The New Myth of the Happy Worker


In late 1990, the first Saturn rolled out of the Spring Hill, Tennessee plant that General Motors had been building, fine-tuning, and hyping for most of the eighties. To announce the event, the ad agency for the GM division-that-could produced a TV commercial celebrating it as virtually the most important development in American culture and manufacturing since the Model T.

The spot features a Saturn “team member” (he would be known as a “worker” were he to toil in some less-empowering branch of the auto industry) with a subdued but distinct Detroit accent, every inch the noble, honest Midwestern worker. He says goodbye to his family, climbs into his baby-blue pickup, and leaves his farmhouse well before the Tennessee morning burns off last night’s mist. This is the day, as a television on his kitchen table announces, when the first Saturn will roll off the line.

At his old job, this solid citizen tells us, he punched the clock but never really got the point. Nobody ever asked him what he thought. Then he heard about Saturn—a new company that takes workers’ ideas into account—and liked what he heard. “Seems to me that when you see where your part fits into the big picture,” he says, “it means a lot more.”

Letting workers talk. It’s such a damn fine all-American idea, it’s surprising that nobody had thought of it before. And yet it was making waves. “We’ve got people watching us,” he explains. “Some are for and some against. But I’ll tell you, it’s gonna be a great feeling to know that I was a small part of history.” The spot closes with team members gazing at a new, gleaming white Saturn, and we grasp what’s going on at Spring Hill: a new industrial idea, a new American mission of production, a project founded on the simple notion that it’s good to let people talk.

One commercial introduced some new Saturn models by relating how the plant closed down for a couple days to “make a few changes.”

In its brief history, Saturn Motors has won consumers’ hearts with tales of workers finding fulfillment in Spring Hill. Saturn team members don’t just slave away for wages, and they certainly don’t fit the mold of the angry, alienated autoworker. By granting them and their union a voice in production decisions, the story goes, the Saturn plant has found a solution to the auto industry’s fractious labor relations. Having received a voice, the story goes, workers at Saturn are happy, eccentric, even soulful. As they appear in more recent commercials, they are known to play cars like musical instruments; they dress like Social Distortion fans; they get to spend an afternoon painting instead of putting cars together. They’re at peace with themselves and at one with the company.

In late February, those same workers tossed out the union leaders who’d been so close with GM management, replacing them with a more confrontational, less partnership-oriented team. This wasn’t the first sign of dissent in Tennessee: Last summer, 96 percent of the autoworkers at the Spring Hill plant voted to authorize a strike, charging GM with scuttling any opportunity for real democracy. Saturn is not an oasis in an autocratic industry, they charged: Instead, its “partnership” scheme systematically pits worker against worker, destroying solidarity and weakening the union. Saturn rank-and-file activist Tom Hopp calls the resulting system “worse than the company unions in the thirties.” Management makes a point of not listening, the local union doesn’t put up much of a fight, and workers suffer.

But the reality that’s carried the day is the one invented for Saturn by its ad agency, the ultra-creative firm of Hal Riney and Partners. One commercial introduced some new Saturn models by relating how the plant closed down for a couple days to “make a few changes.” Everyone got new safety glasses, the cafeteria started serving chili cheese dogs, and a new basket went onto the basketball rim. The team members sauntered back in—only to find that the plant has been retooled to produce new models!

The new models themselves arrive in the commercial almost as an afterthought, reminding consumers of how other auto manufacturers play up their new designs. Here things are different: It’s the plant itself—not the product—that’s the intended focus of the ad. Americans bought the labor-relations-as-corporate philosophy thing, they bought the new myth of the happy team member, and they bought the cars. In 1992, Saturn sold more cars per franchise than any other make in the United States.

The Spring Hill plant does in fact utilize a relatively new management theory, the “team concept.” According to the official line, Saturn “team members” have input on all decisions: which vehicles to produce, how to set up work stations, what times are appropriate for breaks. “Saturn’s a different kind of company,” according to the corporate Web site. “It’s built on partnerships and teamwork and a belief that a good idea can come from any one of us. It’s a pretty revolutionary approach,” one that keeps the cars advanced and the workers “involved and inspired.”

Indeed, workers at Saturn labor under a “living agreement” very different from the standard contract that governs relations between GM and the United Auto Workers at other plants. The Saturn contract was ratified by the union in 1985 (several years before any of the employees who would work under it were hired), at a time when American companies were finding that threats of plant closings brought easy concessions from unions. At the same time, the UAW leadership was coming to believe that foreign competition justified signing on with management’s new “competitiveness schemes.” Longtime labor activist and former UAW regional director Jerry Tucker recalls how one high-ranking union leader shot down criticism of the team concept by insisting, “It’s our job to make these corporations lean and mean!” Such talk was common in those days. In a 1984 address to a gathering of auto execs, union official Donald Ephlin claimed that the UAW was enthusiastic for the Saturn project “because we think it will finally symbolize that we are in the fight to stay and we are serious about being competitive.”

Under the Saturn contract—commonly known as the “little gray book”—the union was made a full partner in all decisions from new equipment to break times, democratically elected shop stewards were replaced with jointly appointed worker representatives, standard GM hourly pay was thrown out in favor of a lower base pay augmented with performance bonuses, and shop-floor rules were all but replaced with loose agreements to work together on all problems. Many of the gains won by the union over the past fifty years—clearly stated shop-floor rules that hemmed in management’s power to abuse, exploit, and intimidate employees—were replaced with promises to work and play together nicely.

