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GM in More Trouble

I

Early in February, workers at GM’s Vega factories in Lordstown, Ohio, voted by a 97 percent majority to authorize a strike over working conditions. The struggles which preceded the strike vote are by now famous: a change in plant management, layoffs, a disciplinary crackdown, an increase in car defects, complaints ‘by workers about the speeding up of monotonous assembly line tasks, slowdowns, high absenteeism, repeated allegations by GM of worker sabotage. It is claimed that workers have attacked the paint, bodies, upholstery, and controls of the Vega cars, and GM has offered a $5,000 reward for information about a fire in the electrical controls of the assembly line itself.

Whether or not a major strike takes place at Lordstown, conditions there are bound to be important for years to come. For General Motors, the Lordstown plant has been a model of all future auto production. The factories were opened in June, 1970, to rapturous acclamation. The general manager of Chevrolet wrote that the new factories incorporated “a quality level that has never been attained before in a manufacturing operation in this country, and probably in the world.” He added that there was a “very intensive motivation program” at the plant, and that Lordstown employees had “taken to this thing very strongly.” The cover of last year’s GM Annual Report shows a panorama of the Lordstown assembly plant, with two Vegas parked outside. The report also contains photographs of three men working on the Lordstown line, and of a “solid-state computerized tester” for Vegas.

As recently as this January, Richard C. Gerstenberg, the new chairman of GM, mentioned the Lordstown operation as the major example of his company’s efforts to increase worker productivity: “Every attempt was made to design out costs in the assembly process.” The Wall Street Journal has quoted an auto industry share analyst who returned from an official tour of Lordstown “excited” about the prospects for reducing labor costs: “The essential point made was that the Vega line is a prototype, a schooling place for everybody in the GM system…. It is the wave of the future.”

During the present disturbances, GM executives have restrained their public enthusiasm for Vega technology. They have suggested that the discontent at Lordstown is a consequence of exceptional worker emotions: Lordstown workers are undisciplined or too young (their average age is twenty-four) or have a mysterious modern attitude toward work. One national journal, following GM’s hints, describes Lordstown as an “industrial Woodstock,” and another writes that the factories are “Utopian,” a “Paradise Lost” which has “fall[en] from grace” because of “balky” workers. GM management has now introduced “sensitivity sessions” at Lordstown, occasional small group therapy meetings for assembly line workers. It allows the factory to operate at half its potential weekly capacity; meanwhile it is making arrangements to transfer part of the production of the Vega to another factory 500 miles away, at Ste. Therese, north of Montreal.

GM’s sudden interest in worker psychology has been successful in diverting attention from the actual working conditions at Lordstown. Yet the corporation’s own statements in the last two years make it clear that production work on the Vega is exceptionally arduous—and that the Lordstown organization of production follows predictably from corporate strategy to increase productivity.

The auto industry now faces a crisis of depressed profits, disappointing sales, and excess productive capacity. In this gloomy state, it is attempting many different ways to increase productivity, all of which involve an intensified organization of work. Even when major capital investment is undertaken, as at Lordstown, the auto corporations continue their efforts to increase the amount of work being done by each worker. The Vega plant is one of the very few auto factories that industry executives have discussed publicly. Because of its importance for company strategy, the Lordstown factory has been described by GM in eager detail: investments in capital equipment, new ways of organizing production, new inspection techniques.

GM’s stated hopes for the Lordstown project provide critical information about the auto industry’s problems of productivity and about the present situation at Lordstown. Working conditions in the new factories, on GM’s own description, are such that discontent and “balkiness” are rational, not exceptional, reactions. GM’s horizons are stormy if, as the company has so often suggested, Lordstown is the wave of the automotive future.

II

The Vega was introduced in 1970 as GM’s major project to fight declining profits and the growing sales of imported cars: the new car would be built (at Lordstown) with the latest automotive technology, and would be sold with the latest methods of intensive marketing (see “GM in Trouble,” The New York Review, February 25, 1971). So far, the Vega has achieved only modest success with its specific objectives, and the general troubles of the auto industry appear increasingly grave.

GM itself admits that the Vega and other domestic subcompact cars have failed to stop the invasion of foreign cars. In January, 1971, the chairman of GM predicted that sales of imported cars would fall to 10 or 11 percent of the market. By August, 22 percent of all cars sold in the US were foreign made; in the first year after the launching of the Vega and the Ford Pinto in August, 1970, Toyota sales had increased 74 percent and Datsun sales 108 percent. After August, the import surcharge and the dock strikes hurt the sales of foreign cars; but 1971 was still a record year for imported autos, both in sales and in market penetration. At his inaugural press conference in December, Richard C. Gerstenberg commented that, fifteen months after its introduction, the Vega had not yet been given “the real test of the market we would like to give it.”

