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GM in More Trouble

An intensification of discipline, as performed at Lordstown by GMAD, is the characteristic last stage in company projects to increase automotive productivity. Some workers are replaced by machines; the jobs of the remaining workers are regulated by different machines; management engineers are brought in to protect the rate of profit on the company’s capital investment. As the machines acquired become more expensive, managers become more determined to prevent the “waste” of time, cash, machinery, or nonproductive moments. One of the most praised innovations at Lordstown was an electrostatically controlled vat, where Vegas could be immersed in paint. When GMAD arrived at the factory, the new management complained that paint was being wasted, because it “would lie in crevices as the body left the vat.” GMAD’s complaint about Lordstown production jobs is that expensive seconds are being wasted, in the crevices of the working day.


Before the present disturbances, GM was reluctant to discuss the state of labor relations at Lordstown. The company’s most serious attempt to communicate with Lordstown workers apparently consisted of decking the factory with signs in foreign languages: an appropriately cost-conscious way to invoke the menace of German and Japanese competition. Mechanics in charge of maintenance for the Unimate robots were also urged to “think of themselves as doctors.”

Corporate spokesmen insist that worker discontent, at Lordstown and elsewhere, has no connection with the nature of assembly line work. The most lucid of all GM executives has been Joseph E. Godfrey, the head of GMAD. The week GMAD took over at Lordstown Godfrey was asked by Automotive News for his views on the “monotony of mass production”:

Monotony [Godfrey answered] is not quite the right word. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about that, but it seems to me that we have our biggest problems when we disturb that “monotony.” The workers may complain about monotony, but years spent in the factories leads me to believe that they like to do their jobs automatically. If you interject new things, you spoil the rhythm of the job, and work gets fouled up….

Other auto executives like to compare their own positions unfavorably with assembly line jobs. Lee Iacocca says that auto workers are “pretty well off, really…. I don’t say it’s Utopia. But I don’t go around saying, ‘Geez, I’m sorry.’ ” James Roche, in a contemplative interview given just before he retired as chairman of GM, told the Wall Street Journal that “worker disenchantment” had been “greatly exaggerated”:

Too often all we do is listen to the complainers and the growlers and the troublemakers. Hell, I can write a story about my own job that could be a tear-jerker. You know if all I want to do is talk about the problems and the pressures and the monotony and the reading of all the reports you have to go through….

These executives are certainly aware of the different manifestations of worker discontent. GM described its view of labor/management relations in a “position paper” published during the 1970 contract bargaining. Discipline had broken down in auto factories and managers observed an alarming increase in “tardiness, loitering, failure to follow instructions, and abuse of employee facilities.” Production schedules were “disrupted repeatedly by ‘crisis’ situations and strikes.” “Careless workmanship…appear[ed] to be increasing.” One of Gerstenberg’s first pronouncements, last December, as chairman of GM, was that absenteeism in GM factories was high, and rising. Roche complained often about the adverse effects of worker grievances and strikes; strikes outside the pattern of contract bargaining are becoming more frequent—according to government statistics about the auto industry there was more time spent on such strikes in 1968, and again in 1969, than in any other year since 1950.

The company executives must also know that the connection between labor unrest and intense, repetitive work has been documented exhaustively. Modern auto corporations increase the productivity of their operations by an advanced application of Fordist production principles: their attitude to worker “job satisfaction” has scarcely changed since the 1920s, when Henry Ford described the cheery contentment of one of his employees, a man who “all day long did little but step on a treadle release.” Joseph Godfrey of GMAD, for example, says that “there are some guys who don’t like the assembly line jobs, but then some of them don’t like any job anywhere.” According to Automotive News,

Godfrey suggested that the assembly line job is one of the best jobs in the industry and the auto industry compares favorably with other industries.

