Shopfloor Matters: Labor-Management Relations in Twentieth-Century American Manufacturing

By David Fairris | Go to book overview

8

A VISIT TO SATURN

The Saturn Corporation was announced by General Motors in January of 1985 as a project to produce a compact vehicle that would compete with foreign producers and be a world leader in quality, cost, and customer satisfaction. Saturn was also meant to be the breeding ground for a new set of industrial relations principles for ailing GM; after being ironed out at Saturn, these principles would spread rapidly to the remaining GM production facilities. A revolutionary agreement with the UAW, formal independence from the larger GM management structure, and years of careful planning went into the project before the first car rolled off the line in July of 1990, in the town of Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The structure and practice of industrial relations at Saturn are pathbreaking for a US corporation. To begin with, many of the supporting features of the lean-production approach which are present in Japan, but absent from many of the employer experiments domestically, are also present at Saturn. Five percent of work time is devoted to worker training; 20 percent of the compensation package is based on success in exceeding plantlevel productivity and quality goals; workers are guaranteed life-time employment; and the formal arrangements of shopfloor contractualism—lengthy bargaining agreements and the adjudication of disputes through a legalistic grievance procedure—are eschewed in favor of joint labor-management decision making and ongoing problem solving.

Off-line problem-solving circles and on-line work teams of approximately fifteen workers each are features that Saturn shares in common with other domestic manufacturers experimenting with workplace reorganization. At Saturn, however, self-directed teams were given substantial autonomy in decision making, both in the planning stages of production and in the first few years of operation. Teams took responsibility for quality control, ordering and handling material, controlling their own budgets, and even hiring new team members. The original goal, as put by a company vicepresident, was to have “employees accept ownership for the direct labor functions they perform” (quoted in Solomon 1991:72).

A truly unique feature of the governance structure at Saturn is the

-168-

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Shopfloor Matters: Labor-Management Relations in Twentieth-Century American Manufacturing
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - From Exit to Voice in Shopfloor Governance 17
  • 2 - The Amoskeag Plan of Representation 47
  • 3 - The Rise of an Empowered Shopfloor Voice 57
  • 4 - Labor-Management Disputes in Meat Packing, 1936-41 89
  • 5 - Institutionalization and Decline in Workers’ Shopfloor Power 99
  • 6 - Postwar Collective-Bargaining Agreements 139
  • 7 - Contemporary Experiments with New Systems of Shopfloor Governance 146
  • 8 - A Visit to Saturn 168
  • 9 - The Future of Us Shopfloor Governance 175
  • Appendix Tables 191
  • Data Appendix 198
  • Notes 204
  • Bibliography 219
  • Index 230
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