Since the launching of the Vega, the US auto industry has been the most depressed sector of a depressed economy. Nineteen seventy was a disastrous year for the auto manufacturers. US car production was less than it had been since 1961: a third lower than in the record year 1965, a fifth lower than in 1955, and a twentieth lower than in 1950. Nine hundred and fifty-five domestic new car dealers went broke, or one dealer in twenty-eight. The dealers’ journal Automotive News commented that “it was the fifteenth consecutive year that the domestic dealer total has declined, and one need look no further than the lack of profits to find the principal reason.”

The industry, and GM, blamed its appalling performance in 1970 on the general recession in the first half of the year and on the strike against GM in the second half. But the industry’s situation remained unpromising in 1971. GM announced its economic results for 1971 with little enthusiasm. Worldwide sales were at an all-time record level of $28 billion, but profits were well short of the 1965 high. Wall Street was even more lugubrious than GM. The publication of the company’s record sales figures stimulated the price of GM shares to rise by one-fourth of a point—news of the Lordstown strike vote having, the day before, caused a one and one-eighth point drop.

GM had barely recovered the profits it lost during the 1970 UAW strike: its total profit for 1970 and 1971 was the lowest since the previous strike period of 1961 and 1962, when total sales were little more than half as great. In the year from July, 1970, to June, 1971—a twelve-month period which includes both the strike and the company’s recovery from the strike—GM’s rate of profit on invested capital (shareholder’s equity) was 9.8 percent, down from about 15.5 percent in 1969-70, 16.7 percent in the calendar year 1969, 17.7 percent in 1968, and 25.2 percent in 1965.

Even the removal of the auto excise tax failed to encourage auto profits in the second half of 1971. Nixon’s August package of economic politics was presented as a special handout to the auto industry: removal of the auto tax accounted for a third of the entire expansionary program. In spite of this subsidy, the auto corporations hardly increased their production schedules. They ordered few extra raw materials and hired few new workers. Their caution has now proved wise. Car sales in 1972 have so far been disappointing: in February the Department of Commerce found that consumer plans to buy cars had fallen 8.4 percent since the previous year, and 4.4 percent since October.

The most serious of all the auto industry’s present troubles is the problem of productivity—the problem to which the Lordstown project is addressed. Each senior auto executive has commented publicly on the crisis of national and local efficiency. According to a Ford spokesman, automotive productivity increased 4.5 percent a year between 1960 and 1965, and only 1.5 percent a year between 1965 and 1970. The auto corporations have operated recently with 20 percent of their productive capacity unused and they are estimated to have enough capacity to meet all future auto demands between now and 1980. Because sales are growing only slowly, the auto corporations are reluctant to build new factories and buy new machines.

One consequence of the auto industry’s low level of profits and high excess capacity has been that the auto corporations have invested comparatively little in capital equipment. Throughout the 1960s, the motor vehicle and parts industry had one of the lowest rates of growth of assets per employee of any manufacturing industry listed in the Fortune “500” directory. In the last five years, assets per employee in the motor industry group increased only 20 percent, or about as fast as the rate of inflation. Meanwhile the average increase for all manufacturing companies listed was 32 percent, for all chemical companies 40 percent, and for all office machinery companies 67 percent.

In their lamentations about productivity, auto industrialists have talked more of the reduction of production costs than of increases in capital investment. The industrialists imply that their corporations are too penurious to afford modern machinery: Gerstenberg’s main complaint about Lordstown is apparently that GM “spent a terrific pile of money” on the construction of the Vega factories. Gerstenberg seems to have achieved his present position because of his reputation as a dedicated cutter of costs. His first job at GM, in 1932, was as a timekeeper, with special responsibility for collecting time clocks. After his long progress through the financial and budgetary departments of GM, he described himself as “old Gerstenberg, the bookkeeper.” His recent elevation was welcomed in the auto industry with such observations as “It is a period for solid financial planning” and “The situation calls for a cost-cutter, rather than a product developer and innovator.”

The preoccupation with costs and the fact that few major advances are now generated in the technology of auto mass production have demoralized executives in all the auto corporations. Even Edward N. Cole, the president of GM and the only manager with a technical rather than a financial background who remains at the top of the company, has said that “the possibility of further technological improvement in our business is not as great as in the past.” (Cole, a former engineer, reportedly considered the Vega to be his “personal baby,” his previous baby having been the Chevrolet Corvair.) Lee Iacocca, president of Ford Motor Company, has a still more jaded view: he recently told the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce that improving productivity “requires a good bit of cash. As I am sure you all know, productivity in manufacturing involves more automation, more systematic integration of operations, reduced idle time, and so forth.”