Meanwhile, the major sociological study of working conditions in the auto industry has found that auto workers quit their jobs twice as often as the average for US industry—and that the rate of quitting is twice as high among people working directly on an assembly line as among other auto workers.2 Even Chrysler, in Detroit, sponsored a research project on the treatment of industrial accidents. The researchers found that the incidence of industrial accidents was related to how workers felt about their jobs. One doctor in the project wrote of the agreeable aspects for an auto worker of being involved in an accident:

He hears his full name used several times…from a number on an assembly line, [the worker in an accident] has suddenly blossomed into a person, a man with a name, and, more significantly, a man with a disease.3

Still, if you listen to what management says in Detroit, you might think there are no rational alternatives to the standard US auto assembly line. This is not true. In Sweden, Volvo subsidized a study of the peculiar muscle fatigue caused by repetitive work. The results were so striking that Volvo began to move its workers around from one job to another; it is now attempting to phase the assembly line out of its auto production. One US automotive products manufacturer, Motorola, has experimented with abandoning the assembly line on one of its minor electronics operations. The project proved profitable: more machinery was required, and more workers, but there were fewer rejects, and the company noted a sharp decline in staff turnover with “all the training costs that such turnover implies.”

The US auto corporations do not accept the humane findings of doctors and industrial psychologists. GM, like Volvo and Chrysler, is certainly aware of the observed correlation between fatigue and repetitive work, between worker discontent and sickness. Yet it has chosen to behave as if discontent, including discontent that causes physical illness, were an “abuse” to be punished. GM’s 1970 position paper makes this choice explicit. The company demanded a revision of its sickness and accident benefit program. Illness and recovery provisions were too generous, particularly where “vague” or “subjective” diseases were involved. Workers were staying off the job because of accidents. They took too long to recover. More and more workers were reporting “strains and sprains and nervous diseases,” subjective illnesses which were hard to diagnose. All this nervousness was costing the corporation a lot of money. The sickness benefits “promote[d] a sense of security and, for some employees, a desire to stay on sick leave.”

The policy of the US auto industry, led by GM, has been to pursue discipline at the expense of labor relations. As at Lordstown, increasing productivity has meant increasing the pace and intensity of unskilled work. The corporations’ principal tactic for avoiding labor unrest seems to have consisted of evasion. GM has tried to isolate its factories from disruptive external influences: the Lordstown Vega factories are about 250 miles around Lake Erie from the political tension of Detroit. According to Fortune, one purpose of building the new factories at Lordstown was to be able to “introduce the most sophisticated automated assembly techniques with a minimum of interference.” Many Lordstown employees commute fifty miles to work, but geographical dispersion has not prevented the development of organized opposition to management. It seems unlikely that Ford’s new Pinto engine plant, now being built in an equally remote area of Ohio, or GM’s forthcoming Vega facility in a high-unemployment area of Quebec will be any more immune to spontaneous worker discontent.

Such suggestions as have been put forward for altering assembly line work are rejected abruptly by the auto corporations. One of the least controversial of these suggestions was for a four-day work week, with ten-hour daily shifts. The UAW and Chrysler studied the short week proposals, but negotiations have now broken down. Chrysler said that it would be impractical to set up even a pilot program, because materials would not be able to flow freely between plants with different work weeks. Richard Gerstenberg also dismissed the project at his inaugural press conference: the four-day week “does not work for mass production industries because…it limits our ability to put on a third shift if need be.” This objection is hardly decisive: US government officials have speculated that a factory’s ten-hour day would consist of two ten-hour shifts, with one four-hour shift performed by part-time workers.

More radical transformations have been dismissed with even greater scorn. A report on job progressions in US industry, financed by the Ford Foundation, found that auto factories offered an unusually high proportion of “dead-end” jobs—jobs that “do not provide a reasonable expectation of advancement.”4 Such progression as existed was regarded “more in terms of a reward for longevity than a true upgrade.” Yet none of the corporation executives interviewed in the report “really believe that assembly line tasks can be significantly restructured,” and “no one really believes that much can be done to make the assembly jobs more attractive.” The report quotes the allegedly idiosyncratic aspiration of an unnamed auto corporation’s “training director.” The training director is probably a GM official, for he would certainly approve of the GMAD belief that workers “like to do their jobs automatically.” He told the interviewers that

…it is not the repetition but the chaos of the assembly process that is most discouraging, and [I] would endeavor to maximize the sameness of the workers’ tasks to increase job stability.

