In a generation, new industrial management methods, often called lean production or Japanese management, swept away the management system that had dominated the US auto industry in the early postwar decades. The traditional “Big Three” auto companies lost control of their industry in the US as well as worldwide. Many of the tenets of lean production soon spread from manufacturing to services, including hospitals and schools. Some left intellectuals have been drawn to this system by its apparent efficiencies combined with claims of workplace equality and worker participation. This article challenges that perspective, identifies the fundamental mechanism of the Toyota-Japanese management system, and argues that it creates greater levels of exploitation, worse working conditions, and more difficulties for union organizing and worker resistance.
Over the past half-century, the Japanese auto industry, led by Toyota Motors, has risen to the peak of world car production, taking an ever-increasing share of the world market away from the US companies that had controlled the industry since the birth of the assembly line. What accounts for this fundamentally important development? Opinions are, unsurprisingly, sharply divided. Mainstream media, defending US employers, attribute American firms’ declining competitiveness to the recalcitrance of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which it views as defending the laziness and greed of its members, who blindly resist every management initiative at every level, from the shop floor to the bargaining table. Some union sympathizers, by contrast, including supportive intellectuals and academics, see it as resulting from employers’ insistence on controlling the labor process and seeking to raise profits through intensifying exploitation — at a time when Japanese producers have already clearly demonstrated the necessity of capital–labor cooperation for achieving their historically unprecedented productivity growth and rates of innovation. The differences in these two perspectives could not be starker, yet both miss the real transformation of the auto industry.