Oil embargoes and foreign competition were a one-two punch to the U.S. auto industry in the 1970s and 80s. Lined up for gas, American consumers turned to smaller high quality imported cars, and American auto workers lined up for unemployment. From 1979 to 1982, employment in the auto industry declined by almost 30%. As in many other industries, expanding global capacity brought foreign products to the U.S. markets and took jobs away, shaking the foundations of many communities, families and workers who were left behind.
To stem the tide, the UAW negotiated employment protections with the Big Three. In exhange for job and income guarantees and a profit sharing plan, they took wage concessions. The relationship between labor and management underwent fundamental change. Mutual survival, continuous communications and problem solving - a partnership - evolved from the traditional adversarial relationship.
Auto makers came to realize the need for worker participation in the new world economy. Lean production brought just-in-time inventories, quality requirements and continuous improvement to auto plants. Teams of multi-skilled workers were challenged to meet the competition with increased flexibility and speed of change.
Echoing the unyielding strength of heavy metal wheels and axles, the worker pictured in the panel above, stands with pride and satisfaction in a product well made. He has mastered the monumental complexity and scale of auto parts production and he guards his job.
Voices From History
We had to fight together if we were going to save our economic lives.
UAW Region 9 Area Director from Champions@Work
You got to look outside -
You got to think outside-
You got to walk outside - your life
To where the neightborhoods change.
-Ani DiFranco, "Willing to Fight" from the album Puddle Dive
Did You Know?
Local Big Three spin-offs, American Axle & Manufacturing, Delphi and Visteon plants sought new customers, including transplant producers of foreign nameplates.
Exercising a UAW negotiated right to know, workers by the thousands took Cornell''s auto industry classes, one of many taining programs offered out of joint funds. It was a long way, but a short time, from the old work order, "Check your brains at the door."