Thursday, January 8, 2009.
I'm a skeptic when it comes to the genius of reporter-turned-banker and Pinch-buddy Steven Rattner. But he might make a good Car Czar, a position for which he's rumored to be the leading candidate . Why? Rattner covered the decline of the British auto industry for the NYT in the 1980s , and in the process wrote one of the best newspaper pieces ever published about autoworker unions [$]. Rattner compared the production of Ford Escorts at a German car plant with the production of the exact same vehicle at a U.K. plant. The German plant [in Saarlouis] was roughly twice as productive. The difference? An adversarial, work-rule-oriented union culture in Britain. Some excerpts:
But the resemblance ends at physical appearance. This [German] plant produces some 1,200 cars a day, more than the 1,015 that Ford planners had anticipated, and requires 7,762 workers. Its counterpart at Halewood, with virtually identical equipment and production targets, has averaged only about 800 cars a day this year, and 10,040 workers have been needed to achieve even that production level.
''Our standards say it should take something like 20 man-hours of labor in both the body and assembly plants to make an Escort,'' said Bill Hayden, vice president of manufacturing for Ford Europe Inc., in an interview. ''At Saarlouis, they do it with 21 hours. At Halewood it takes 40 hours.'' ...[snip]
Aside from statistics, subjective differences between the two factories become evident. Halewood seems to overflow with workers - some of them reading or eating, others kicking a soccer ball - while Saarlouis seems almost depopulated and nearly every worker in evidence is hard at his job. At Saarlouis, workers dash to open doors for visitors touring in electric carts, while at Halewood, one worker greeted a news photographer by exposing himself. ...[snip]
For their part, the workers at Halewood maintained in recent interviews that shop conditions at Saarlouis were unsafe. ''If that was in England, I'd stop the job immediately,'' said Stephen Broadhead, the ''convenor'' at the body plant, who has visited the German plant twice. ''It was such a violation of our health and safety regulations we couldn't live with it.'' Nonetheless, the Saarlouis plant has the lowest injury record in Ford's entire Europe subsidiary.
In one example mentioned by Mr. Broadhead, the Halewood union summoned a company doctor to rule that two men were required to lift the car hood onto the body, a job performed by one man at Saarlouis. But the other day at Halewood, only one man was lifting the hoods; the second man watched.
''From the very beginning it was always one man who picked up the hood, said Lothar Kotalla, a German worker here, as the dull silver car bodies moved along behind him, 58 an hour. ''It's heavy so we switch every hour.''
Such differences are found to pervade the two plants. In May, the workers at Halewood went on strike for 11 days because they contended that four men could not produce 60.2 transaxle assemblies an hour, as the company and the German experience suggested they could. Five months later, the four men are still assembling about 55 an hour. ...[snip]
Management's efforts are now concentrated on raising productivity, a painstaking process of identifying a bottleneck - at the moment, the assignment of workers and work in the paint shop - and negotiating at length with the unions to remove it. With various shop rules, moving one worker, part of a process known as ''rebalancing,'' often requires that five be shifted.
Does the U.A.W. read Times back issues? ... 2:54 P.M.