Other Points of View

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter

THE MANAGEMENT ARTICLE paints an unlovely picture of life in a management-by-stress plant. It contradicts most of what is said in the media’s glowing accounts of the team concept. Where do those accounts come from?

Many stories are based on interviews with company officials, union officers or consultants who have some vested interest in the programs. Some reports are based on testimony by workers specially selected by the company. Some descriptions are based on interviews at the time the plant was starting up.(1) But the working conditions and the role of teams during the start-up period are transformed by the time the lines reach full production speed.

There is certainly a minority of workers in MBS plants who claim to love their work situations. There are also workers who have received or hope to receive perks such as trips to Japan or promotions.

But there are several reasons why these accounts do not provide an accurate picture of life in the plants.

1. Most of the new MBS plants were able to select their workforces from a huge pool of applicants. Over 130,000 applied to Nissan and 96,000 to Mazda (NUMMI had a much more restricted pool but was as selective as possible.) The companies had very careful screening processes, so that the workers at these plants are not necessarily a representative sample of working people.

2. Experience with employee involvement programs shows that in the early stages workers usually tend to give management the benefit of the doubt, because they would like to believe the promises of participation and respect.

3. Many workers privately admit to the pressures and the difficult pace — “eight hours of aerobic exercises,” some have called it.(2) But they defend the company because it provides them with the only decent paying job they are likely to get. While many fear they will not be able to keep up with the pace when they grow older, they fear even more losing their jobs immediately. They accept the view that if the company were not run essentially the way it is there would be no jobs at all. They also believe that public criticism of the company will hurt sales and threaten their jobs.

4. The sense of fear in MBS plants is striking. The power exercised by supervisors, combined with little sense of either union presence or individual rights, chills the desire to criticize a plant where company loyalty is a priority. Many NUMMI workers have declined to be interviewed by reporters about their experiences in the plant, citing responses of management and fellow workers to previously published interviews.

Notes

  1. For example, Jeff Stansbury, “NUMMI, A New Kind of Workplace,” UAW Solidarity, August 1985.
    back to text
  2. John Junkerman, “Nissan, Tennessee,” The Progressive, June 1987. This expression or a variation is also used at the NUMMI and Mazda plants.
    back to text

March-April 1989, ATC 19

Leave a Reply