On the line at Subaru-Isuzu: the Japanes model and the American worker.
THE ARRIVAL in North America of Japanese transplants allegedly marked the beginning of a golden age in the auto industry. In The Machine That Changed the World, a multi-million dollar cross-national study conducted by a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, Japanese production management, or lean production, was portrayed in evangelical tones as a post-Fordist corrective to mass production's inefficiencies and inflexibilities, its mind-numbing jobs performed by alienated workers, and its adversarial labour-management relations. While the study compiled reams of comparative statistics on output per person, defects, space utilization, die-change time, and other measures of efficiency, its portrayal of workers as multiskilled, empowered and continuously challenged was devoid of an empirical foundation.
Graham's book is one of a handful of studies of auto transplants in North American that have exposed the MIT group's fanciful characterizations of what it's like to work under lean production. The author spent six months working on the assembly line at the Subaru-Isuzu (SIA) plant in Lafayette, Indiana. During this time, unbeknownst to the company and her co-workers, Graham was gathering data -- mainly systematic observations and informal conversations with co-workers -- for her PhD thesis. From a shopfloor perspective Graham provides a rich account of a lean factory and the experiences of workers as they were quickly transformed from raw recruits to hardened veterans.
A pre-employment screening process -- batteries of tests and interviews conducted periodically over two months -- is aimed at selecting (from some 30,000 applicants) a cooperative workforce motivated to work in a union-free plant. The procedures were not foolproof, however, as Graham and others gave answers they knew the company wanted. Successful applicants underwent three weeks of orientation and training, over one-half of which was devoted to communicating company values and shaping attitudes. Many workers also saw through this hype, although they pretended otherwise.
As they settled into their jobs, workers found that the lofty ideals transmitted earlier were not practised on the shopfloor. Instead, they experienced constant speedup, highly standardized jobs, continuous monitoring by supervisors and team leaders, tightly controlled and narrowly defined participation (kaizen), peer pressure, favouritism, and unscheduled, mandatory overtime. Women found themselves performing the least skilled and most labour-intensive jobs. There were few black workers and fewer still in any position of authority. The most jarring discrepancy between promise and reality was the alarmingly high incidence of injuries, particularly repetitive strain injuries.
Graham isolates seven elements of SIA operations that generate what she calls an "iron-cage of control": stringent recruitment criteria, ideological training, philosophy of kaizen, team concept, company shaping of shopfloor culture, a computerized assembly line, and just-in-time production. She explains how each of these operates to achieve worker compliance. Despite the "iron-cage," workers engaged in acts of individual and collective resistance, ranging from refusals to participate in team meetings and company rituals to sabotaging the line. An entire chapter is devoted to a discussion of resistance.
"The Japanese model," Graham observes, "creates a highly controlled atmosphere aimed at preventing workers from expressing their inherent resentment of authority and domination, which could potentially lead to concerted action and could foster their independence from the company." Graham concludes that SIA, and by implication lean production in general, represents a post-Fordist, hegemonic workplace because it uses social as well as technical controls to contain resistance and generate consent. This is a remarkable conclusion since her data and analyses point in another direction. An organization is hegemonic only to the extent that subordinates internalize the dominant ideology and act accordingly. This does not describe workers at SIA any more than it does those at Mazda in Michigan, NUMMI in California, and CAMI in Ontario. In the above quote the operative words are "aimed at." Had SIA kept its promises of open communication, empowerment, cooperation, etc., Graham might have told a different story. Instead, she remarks: "With the demands of capitalist production, it became apparent that SIA was just like any other company operating within the same constraints." And in the author's own words, SIA was driven by "hidden and open intimidation." This is not the stuff out of which hegemony is fashioned, nor is there anything to distinguish SIA as post-Fordist. (It also is instructive to recall that social controls were instituted at the Ford Highland Park plant in the second decade of this century. To qualify for $5 a day wages workers had to demonstrate to company interviewers that their lifestyles met Henry Ford's rigid moral standards.)
Perhaps SIA workers were not as bloody-minded as Ben Hamper, the Flint auto worker who wrote Rivethead and whom Graham uses to typify workers under Fordist mass production. However, even if we assume that Hamper is typical, the contrast is not nearly as sharp as Graham suggests. Instead of committed workers who identified with the company, Graham found compliance, cynicism, and resistance. Certainly, the resistance would have been more focused and effective had an independent union been present, but that is another matter. Workers showed little interest in unionizing, but this reflected insecurity and fear rather than identification with the company. SIA showed on in-plant TV screens all the unionized plants in the US that had closed. SIA's large corps of temporary workers with lower wages and no benefits served as a constant reminder to the full-timers that their employment security was tenuous. And Graham's co-workers told her that they believed unionization would lead SIA to relocate. Ben Hamper did not face these kinds of threats. All this adds up not to hegemony but at best to what Michael Burawoy called hegemonic despotism, a term that Graham curiously ignores.
Post-Fordism is a misleading concept, but this is a minor quibble. This is an outstanding book. Like Satoshi Kamata's Japan in the Passing Lane, a participant observation study that starkly exposed the price Japanese workers pay for Toyota's success, Graham's ethnographic account of SIA shatters the sanguine mythology surrounding Japanese transplants in North America. The book is on the required reading list of my under-graduate course in industrial sociology. It is a must read for students of lean production and team concept, and I recommend it to anyone interested in labour and industrial relations.
University of Western Ontario
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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