Whose Team Are You On?

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Marian Swerdlow

Choosing Sides:
Unions and the Team Concept
By Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter
Boston: South End Press 1988, $16 paper.

IN THE PAST decade, academics and other idea-mongers have been announcing the death of the “blue collar” proletariat. Among the mourners have been a number of socialists. The United States, they claimed, is being “deindustrialized,” stripped of its “smokestack industries.”

U.S. industrial workers could well retort, paraphrasing Mark Twain, “The report of our demise has been greatly exaggerated.” Heedless of the eulogies, industrial workers in this country are alive and kicking. One sign is their resistance to an extremely dangerous innovation in management control of the labor process called “the team concept.” Understanding this “concept” is necessary for grasping today’s relations at the point of production and developments in the labor movements. Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, in Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, provide this understanding.

Intended for the trade unionist, this book is also invaluable for the intellectual who counts herself a partisan of the working class. Part of team concept’s danger is that it sounds so good. With its references to “worker participation” and its union seal of approval, radical intellectuals may be even more susceptible to its appeal than workers who experience it firsthand.

The authors, as well as a host of contributors, carefully debunk each seductive allurement From “pay for knowledge,” to “quality consciousness,” to the worker’s much-touted “right to stop the line,” the team concept’s packaging is mercilessly stripped away. The result is a fascinating tale of management’s shameless lies, workers’ poignant hopes, cruel disillusionment and, sometimes, a stirring fightback.

Only the auto industry is covered because, the authors argue, auto will lead the way for other branches of industry. Team concept was found in Japanese auto plants for years. New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) opened, with teams, in Fremont California, in 1984.

The overwhelming success of the GM-Toyota joint venture sold U.S. management on teams for this country. NUMMI labor productivity soared, while technological wonders like GM’s Poletown and Orion plants trailed in the dust. By 1987, the automakers were bludgeoning their workers into teams at existing facilities, using shutdown threats. Team concept seemed as unstoppable as the tides.

“Team” sounds nice, admit the authors, but … it’s only a pleasing name management gives its administrative units, sort of a little yellow “smile” button on the lapel of a foreman. However, the essence of ”team” is what the authors call ‘”management by stress.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, the team concept’s definition of maximum efficiency is a system always tottering near breakdown. Workers strain to match the line speed. As soon as they develop ways to work that give them a breathing space, the “anton board” of colored lights registers this. It alerts management that the system is not sufficiently stressed, not enough labor is being squeezed out of the workers. The board pinpoints the “easy” job and management adds on work to it. “Team” makes it easy to “load” jobs.

Many superficially attractive features of team concept-teams, “pay for knowledge,” multi-skilling,” quality improvement — are intended to permit management maximum ease and speed in redesigning and eliminating jobs to maximize productivity.

But there’s a human being doing this job: What about the worker under “management by stress”? A Nissan worker from Tennessee is eloquent: “I think they’ve got us on a four- or five-year cycle. They’ll wear us out and then hire new blood.” Team work is killing work, pure and simple

Economic Terrorism

What makes most locals accept team concept? “Economic terrorism,” answers one local president: threats of lay-offs or even plant closings. The International United Auto Workers’ embrace of team concept makes resistance very difficult. Workers console themselves with, or even grow enthusiastic about, team concept’s promises of dignity, respect and concern for quality.

These hopes are soon dashed. Once in place, the team package forces workers to cooperate in their own speed-up. Workers are persuaded to identify with their employer during training sessions co-sponsored by the union. They are taught, and even contractually obliged, to do their own time-motion studies. The justification? Beat the competition! The competition? Other workers!

Eliminating replacement workers for absentee’s guarantees group pressure not to take sick leave. The worker who cannot keep up with the pace is quickly disciplined, often with the complicity of other team members. Not every worker will fall in with this backstabbing, so some team plants carefully screen job applicants.

The opening of auto factories in nonindustrial, rural, often “union-free environments” within the United States contradicts the notion that this country is all either a deteriorating “rust bowl” or else super-service sector. The workers in such areas often lack union experience or traditions. Yet in some ways their position is strong; they are resistant to the threat of plant closings. But in the meantime they are subject to “management by stress” at its worst.

Often unorganized and heavily female, these are the workers whose struggle against the team concept may prove to be the most explosive.

Can team concept be beaten back? The authors acknowledge that the overall weakness of the labor movement today makes resistance daunting. They note, without dwelling on it, the need for locals to communicate and develop concerted resistance. Very practically they offer creative ideas for unionists who cannot afford to wait until the rebirth of labor solidarity to contain the damage of team concept. Educate the membership, they emphasize, and offer their book as an invaluable tool.

From Warren, Michigan, to Hermosillo, Mexico, from Smyrna, Tennessee, to Van Nuys and Los Angeles, the book carries the reader through a fascinating range of team-concept experiences. The most exciting are those where workers, under leadership of rank-and-file caucuses or of local officers, put up a brave fight. Their victories reveal that even today it is possible for U.S. workers to organize and win defensive struggles.

No single book can do everything, so it is no criticism to note that Choosing Sides says little about the social or economic context in which management is attempting to recast relations at the point of production. Economic conditions are merely mentioned. And although the authors note “the specific methods of true management-by-stress are not new … what is new is that management is now getting unions to cooperate in the use of old methods,” they don’t tackle the formidable question of why the UAW is lending itself to this.

Choosing Sides is vivid and timely. Directed toward the activity, its strength lies in its relevance for this moment, which will be rapidly superseded by new events. Yet the processes it presents so sharply will prove key to understanding what is to come. Management-by-stress and the fight against it will surely play important roles in shaping future opportunities for the working class and its allies.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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