The industry’s positive attempts at “job enrichment” and “worker orientation” are predictably trivial. After the 1970 strike, GM and UAW officials made a joint statement, recognizing that young workers liked their jobs less than old workers, and promising a mutual effort to “counsel workers with bad attendance and tardiness records.” The strike settlement provided for a union/management Joint Orientation Program, which was set up on an experimental, inexpensive basis at the Cadillac factory in Detroit. One indication of the industry’s real evaluation of such programs was given in the report on job progressions:

Lengthening of the orientation period has been found to have some small advantage; but one official indicated the cost to the company to give a new man one hour more of nonproductive company time—not to mention a full day or a week—would be astronomical and practically prohibitive to such a cost-conscious industry.

The corporations undertake to improve worker orientation only in marginal, cost-conscious ways—and then only when, as with the hurried and ineffective Lordstown therapy, factory conditions are already desperate.


The auto corporations’ certainty that cutting costs and reducing idle time is the best way to increase productivity has hardly been affected by GM’s troubles at Lordstown. Executive intransigence about the possibilities for job enrichment suggests that this certainty is unlikely to change soon. Gerstenberg’s acclamation as a long-awaited corporate cost-keeper (unsusceptible to innovation) also promises future inflexibility. Even the Lordstown strike vote has been used to labor-saving advantage: more workers have been laid off or put on half-time at Lordstown, at the Vega engine factory, and at GM’s Buffalo axle plant. In a message this February, Gerstenberg and Cole made GM’s determination explicit:

Recognizing the decisive importance of greater productivity to the economic future of both our corporation and the US, we are continuing our intensive efforts to cut costs and to increase the efficiency of all our operations.

When an earlier part of this article was published in The New York Review, Automotive News commented that it presented “sort of a gloomy view” of the auto industry’s situation. The auto makers, Automotive News wrote, are not “unaware of their production problems in the US: That’s why they have become worldwide auto makers. And that is why they are rushing toward alliances with Japanese makers.” Also, the auto makers “might [be about to] take a look at the possibility of making auto making more productive by motivation and job interest.” The attitudes of the auto corporations to worker motivation, as demonstrated at Lordstown and elsewhere, have not yet included a concern about job interest. The other encouraging development perceived by Automotive News—the worldwide expansion of US auto manufacturers—is hardly an answer to the industry’s US production problems.

The auto companies certainly intend to maintain their profits by increasing their foreign involvement. Richard Gerstenberg’s most noted quality, after his financial intuition, is his experience with GM’s overseas operations. He has visited most of GM’s foreign subsidiaries and will soon be inspecting the flourishing General Motors South African Ltd.

GM is increasing its foreign investment much faster than investment at home, and is particularly enthusiastic about its East Asian operations. Last summer, it bought into the Japanese auto firm Isuzu. A few weeks later, it announced that it was acquiring an assembly plant in Malaysia, and hoped to set up manufacturing business in Thailand. It is already involved in South Korea, and is bidding for a Philippines components franchise. One ulterior motive of GM’s Asian policy, according to nervous Japanese competitors, is to “break into the [Chinese] market of 750 million people through the Tokyo gateway.” (The Chinese already use expensive heavy-duty equipment made by GM and shipped via an Italian associate.)

GM’s vice president in charge of overseas operations has explained his company’s dilemmas in a recent speech. GM accounts for less than one-tenth of the world car market outside the US, which therefore presents a “tremendous challenge.” Brazil (where GM production increased 280 percent in the last two years) is the “bright spot.” The greatest potential for immediate growth of auto sales is in southern Europe, South America, and the Eastern bloc. He “would say South America for sure, if it weren’t for political problems.” There is also great potential “for certain optional equipment items” in Europe: only 9 percent of GM’s German-made cars have automatic transmission, only 2 percent power steering, and only 5 percent vinyl tops. None has air conditioners, which would provide an encouraging source of future expansion.

