Another Take on NUMMI and the UAW

A Pontiac Vibe Comes Off the Line at NUMMI

A Pontiac Vibe comes off the line at NUMMI

The significance of NUMMI’s closing is not what it will do to the California economy, the Detroit Free Press to the contrary notwithstanding. Come on, guys, 4,600 workers losing their jobs is an old story in the auto industry. California, even with its deteriorating economy, can absorb them a lot better than Michigan could.

What the Freep got right yet didn’t stress enough was the importance of NUMMI as a grand experiment that indeed worked well for a time:

On the manufacturing side, GM did sustain much of what it learned from Toyota in its Global Manufacturing System, a standardized set of practices that literally choreograph workers’ jobs to maximize efficiency, minimize physical movement and focus on using inventory only as needed.

NUMMI enhanced GM’s understanding of quality and provided small cars that people wanted. For NUMMI’s first six years, GM took more than half the factory’s output. Since 1996, however, GM has drawn no more than 21% of the plant’s vehicles and that number dipped as low as 12% as recently as 2007.

NUMMI’s decline was a function of GM’s decline and a long history of management failure that we all know too well.

Now my compadre tgriffith is positively gleeful at the plant’s closing and sees it as an opportunity to bash the UAW. In that, he’s like a lot of people who think the UAW brought on the recent auto industry debacle, or that without the union’s insatiable greed the industry would be healthy. Well, gang, if you believe that, I’ve got a tooth fairy just waiting to give you more Novocain.

UAW-worker

UAW worker in happier times

The sad story of the trade-union movement in this country is well represented by the UAW, forced to sell out years ago to the auto industry and now, of all things, the major stockholder in Chrysler and second-largest owner of GM. The union, as one writer puts it, has been “corporatized.” Clearly, unions can’t protect workers’ jobs any more, or there wouldn’t have been a NUMMI closing.

I love union-bashers. They know next to nothing about labor history and are always eager to see unions as holding a gun to the head of the oppressed industrialists. In this case, let us remember that the UAW, for all the noise it makes, has not only collaborated with the industry at least since 1979, but has made continued and sizable concessions regarding wages, working conditions, union power and influence—you name it. They have given away the store to preserve their jobs. Now the jobs are leaving them.

To think the UAW “desperately wants to spread its empire and organize labor at other Asian automakers,” as tgriffith has it, is to indulge in fantasy. To think it has a “stranglehold on the domestics” is, well, hogwash. The UAW, for all intents and purposes, is a shell that now functions primarily to serve government and corporate interests.

What a far cry from the glorious (and terrifying) history of the 1930s, when the union fought the good fight to defend its people from persecution, physical abuse, and domination at the hands of the auto barons. This is not fiction: Sitdown strikes happened at Chrysler, Ford, and GM in 1937, and people got injured and killed. Then the union was indeed something to be reckoned with.

I don’t think unions have much chance of surviving. I worked at a large international trade union in the ‘90s, and what I saw didn’t inspire confidence. The UAW’s wage concessions in the last few years have put its people on a par with nonunion workers, and now, irony of ironies, they have at last become management.

If the unions go, will you be glad to see them go? Why or why not?

—jgoods

1 Comment

  1. Unions were good at first, but I have seen many times where people were justifiably fired due to things they did that were not right. In many cases the person should not have been rehired. Other times when a person justifiably needed the union’s help the union people wouldn’t do a thing. On a local note, if you aren’t the right nationality or race, they won’t help you.

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