By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
WIXOM, Mich. -- From the outside, the Ford assembly plant here, about 40 minutes west of Detroit, isn't much to look at -- a sprawling, bland mid-1950s monument to an architecturally forgettable decade.
On the inside, though, Wixom is a thing of beauty, a marvel of American production. Most auto factories turn out the same basic car, though at the end of the line different grillwork and a different name may be slapped on in a desperate attempt at brand differentiation. At Wixom, three fundamentally different kinds of cars rolled off the line simultaneously. Working in small groups that are directly responsible for the cars they turn out, Wixom's employees simultaneously built cars with front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive, convertibles, sports cars, luxury vehicles, even cars with the steering wheel on the right for foreign markets. "No other plant built three different cars at the same time," says Dave Berry, president of the plant's United Auto Workers local.
Some years ago Ford established an annual audit of plant efficiency. For four years running, the Wixom plant had the highest score of any of Ford's North American assembly plants. In 2004 J.D. Power and Associates ranked the plant as the third-best auto factory in North and South America -- beating all the Mercedes and Toyota plants routinely touted as the be-all and end-all of auto production.
But there was a problem: the product. Wixom turned out lots of different cars, but chiefly it turned out Lincolns. For many years, Ford turned more profit on the Lincoln than on any of its other cars; it was the proceeds from Wixom that financed many of Ford's truck plants. But in recent years, Ford focused more on overseas acquisitions -- Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin -- than on improving the product it made in America.
"We kept arguing for a product that appealed to the customer," says Tony Brooks, a salty assembly-line worker who heads the local union's military veterans committee. "The quality of the plant is what kept us alive, not the cars. When did they last redesign the Lincoln Town Car? Ten years ago?" Cadillac, he notes, successfully updated its product line in the past few years. At Wixom, a fundamental adage of production was stood on its head. Making the sausage was a pleasure to behold; it was the sausage itself that ceased to appeal.
On Jan. 23 Ford announced that it was closing factories across North America, and Wixom, its awards notwithstanding, was on the list: The factory is scheduled to be shuttered in the second quarter of 2007. It's not the first cutback at Wixom. Two years ago, the workforce was cut in half when Ford decided to produce its new Lincoln Zephyrs in Mexico. The workers laid off at Wixom then, however, were able to transfer to other Ford facilities. The most senior workers remain today, and they have a sinking feeling that by 2007, Ford won't have enough factories still operating to accept any transfers.
Last week I met with a dozen Wixom workers at their local union hall. Some were second- or even third-generation Ford workers; Berry's grandfather came from Tennessee to work at old Henry's River Rouge plant in 1925. When Wixom opened in 1957, Ford recruited employees from the mines of Kentucky, but today's Wixomites are a good deal more polyglot, with a fierce, friendly clannishness rooted in pride in their achievement and, now, indignation over their abandonment. "We're not victims," insists Burkie Morris, the local's education director. "We have skills in team-building, in computer technology, in cultural diversity. Our problem is that the company didn't reinvest in new designs."
That wasn't their only problem. Unions are blamed for the woes of Ford and General Motors, but it's more the case that the political weakness of U.S. unions is responsible for the woes of Old Auto. In every other industrialized nation, the health care of workers, retirees and their families is the responsibility of the government. In the United States, labor has failed to secure universal health coverage, which remains instead the responsibility of individual employers. This puts companies with lots of retirees at a disadvantage with newer firms and imposes costs on U.S. employers that their foreign competitors are spared. If not having universal public health insurance is the mark of a more purely capitalist economy, then the United States may be too capitalist to compete in the global marketplace.
"It's not, 'Woe is us,' " says Burkie Morris, speaking for his defiant, reeling buddies. Maybe not for you, Burkie, but speaking for your countrymen, who are seeing American manufacturing dismantled and the middle torn from our economy: Woe is us.