This week I found myself parked in one
of the soft armchairs at a Starbucks coffee shop perusing a Globe and
Mail newspaper while sipping a grande Pike Blend.
Leading off the Report on Business
section in the paper was this headline, “Auto workers threaten
triple strike”. A strike by CAW workers against all of the Detroit
Three automakers at once would be unprecedented. The cooperative
approach both labour and management took a couple of years ago to
survive the depth of the current economic difficulties seems to be
well and truly over.
As I read the article, I couldn’t help
but think about the stark difference between this conflict and what I
saw at the various farm equipment manufacturing plants I walked
through this summer. In contrast to the vehicle assembly plants in
southern Ontario and the U.S., all the farm equipment factories I was
at were, surprisingly, non union shops. (Although, there are
unionized ag equipment assembly plants, too. I just wasn’t in any of
them this year.)
The workers on the shop floors of those
I toured this summer were usually smiling and seemed to content with
their jobs; Although, I admit you can’t really get a full feel for
labour relations in a one-hour walkabout. However, things felt the
same in all the plants, which unlike the big auto assembly centres
were located in smaller, rural communities. Many of the workers on
the production lines were weekend farmers, themselves, and they
seemed to feel a strong tie to the machines they were building.
Overall, there are a lot of differences
in the way way things are done in an ag equipment plant and an auto
facility. First, ag workers build significantly fewer machines in a
shift. The AGCO factory in Jackson, MN, for example, builds only
about a dozen tractors in a day. Big auto plants turn out hundreds of
vehicles in the same time period.
On auto assembly lines, workers perform
a few, specialized tasks on each vehicle. In contrast, those building
ag machines need to know how to perform a variety of jobs because
machines stop at fewer stations for longer periods. And there is a
wider variety of machine types coming down the same lines. Each
worker in an ag plant plays a much bigger part in building machines
than is common in the auto sector.
Don’t leap to conclusions here. I’m not
making the case for union or non-union shops. And I’m not
saying farm equipment companies haven’t had their labour troubles
over the years, either. The strike at International Harvester in the
1980s that lasted more than a year and brought the company to its
financial knees is a prime example.
But you can’t help but wonder, despite
all the differences between the two industries, if the automakers
shouldn’t take a close look at those plants building ag equipment
today. Finding out why so many farm equipment factories have
relatively happy and eager workers on the shop floor might help the
automakers ease their own labour strife.
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