Another source of profitable growth will be the US “reimport” market, or the domestic market for cars (such as GM’s “Buick” Opel) made abroad by the foreign subsidiaries and associates of US corporations. From August, 1970, to August, 1971, in the first year of the Vega and the year of greatest national anxiety about the combat between foreign cars and domestic subcompacts, the “reimport” sales of the Big Three US auto corporations increased 78 percent—only just slower than the increase in sales of independently made Japanese cars, and more than seven times as fast as the increase in sales of independent European cars. Both GM and Ford intend to sell small trucks produced by Japanese collaborators. But GM’s faith in German air conditioners and Isuzu mini-trucks still provides little support for the corporation’s urgent efforts to increase domestic productivity.

Productivity is now a major pre-occupation of all US industries, celebrated in the public speeches of company executives and with Presidential grants for technological innovation. The nation, the business community, the scientific establishment, and American workers are urged continually to undertake an extra effort for national efficiency. Yet technological inventions are essential to increased productivity in only a few, advanced industries (computers, certain mechanical and chemical enterprises). In most businesses, as in the auto industry, improving productivity depends on increasing production—or on cutting costs by laying off workers, reorganizing job schedules, and demanding extra work. Productivity for these industries has less to do with the depletion of Nixon’s “technological cornucopia” than with corporate attempts to fill in the crevices of the working day.

In the present search for national efficiency, the auto industry’s organizational methods are an influential, if extreme, model. Fortune, for example, reassures executives that increasing productivity need not be expensive: the essential requirement is

…a managerial commitment to improve the organization of work and a willingness to set realistic standards for employees. A lot can be done just by applying basic techniques of industrial engineering more rigorously….5

Fortune also describes the possibilities for a Fordist intensification of white-collar work, as explained by an industrial engineer called Joseph Quick. This Frederick W. Taylor of the filing cabinet

…begins by measuring the average amount of time necessary to perform various low-level mental functions [such as the jobs of “salesmen, draftsmen, office workers, etc.”]…. In general, Quick says, people don’t mind working harder….

As a pioneer of time study technology, the auto industry is badly placed to participate profitably in the anticipated Fordization of US labor. It has already applied the basic techniques of industrial engineering with incomparable rigor. It employs large numbers of unskilled workers whose jobs have been subjected to Fordist regulation for at least fifty years. Tasks and motions cannot be simplified indefinitely: automotive attempts at such simplification become increasingly frenzied, as at Lordstown. Without a fast growth of sales, and without great scope for cutting labor costs, the US auto corporations face a grave and worsening crisis of productivity.

Yet the corporations continue to make huge profits by mass producing cars, and although these profits are growing less and less fast, corporate distaste for innovation is certain to prevent any immediate transformation of production policy. The US auto industry has been famously unwilling to abandon the tactics responsible for its early successes, even when those tactics yield diminishing returns. According to G. Agnelli, the not notably pessimistic head of Fiat, all auto industries experience a period of booming growth, when sales, investment, and productivity increase exceptionally fast. In Japan this boom occurred in the 1960s, in Western Europe in the 1950s, and in the US “the car boom flourished between the end of the First World War and the Great Depression.”

The contemporary US auto corporations continue to concentrate their efforts on selling large passenger cars, while the auto market languishes at about double its 1929 level; they continue to speed up their assembly lines as men and machines become harder and harder to reorganize. Fordist industrial engineering is increasingly troublesome for the auto business, but its future seems assured: there will be more cars, more productivity, more inspections, more speed-ups, more layoffs, more Lordstowns.

  1. 2

    Robert Blauner, Alienation and Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 1964).

  2. 3

    R. A. Sokolov, “The Treatment of Disability,” Journal of Occupational Medicine, February, 1967.

  3. 4

    Climbing the Job Ladder,” prepared for the American Foundation on Automation and Employment by E.F. Shelley & Co., New York, 1970.

  4. 5

    Fortune, February, 1972.

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