Because of its reduced profits, its excess productive capacity, and its gloom about future technology, the cost-conscious auto industry is trying to increase productivity in the cheapest possible way. Cut-price efficiency demands a determination to make employees work harder, to reduce “idle time.” Robots are expensive, but even the most stagnant auto corporation can afford the salaries of time-study engineers, and computer time for planning and inspecting. At Lordstown, GM has undertaken lavish capital investment. Yet the result of this investment is an intensification of work. The new machines require harder, faster work. Even when the auto corporations are prepared to buy new equipment, they persist in demanding increased effort from their human employees.

III

The Lordstown factories, which cost more than $100 million to build, contain an unusually high concentration of technological innovations. GM engineers described the new factories as the best and most modern in the world. The stamping plant was designed by a computer and the assembly plant introduced “an entirely new concept of vehicle assembly.” Yet the Lordstown innovations are based on the same methods of increasing productivity that GM and its competitors use in other auto factories, methods which follow from the earliest techniques of mass production. Leonard Woodcock, president of the UAW, admitted last year at an international conference of auto workers that the Lordstown advances were “not as revolutionary” as GM made out, and were a “development of the same principles” used elsewhere.

The main principle of Lordstown technology is the speed-up, as developed by Henry Ford. One hundred cars can pass along the Lordstown assembly line each hour (a usual speed for assembly lines is sixty cars an hour). Workers face a new Vega every thirty-six seconds—800 Vegas in each eight-hour shift. Jobs have therefore been rearranged to suit a thirty-six-second rhythm of production. Every innovation supports the assembly speed-up: Vegas were designed with comparatively simple parts, so that each part could be added in thirty-six seconds, by a diligent but unskilled worker.

Of the machines that replace unskilled labor, few incorporate any major technical advances or revolutionize the character of the remaining jobs. The most vaunted of the Lordstown innovations, for example, was the introduction of robot welders, known as Unimates, to perform most of the welding on the Vega body. But welding is performed automatically in many auto plants, including the factories where Ford makes its Pinto. Fiat recently introduced robots at a new plant south of Rome, and the Japanese auto industry uses particularly versatile many-handed automatons, some of which are to be sold to the US auto corporations. The Lordstown robots in fact operate according to forty-year-old principles: in 1931 Henry Ford described the newly developed “automatic welding machine” which did the same job (of joining steel parts) as a human worker, and went “through the welding cycle automatically to completion.”

Even the Unimates have little effect on most production work. According to the head of the firm that manufactures them, Unimates are popular because “many ‘subhuman’ jobs are just not acceptable to workers today.” The general manager of Chevrolet has written that the robot welders “eliminate the obligation of the worker carrying a heavy welding gun around”—but also, and probably more candidly, that “one consideration is that we have mechanized many areas that would normally be areas of potential operator failure.” Human workers cannot be relied upon to perform heavy welding 100 times an hour.

As it turns out, the Lordstown management has had almost as much trouble with its new machines as with its human “operators.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the automatic spray guns that paint Vegas, in remembering whether the car to be painted is a coupe, a sedan, or a station wagon, have developed a tendency to lose control, spraying paint into the air, the car windows, and assorted nearby holes. One subsidiary machine, whose responsibility was to hand things to the Unimates, broke down repeatedly because of the “strain on key parts.” GM even had the misfortune to sell a defective Vega to Car magazine. Chevrolet engineers finally traced the car’s faults to an “assembly goof,” for “due to a computer error, the car [which had automatic transmission] had been built with the front springs for the three-speed manual transmission.”

The machines that affect jobs most are machines for increasing the organization of production, for rearranging work to fit the fast rhythm of the assembly line. GM engineers are particularly proud of their organizational skills. One of their main ambitions at Lordstown was to use “computer technology” to make each employee’s job “easier to perform in a more precise way.” It is cheaper to increase the precision and speed of production work than to replace workers with speedy robots: much of the machinery used in the automation of production replaces inspectors and supervisors rather than unskilled workers.