Observers of life on the line at Saturn (and other plants organized according to the team concept) have repeatedly described a climate of fear.

The recent strike vote came about after Saturn management repeatedly reneged on these pledges. In July 1998, GM announced that it would build future Saturn models outside of Spring Hill, using parts from other GM plants. According to Spring Hill UAW shop-committee chairman Mike Bennett—hardly an outspoken critic of management—the new models were planned without any input from the union. “What’s a Saturn,” the Wall Street Journal quoted him saying, “if it’s not built on a Saturn platform by Saturn workers?” The vote, though a sign of nearly unanimous worker discontentment, led nowhere: After the GM strike in Flint, Michigan was settled last summer, the union’s international leadership was reluctant to authorize any more work stoppages.

If shop-floor climate is any indication, another strike vote at Saturn could come soon. Observers of life on the line at Saturn (and other plants organized according to the team concept) have repeatedly described a climate of fear. As one worker told a New York Times reporter who toured the plant in the summer of 1998, “I’ve got a dozen team members who are going to get on my case if I don’t do my job properly.” By replacing standard hourly pay with team-wide performance bonuses, the Saturn system puts peer pressure on team members who either miss work or can’t make quota. Furthermore, since workers help decide on the distribution of tasks, when more work is added each team fights to get it assigned to others. As Tom Hopp puts it, team-concept plants turn each small bunch of workers into “their own little group of piranhas.” Management in such plants doesn’t need to do much to police the line—workers keep themselves on target.

The recent vote for new leadership resulted from years of rank-and-file organizing by Hopp and others. They argue that the Saturn “partnership,” by eliminating the old system of shop-floor rules, contributes to a high number of on-the-job injuries. They accuse local union leaders of disregarding union members’ rights, pointing to an incident in which fifty-one employees of the paint shop had their jobs eliminated without warning. Most importantly, they demand the standard union benefits that the unique Saturn contract has eliminated: higher pay, elected representatives, and clear shop-floor rules.

The newly elected head of Local 1853, Robert Williams, was the only local union official to side with activists during last year’s campaign to adopt the standard UAW-GM contract and jettison the “little gray book.” His slate, which Hopp helped organize, didn’t promise a new contract altogether. But according to the New York Times, the new leadership would like to adopt many work rules from other GM plants.

It’s been a long, hard battle. A story in Labor Notes recalls the massive obstacles faced by those working on last year’s “reversion” campaign: They were denied access to the union hall, and the president of Spring Hill Local 1853 declared on the plant’s in-house TV station that reversion would cause the plant to close.

Still, the insurgents persevered, and they’ve managed to put new leaders into office. Now comes the real challenge: Dealing with GM, whose plans to build future models outside of Spring Hill using parts from other plants is what triggered the strike-authorization vote last July. Today GM is seeking concessions—likely more pay-for-performance initiatives—in exchange for keeping the Saturn factory where it is. Although Local 1853 members have shown that they’re serious about getting their power and dignity back, the company might downgrade production at their plant if they put up too much of fight. Years of organizing might come to naught.

Not coincidentally, the Saturn organizational model continues to spread to other plants. Two years ago, GM moved Skip LeFauve from VP in charge of Saturn to a position overseeing efforts to create a single GM “corporate culture” and develop standard nationwide management practices. GM also runs a consulting firm to help other corporations learn the team concept.

Successful brands match up with personal “tastes” connected less to consumers’ age or status than their personal identity.

GM clearly sees Saturn as its model for the future, simultaneously allowing it to control movements for workplace democracy and to speak to a new breed of consumer. Before the counterculture and the oil crises messed everything up, GM had a fairly simple marketing scheme: Its different divisions were tailor-made for groups differentiated by age, wealth, and status. Youngsters went for the Chevy, or the sportier Pontiac. With age and power came classier autos: the Buick, then the Oldsmobile, then finally the Cadillac.

As established power loses its cool, several GM lines are floundering, their identities confused or even repulsive to a more sensitive generation of consumers. Successful brands these days match up with personal “tastes” connected less to consumers’ age or status than their personal identity. Saturn is GM’s attempt to integrate the new logic of marketing. Its customers aren’t defined by a single age or income bracket, but by a sensibility. They know that consumerism is bad and that it hurts the environment, but they still need to drive to work every day. They like the fact that Saturn has taken the time to give single workers that most precious of liberal possessions, an individual voice. They distrust the powerful, but aren’t sure why workplace organization is a good thing.

They’re the same well-educated, culturally radical, conflict-despising “progressives” who patronize any number of brands that talk a socially responsible game. A Saturn is a natural for this kind of consumer: It marks the buyer as both economically sensible and culturally astute. To drive one is to help break down the old hierarchies of wealth, gender, and power. Saturn owners are unabashed egalitarians. Saturn’s appeal is exactly in that it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.

And how they love that company! In the summer of 1994, GM invited Saturn buyers down to Spring Hill for a two-day “Homecoming,” which also served as a photo-op for the ad folks. Apparently without being paid, some 44,000 gave up their traditional trips to the lake and headed back to the ol’ farm. They did some line-dancing, ate some soul food, and met some other Saturn owners who, they found out, they really have an awful lot in common with. During the factory tours, they got to learn all sorts of interesting things about how their cars were made. They even got to meet some of the folks who’d put their cars together, and hear what they thought about the team concept.

They’re really, really glad they went. They sure needed to get away from it all for a bit.

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