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Detroit’s Downturn: It’s the Productivity, Stupid

Union work rules make it almost impossible for the Big Three to keep up with foreign competitors.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

December 16, 2008 - 12:00 am
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Another employee in the plant urinated on the feet of his supervisor as a protest to discipline. He was, of course, fired … that is until the union negotiated and got his job back.

These are anecdotes, but there are too many of them, not just from her, but from many, to be merely anecdotal.

I grew up in Flint and my father was a GM executive. During college, I worked summers on the factory floors of AC Spark Plug and Fisher Body. As an (involuntary) member of the union, I could certainly see the benefits. At the age of twenty, I had one of the best jobs of my life for a few weeks.

Why?

Union rules.

I was in theory responsible for keeping parts flowing through the entire plant. They ran on little slidewalks, like you walk on in airports, far above the floor. There were gates to divert them to the proper lines, and tables where they would congregate and fill when lines were down, like reservoirs with dams. There was a robot that I could command to pull pallets off a rack and replenish the tables. And, as one might imagine, there were lots of things that could go wrong.

A breaker might trip on the robot. A gate might jam, causing the reservoir to fill and the parts line to be depleted, making the workers below unable to complete the assembly of an oil filter. And when these things happened, what was I supposed to do? If a breaker tripped, I was supposed to put in a repair ticket for an electrician. If a gate jammed, I was supposed to put in a ticket for a pipefitter — it may even have been a special subclassification for an assembly-line upper-level pipefitter. If a belt jammed, I was supposed to requisition a machinist, any of whom might be busy on other jobs. Or outside, taking a nap in their van. While waiting for them to arrive, assembly lines, perhaps even the entire plant, would be shut down, costing thousands of dollars a minute with workers sitting around unable to assemble the product.

I was an engineering student who had been tearing down and putting cars back together my whole life. I knew how to turn on a breaker. I knew how to unjam a pneumatic gate. The supervisor and I had an implicit agreement. I would ignore the rules and keep the plant running, and he would let me do whatever I wanted up on the catwalk, by myself. Most of the time I read or studied or even napped, while working sixteen-hour shifts at double time, but keeping one eye on all of the mirrors that showed progress or problems on the parts flow. When something went wrong, I fixed it, instead of putting in the repair ticket. Only once, when I napped a little too long and a line dried up, the supervisor came up and woke me. I still fixed the problem much faster than it would have been fixed had we waited for the skilled tradesman to show up, and he had no problem. As I said, it was a great job and all because of union rules.

But as someone interested in business and free markets, I could also see that this could not go on, when the foreign competition was becoming very appealing. When something can’t go on, eventually it doesn’t. That’s where we are today.

And the rules don’t just affect productivity — they affect quality as well. When you can’t discipline employees for being absent without leave, when you have to bring in unfamiliar workers to fill in for them, when you’re missing half your plant during hunting season — yes, the stories about avoiding buying cars built on Monday or Friday in the fall are true — you can’t expect to put out a quality product, regardless of how well or poorly designed it is. You particularly can’t expect to do so when the union rules put all responsibility for quality and production on management, but give them no authority to manage the workers and provide the workers with no incentive to build a quality product if they lack the personal pride to do so. Volumes have been written about Japanese management style and worker teams and consensus, but even if GM/Ford/Chrysler management had wanted to do so, there was no chance of it with the UAW mindset. And as sometime auto industry (and union) observer Mickey Kaus has pointed out, this was not just an unintended consequence of work rules — it was the goal.

I’m not unsympathetic to the workers. As noted above, I was one. It’s a terrible, mind-numbing job. The reason that I was up in that loft was that I spent the first couple of weeks on the line, where I watched a woman assembling filter after filter, like an automaton, and wondered how she did it for hours. My job was to load the parts on the line from a bin to feed her efforts, and I quickly figured out I could just put the parts on one at a time at the same rate she built it and work continually, but that if I quickly filled it all the way to the back — like the beginning of the checkout roller in a grocery line — I had about forty-five seconds before I had to do it again and could read a couple of pages of a book. The supervisor observed me and shortly after I was promoted upstairs.

Yes, I can understand why they want to get paid a lot to do that kind of work. I wouldn’t do it for less. Right now, I wouldn’t even do it for what they make. But there are a lot of people in this country that do exactly that kind of work or worse, and get paid a lot less — a lot less even than the non-unionized auto workers in the south. And because I didn’t like what I was getting paid for what I was doing, I sought better work and pay, by improving myself and getting an education. Ultimately, while there are some people who may not be capable of that, I suspect that many of them are not as discontented as I would be to perform a repetitious job each day. And because people who could do other, more interesting, more challenging, even more productive things were making so much easy money in the shop, I suspect that over the years both Michigan and the nation has lost a lot of productivity by not providing them with incentives to go out and do them, rather than being a shop rat all their lives.

The auto workers and I grew up in a golden era that it was unrealistic to think could continue. They were so well paid and unproductive, not because the market valued their labor at their wages and their product at its prices, but because they had a foot on the throat of the industry management, thanks to the imposition of the government via the Wagner Act and the NLRB. When each contract came up for renewal, they could single out one company, use the strike funds accumulated from workers at all the companies, and literally threaten to kill it. The next strike, they could do the same to the next one, continually imposing new rules, benefits, and restrictions that strangled the entire industry slowly instead of cleanly killing one company at a time. Remember that too when you blame management for all the problems.

Some have claimed that the only goal of the Republicans was to break the union. Well, if that — or at least breaking the work rules — wasn’t one of the goals, it should be, because there is no saving this industry without doing so in some form. After all, the union played a major role in breaking it. If we could do so, the Wagner Act, a relic of the Depression and New Deal, should be repealed or at least revised as well. Unfortunately, with the party and mindset that passed it over seventy years ago once again in power in Washington, they seem much more likely to dramatically worsen it and spread the infection to the rest of American industry.

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Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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