Precise work, for auto engineers, usually means increased work. There is more work to be done in each minute or second. This increase in what the UAW-GM contract calls the “work content” of the “job” has been a major issue at Lordstown. Some workers say that they have to run along the assembly line to keep up with their assigned work. As the president of the local union describes it, “That’s the fastest line in the world. A guy has about forty seconds to do his job. The company does some figuring and they say, ‘Look, we only added one thing to his job.’ On paper it looks like he’s got time. But you’ve got forty seconds to work with. You add one more thing and it can kill you.”1

The Lordstown organization of work depends on traditional principles of time study and speed-ups. Modern advances in “figuring,” “on paper” or with the help of computers, have allowed GM to perfect Henry Ford’s technology. No moments are to be wasted: if each worker at Lordstown works one-half of a second more in each hour, GM will save $1 million in a year, or .05 percent of its annual profit after taxes.

The assembly line, for example, moves up and down, so that workers do not lose time on unnecessary (unproductive) muscular movements. Chevrolet’s Lordstown coordinator boasted to Automotive News when the factory opened, “Even the conveyor system at Lordstown is unique. It has four elevations and varies in height from fourteen to seventy-two inches, according to assembly sequence, in order to bring the job closer to the operator at each station.” The effect of such refinements is to increase the number of times each job can be performed in an hour, to increase the monotony of the job, and to increase the concentration required.

The Chevrolet coordinator used almost the same words as Henry Ford, who in My Life and Work described his attempts at “the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker and the reduction of his movements to a minimum”:

In the early part of 1914 we elevated the assembly line. We had adopted a policy of “man-high” work; we had one line 26 1/4 inches and another 24 1/2 inches from the floor….

Later, in Today and Tomorrow, Ford explained that “stooping to the floor to pick up a tool or a part is not productive labor—therefore, all material is delivered waist-high.”

The extermination of nonprofitable time is a feature of the design of all mass production auto factories. At a GM assembly plant in Kansas City, a new machine inspects parts of the cars while workers fix them into place. A recent dispute at another GM factory, in Detroit, was about the location of water taps, for, according to a GM worker, “We have a production line as long as a football field with faucets at either end. You can’t leave to run down and run back—GM does that deliberately, so as the line keeps right on going.” At Lordstown, GM has used such methods of time-control in an extreme form.

Even the Lordstown computer taskmasters operate like conventional, if inexorable, human supervisors. ALPACA (Assembly Line Production and Control Activity), for example, “gives each operator enough [and presumably no more than enough] time to do his job.” PACS (Product Assurance Control System) has been described by a “product quality engineer” in the Chevrolet “quality control department” as consisting of “sixteen optical scanning devices strategically located throughout the plant.” It is a “closed-loop system” and ensures that “no unresolved production problem is allowed to continue beyond a specified period.” According to GM, these computer spy systems are essential for quality control, but they seem more adept at inspection and cost control. They have been conspicuously unsuccessful in avoiding “unresolved production problems.” Some Lordstown workers even claim to have themselves pointed out assembly line defects, which are then ignored both by the computer eyes and by the human foremen.

IV

The present disturbances at Lordstown became acute last October, when managers from the famously tough General Motors Assembly Division took charge of the factories. In September, workers at the body plant went out on a wildcat strike. From October the struggles between management and workers became harsher and more frequent. Five thousand grievances have been registered by union members since GMAD arrived. The new managers laid off 300 workers, reorganized production schedules, and introduced additional disciplinary sanctions. According to one Lordstown worker, “There’s never been a plant that beat GMAD, but this plant is sure as hell going to try.”

GMAD’s reputation among GM employees is one of ruthless aggression. For central management, GMAD is one of the corporation’s most promising divisions. It was founded in 1965 to control the assembly of certain GM cars, usually when more than one make was handled at a single plant. Since then, more and more assembly plants have been taken away from Chevrolet, Buick, and the other passenger car divisions. One advantage of this rearrangement is that it makes GM unsuitable for simple antitrust dissolution, since the car divisions have no assembly facilities and GMAD has nothing else. The new division is now responsible for coordinating the national flow of auto components and for the daily management of assembly lines. It controls eighteen out of GM’s twenty-four US assembly plants, and 75 percent of all GM cars: the swiftness of this progress through GM’s departmental hierarchy suggests that GMAD organizational methods have achieved corporate approval.

At Lordstown, GMAD’s reorganization of production involved the assigning of extra tasks, and extra penalties for failure to perform these tasks. Workers complained of disciplinary layoffs and of increased severity from foremen. The new plant manager has said that “there are increases in the amount of work some are doing, but in these cases it is overdue.” He implies that his team of production analysts has discovered tricks of cost-efficiency which even the Lordstown computers failed to imagine: “This plant, like any other new facility, was overstaffed at the start.”

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.

V

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.

VI

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. 1

    Interviewed in The New York Times, January 23, 1972.

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

    Fortune, February, 1972.

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