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Assembly-Line Blues

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Summer 1998
Assembly-Line Blues
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Faced with overcapacity, GM negotiated in 1987 to offer some 4,000 employees roughly a year's wage -- $30,000 -- to leave the plant. For those who stayed, GM promised a "new Linden" that, after a year-long overhaul, would be technologically state-of-the-art. The refurbished plant also would offer workers an expanded role in decision-making and problem-solving, patterned after the much-touted Japanese management system. For five years, Milkman tracked both workers who stayed and those who opted out.

Among employees who remained, enthusiasm for the changes quickly soured as it became apparent that the "new Linden" barely differed from the old. "By promising workers opportunities for participation and then not following through, GM raised workers' expectations, only to smash them by returning to the old practices," Milkman says.

But among the approximately one-quarter of employees who accepted the buyout, the vast majority expressed no regrets five years later -- in the recession year of 1991 -- even though many lacked the security of a high-wage, unionized job. One ex-Linden worker, self-employed as a chimney sweep, reflected that even though a fall from a roof might put an end to his business, his post-GM situation was “utopia” when compared with life in the plant.

Social commentators have expressed concern about workers displaced by capital mobility and technological change. Yet, few GM-Linden workers voiced nostalgia for the industrial system that was collapsing around them.

“Many features of the factory jobs fully deserve to be dead and buried,” Milkman says. “We should direct our nostalgia at the high wages, fringe benefits and union protection that idustrial workers once enjoyed.”

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