German manufacturing companies have a reputation for high wages and good labor relations. That may be justified at home, when labor unions are strong and labor rights are established by law. It doesn’t necessarily apply to their operations in the USA.
Chris Brooks, writing in Labor News, wrote about how Volkwagen manages its Tennessee plant on the theory that workers are most productive when pushed to their physical limits.
At the Chattanooga plant, permanent employees work alongside “temporary” workers, some of whom have actually worked there for years. Pitted against one another, both groups fear to speak up.
“Every employee there busts their ass and is injured and is working through the pain because they don’t want their job taken by a temp,” Amanda says. “It is made clear to all of us that we are easy to replace.”
That’s lean production in a nutshell: ruthless efficiency, produced by a system of efficient ruthlessness. Workers are deliberately stretched to their limits, by a combination of competitive pressure, inadequate training, repetitive stress, and rotating shifts—so that the weakest links can be identified and eliminated.
Another central component is the “team model.” Plant workers are grouped into teams of six and expected to work with management to continually find new ways to increase their team’s productivity. The “team” aspect encourages peer pressure.
It’s a never-ending loop. If you break down from stress, you’re out the door—but if no one on your team is breaking down, then the team’s load should be increased, for instance by removing a worker.
When I was reporting on business for my local newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a very naive view of lean production.
I thought lean production was about eliminating waste, product defects and unnecessary layers of management. I thought the “team model” was a hopeful development, leading to true teamwork and respect for workers’ skills and knowledge.
I don’t think it was naive to think that a lean production system based on true teamwork and voluntary cooperation would work. My naivety was in thinking people with power, such as corporate managers, would voluntarily give it up.
You can’t have teamwork unless the members of the team have a common interest and equal power. They can’t work together effectively if they are being pitted against each other.
I would be interested to know just how productive VW’s Chattanooga plant really is. Can workers who are stressed-out really produce high-quality, zero-defect (well, minimum defect) products? Maybe so, but maybe not.
I think probably you get the highest productivity at the extremes—the highest output from extreme stress, the highest quality, skill and initiative from extreme loyalty.
It seems inconsistent that VW has invited the United Auto Workers to organize its Tennessee workers. But the inconsistency exists only if you think of VW as if the company were a person. VW is an organizational structure in which there are many different people with different views and agendas.
Corporate executives in Wolfsburg, who have to deal with worker representatives on their board of directors, made the policy to have union representation worldwide. Volkswagen of American managers on the scene likely have different priorities.
Volkswagen in Tennessee: Productivity’s Price by Chris Brooks for Labor Notes.