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Out of Our Minds
Friday, December 02, 2005 12:32 PM
An American Business Tale, Warts and All
Kevin Salwen on Culture

There's a remarkable story about business in today's New York Times, so remarkable that it's almost worth going through line by line. But I won't; instead I'll highlight it for you.

The piece centers around GM's decision to close one of the assembly lines at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, as part of a huge retrenchment at the company. Yes, I said Saturn, the 'different kind of car company.' The auto maker that in 1990 brought fixed-sticker pricing into an industry with smarmy negotiating methods. The auto maker that tried to use Japanese processes and put an American stamp on them. The auto maker that was going to be a new model for GM's labor relations -- letting workers be more than 'line rats' and truly engage in the creation of the process, not just the manufacturing itself. As the Times summed it up: 'Opened when auto companies were closing plants and cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs, General Motors' Saturn plant here was a rare opportunity for the company and its workers to literally leave the industry's old ways behind and embrace some of the lessons that Japan was teaching, with an American twist.'

Now, GM is closing one of its two lines, and refusing to rule out that the entire Spring Hill operation might someday be shuttered. The brand had faltered after hitting a peak of 300,000 annual car sales in the mid-1990s, buffered by the fact that GM -- its focus on SUVs, not cars -- didn't introduce a new Saturn for four full years during one stretch. By the time it did, the Saturn brand cache was diminished.

Saturn, undoubtedly my favorite brand of GM car, is fading -- not failing, but losing its lustre. How damned sad is that.

But as I read the piece, another emotion took over too -- marvel at the failure of employees to understand their part in the play. Here's a quote from the Times piece: 'Workers have got to be asking themselves, What do we have to do?' said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. 'The social contract was that if we build a quality product, we're going to have jobs, our kids are going to have jobs, and the plant will still be in town.'

What??? Lifelong job guarantees? Jobs for our kids? Social contract? What universe are these people from? Is there another industry that offers a lifelong social contract, anticipating the changing nature of the market?

GM certainly didn't do anyone any favors by mismanaging this once-hot brand. The workers at Saturn didn't do themselves any favors by playing ostrich to the changing economy. Let's hope those workers never believed that nonsense about inheriting work anyway, and are out there fighting for themselves and their own careers.


Julie - 12/2/2005 9:54:44 PM
It's shocking that the Saturn business unit -- management AND employees -- couldn't develop a new model in four years. In addition to the commitments companies make to employees, employees make commitments, too. All employees have a responsibiity to improve themselves, improve their environment, improve their methods, and improve their performance, even (or especially) in the face of financial or management pressures. Employees that can't deliver on that have defaulted on their social contract.
J.C. - 12/2/2005 7:08:14 PM
When you read that NYTimes story, and you start to hear who the worker side is, it becomes fairly clear that -- while GM made big mistakes, and I'm not overlooking that -- the workers still are having their expectations managed by the United Auto Workers union. The high cost structure, the strict rules, the no-layoff policy all kill flexibility.


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