La Lettre du GERPISA no 118 (decembre 1997)

Book Note - Nicolas Hatzfeld


Farewell to the Factory

Auto Workers in the Late Twentieth Century

Ruth Milkman

University of California Press, 1997, 234 p.

During the 1980s, while the exemplary Numi and Saturn experiments were being carried out, what was going on in other American automobile plants, older ones also affected by the wave of restructuring which had swept acrossthe country ? Ruth Milkman offers us a case study which seeks to redefine the terms of the debate. Over a period of a decade starting in 1982, alone or with the help of a team, Milkman delved into diverse research on the GM Linden plant in New Jersey, founded in 1937 and devoted for quite a longtime to the production of luxury models during the postwar golden age : studies both in and outside the plant, interview series, archive research.

Before addressing the issue of changes in the 1980s, the author first takes a look at the double heritage of previous decades. The chapter entitled "Prisoners of Prosperity" presents the dual aspect of worker relations : on the one hand, elevated salaries, attractive fringe benefits, a powerful union, and on the other hand, repetitive work tasks, unequal treatment and often times rude and humiliating attitudes on the part of hierarchical superiors. This translated into numerous and intense conflicts, a classic situation in the United States. For the local UAW, the 1970s represented the advent of a more combative approach, one that was closert o production workers, and to become dominant at a time when conditions were changing. With the automobile industry crisis, firms were then able to obtain union concessions.

Milkman's book concentrates on the 1985-1986 period. GM had closed its Linden plant in order to modernize it and reorient its production to that of small Chevrolets, along with other plants ; this was only to be made possible through the suppression of more than 1000 jobs, approximately one out of five. Since 1984, a job protection system called Job Bank had been in effect, and covered certain temporarily unemployed workers. However the closing of the plant was accompanied by tempting incentives to give up one's job, often reaching sums of 25,000 to 35,000 $. These incentives proved to be a great success, hence the title of this book. Ruth Milkman then studies two groups that she followed over a period of several years. Often, those who chose to leave expressed their impatience and disgust with the plant as well as their lack of confidence in the future. Many wanted to start their own company. For the vast majority of them, they did not regret their choice of leaving, even if they now were making less. If they were in their thirties, it wasn't too hard to find a new activity, however Hispanics, African Americans, and women were consistently less successful.

Those who did not leave and returned to the plant experienced the "new Linden". As with the majority of restructured American plants, Linden underwent minimal change : a greater degree of automation in painting and sheet metal workshops, and ergonomic changes in assembly. A reform of worker relations based on the idea of "participation" was in preparation. The author insists on the fact that at this time, "participation" was a popular idea among workers, even afterwards when disappointment set in. In fact, skilled workers felt they had increased their degree of responsibility and qualification, whereas production workers felt that their degree of initiative and competence had decreased. However, deception was felt more in the realm of managing and participation. Symbols of participation such as assembly line stop switches or paid group reunions were quickly rejected. Management only slightly changed their methods, and the union was weakened.

Hence, another meaning for this book's title : should one, along with the author, regret the disappearance of this type of work, or applaud it ?


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