Yes siree, those sloppy workers

Dan Rodricks

November 30, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Knocking the American worker was always a back-nine pursuit of American executives, but about 25 years ago, when the post-World War II industrial economy finally started to rust and squeak, they went public with it. They had to. They certainly weren't going to hold themselves responsible.

Workers, especially unionized ones, were the easiest targets -- the first to be blamed for the long, slow decline of American manufacturing. It's been repeated like mantra: Workers brought American industry to its knees.

The Japanese, on the other hand, were said to thrive because their workers worked cheap and in a disciplined manner. Big American companies shifted some of their operations to Mexico because the workers there were eager to be exploited; today, they work in assembly plants by day, sleep in shanties at night, and are quite happy about it. Back in Detroit or New York, the directors and stockbrokers are quite happy about it, too.

All of this took jobs and money out of the American economy.

Who was to blame? Those greedy and sloppy American workers.

Especially the ones who worked in auto manufacturing.

Remember when American auto manufacturers said they were losing ground because our workers were overpaid, less efficient and more careless than their Japanese counterparts?

That's the line America's vice presidents and CEOs liked to put out. It didn't matter that the self-serving fat cats in charge of the Big Three had been lackluster in keeping up with industry trends, that they lacked vision, that they thumbed an arrogant nose at both the American consumer and the approaching Japanese and their silly little cars.

The problem, they kept telling us, was the American worker.

So layoffs became frequent and commonplace. Plants were closed -- or companies threatened to close them. Unions survived by compromising with employers. Workers took cuts in pay and benefits in the hopes of keeping their jobs. All of that was said to be necessary to help companies, such as General Motors, lower production costs and stay competitive with the Japanese through the 1990s and into the 21st century.

The workers agreed to give-backs to keep their jobs, but corporate America, supported by the bold anti-union attitudes of the Reagan era, still was slow to adopt a common-sense philosophy that the Japanese figured out long ago: A key ingredient to profits is a secure, motivated work force producing a high-quality product. If you don't treat your worker like the enemy, your worker won't seek the protection of a union.

In other words, the problem wasn't the American worker. The problem was the American car.

The automobiles Detroit produced were too large, inefficient and unreliable. Only this year, as a matter of fact, are American companies producing cars that look, feel and perform like Japanese-designed cars. (GM came up with the Saturn and the hot-selling Geo line. Geo, by the way, is the result of a GM-Japanese joint venture that includes many "greedy and sloppy" American workers who GM had previously laid off.)

In almost every way in which industry analysts rate these things, the Japanese fleet of automobiles has consistently outperformed American-made automobiles for nearly two decades. Confidence in Japanese motor vehicles grew, while confidence in their American counterparts waned. And the biggest problem facing the Big Three is still convincing a consumer who had a bad experience to take one more chance on their products.

Incredibly, at a time when the Big Three are hurting again, Toyota is positioning itself to displace Chrysler as the No. 3 automaker in the United States. So far in this recessionary 1990, U.S sales of Toyota cars and light trucks are up 31 percent over last year. During the same period, the Big Three experienced a 6.9 percent drop. Down at the GM plant on Broening Highway in Baltimore, they're talking about the layoffs of up to 300 workers.

Just five years ago, Toyota opened a plant in Georgetown, Ky. It has 3,450 workers at its Georgetown plant, and now Toyota plans to double its effort in the United States by expanding the Kentucky plant and hiring 1,500 more workers. That's an investment of about $800 million. Toyota will increase the plant's output of popular Camry sedans and station wagons from 220,000 to 420,000 per year.

And guess what. Ninety-five percent of the Toyota employees in Kentucky are American autoworkers. Those greedy, sloppy American autoworkers.

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