers better, according to Bradsher.

Its failure to compete in the small car market helped push GM—and the rest of Detroit—toward embracing the higher-margin big car market. This strategy has proven profitable, but also risky. The steady rise in oil prices throughout the 2000s, peaking in July 2008, was one of several factors that pushed GM into US government-led bankruptcy in the midst of the financial crisis. Perhaps fittingly, that year, Toyota finally ousted GM as the world’s biggest producer of vehicles—a status GM had claimed for 77 years.


AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

America’s first Chevrolet Cruze rolls off the assembly line at Lordstown.

Even bankruptcy didn’t stymie GM’s small-car ambitions. In 2010, as it had in 1968, GM was throwing down the gauntlet once again. And once again, the hype was intense. The Chevy Cruze was its first major new model to debut since Chapter 11.

And, naturally, Lordstown was going to be making it. “The rebirth of the American economy starts right here at Lordstown with a world-class, high-volume car built in the heartland of America,” Mark Reuss, president of GM’s North America operations, told the New York Times (paywall) at the time of the launch. “This is our first demonstration that we’re going to win in this marketplace.”

It was a sound choice. A top seller abroad, the Cruze boasted 40 miles per gallon, compared to around 36 for the Honda Civic. But in the years since the car’s promising American debut, low gas prices have revived Americans’ on-again-off-again love affair with trucks and SUVs, dealing a brutal blow to car sales. Last year, Americans bought around 4.6 million passenger cars, around 18% fewer than in 2014.

Under Mary Barra, a former engineer who took over as CEO in 2014, GM is now prioritizing high-quality autos and safety standards, sales volume and market share be damned. But old habits die hard. Along with the rest of Detroit, GM dominates America’s big vehicle market, allowing it to command a much bigger premium than the margins it can earn on small cars. Coupled with the slumping small-car sales, that’s why GM’s announcement in November 2018 that it would end production of the Cruze and most of its other sedans was not particularly surprising. Indeed, GM’s not alone: Ford announced the end of new sedan production for the US market last spring, and Fiat Chrysler threw in the towel on US passenger car production in 2016.

End of the line

Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Lordstown workers circa 1974.

Among the many reasons Work in America is such a fascinating document is the disturbing accuracy of its prophecies of social decay. In this, Lordstown is once again a handy Exhibit A. Unemployment in the Youngstown area that surrounds Lordstown is higher than any other city in the state of Ohio. As steel mill closures that began in the late 1970s drove deindustrialization, crime in Youngstown rose; the city became notorious for its organized crime and corruption. The opioid crisis has hit Youngstown particularly hard.

As for the fate of the Lordstown factory, there’s still a chance GM might upgrade the facility to make one of its new models, as Youngstown residents we spoke with were quick to emphasize. (GM did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.) Or it’s possible that Lordstown Assembly will remain standing, but empty, a vast roadside reminder of a corporate elite’s doomed quest to cheapen labor by stripping the human need for skill, learning, independence, and purpose out of production, by reimagining people as machines.

To Tim O’Hara, GM’s recent Lordstown decision is bitterly ironic given that the plant is now—finally—”building the best quality car that we’ve probably ever built in the last 52 years.” He’s talking about the Cruze. Last year, Consumer Reports judged it the best compact car on the market, a title usually dominated by Toyota and Honda subcompacts. After a half-century of trying, Lordstown had finally broke the curse of the Vega.

Or had it? Last year, GM sold nearly a third fewer Cruzes than it did in 2014. It could be that GM has simply grown too dependent on marketing to red-state consumers who vastly prefer its trucks, at the expense of reaching small-car consumers. But Kenneth Picklesimer still looks back to the early 1970s for the original sin of GM’s small-car quality. “I think the perception goes back to the Vega,” he says.

Picklesimer retired in 2015. The timing was good: his last 12 years at Lordstown were his best. At last liberated from spring-bolting, he was assigned to a new job coordinating with engineers to design parts and plan production for the Cruze and its predecessors.

It was a long-desired break from decades of repetition. But the work meant more to Picklesimer than that. “I loved it. It gave me the chance to learn, to teach other people. I was able to make changes and give input on…the Cruze, to make them better cars that are easier to assemble,” he says. “We could make a difference that way.”

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