'This American Life' on Auto Workers: A Hack Job

What a disappointment was last week’s This American Life. This episode of the popular one-hour show on public radio was a snapshot of how the auto industry could have been saved—if only executives had learned from the innovations pioneered at the NUMMI plant in California, a joint Toyota-GM experiment created in 1985.

I have been a big fan of This American Life. The two-part series they did on health care, “More Is Less” and “Someone Else's Money,” was outstanding.

But what they put out on NUMMI was a hack job: the same tired story about how the Fremont, California, plant was a disaster when it belonged to GM, but Toyota turned it around—using the same workforce to produce a quality car based on teamwork and respect for its workers.

Most of this is myth, hiding the reality: NUMMI’s gift to U.S. manufacturing was the Toyota Production System, or “lean production,” which taught managers how to slice up jobs to make them more repetitive and require less skill, thus increasing stress on workers and discarding them when their bodies and minds could no longer take it. In the NUMMI case, the whole workforce will be discarded: the plant is closing tomorrow.

Why does This American Life simply accept the Toyota president's testimony, that the reason for the company’s massive recalls recently was that Toyota had deviated from its true course and tried to grow too quickly? Something is more fundamentally wrong. (Hint: it involves the company’s lean management system that maintains constant pressure on employees and assures tighter control of a top-down decision-making operation, producing a culture that destroys whistleblowers and breeds cover-ups. More on that here.)

Plus, if worker-management relations were so great at NUMMI and its high-quality product was selling so well, why is Toyota closing the plant? Toyota claims that the closing resulted from the loss of GM's share of production, when the nose-diving auto maker pulled out last year. But the California Treasurer’s Commission’s report on the plant closing debunks that notion, revealing that GM accounted for only 10 percent of production last year and 15 percent since 2001.



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The show could have talked about what happens to a community when a plant closes, and about how Toyota is using the fact that NUMMI was a joint venture to disclaim responsibility for environmental clean-up or for transferring loyal workers to other Toyota plants.

Blame the Workers

But the worst part of the episode is the producers’ decision to dump on thousands of workers, blaming them for being “stuck in old ways” and pinning responsibility on them (and also on management) for the industry’s troubles.

The show could have looked at other unionized auto plants that used a version of the Toyota Production System (Mazda in Michigan, CAMI in Ontario, Diamond-Star in Illinois). These were all cases where workers were able to experience the system for themselves and had the chance—because they were union—to do something about it.

Part of the episode describes how a plant manager tried to bring Toyota’s methods to GM’s Southgate factory in Southern California, as the last chance to save the plant. But managers resisted and workers elected a “militant” union leadership, rejecting the very system that, we hear, could have saved the plant. This American Life makes the point that the difference between Southgate and NUMMI was that the Southgate workers had not been out of a job for more than two years, so they were not afraid enough to accept change!

At all these plants, including NUMMI, workers voted out union leaders who championed the lean system and voted in people willing to challenge it. The show’s insulting dismissal of this record-- suggesting that these workers wanted plants filled with corruption, drugs, and lousy cars--hardly comes up to This American Life’s standards. The producers could have done a service for people who are trying to understand the auto industry’s crisis by looking into these questions—and talking to a generation of workers who confronted it day by day—instead of doing Toyota’s PR.

Mike Parker wrote books and articles on the Toyota Production System--dubbed “management-by-stress”--as it was coming to dominance in the ’80s and ’90s. He is co-author with Jane Slaughter of Working Smart, which dissects NUMMI in detail.


Robinpa102 (not verified) | 04/09/10

This American Life is one of my very favorite shows and I was horrified as I listened to this total bashing of unions and idealization of team concept. Thanks so much for writing this response!

Joe Iosbaker (not verified) | 04/02/10

Thanks, Mike, for posting this. I was infuriated listening to the NUMMI program last week. Blaming the workers in the auto industry is an old habit of the corporate media. I shouldn't be surprised when National Corporate Radio does something like this, but the hypocrisy always gets me in the craw. This is why I shut off the radio during pledge time.