Japanese auto plants for US could offer fewer jobs than expected

Would new japanese auto factories in the United States really save large numbers of American jobs? Industry exerts, watching the jobless lines grow longer each week in Detroit, say the American worker really cannot look to Tokyo for much help.

There are two principal reasons:

* Automation.To keep output high and costs low, Japan's automakers are moving quickly to automated production lines. welding and some other tasks can be done as well, or better, by mechanical robots. Any Japanese-built plants here would no doubt contain the latest in computerized technology.

* Quality control. Japanese manufacturers express concern -- always politely phrased -- over the output, quality, and power of the American labor force. One Washington analysts suggests that the Japanese are apt to take on just as few American workers in plants here as they can get by with "technically and politically."

Most Japanese automakers readily admit that they see increased automation as a pure means to greater economy and one way to keep their reputation for quality products.

To date there has been no rush by the Japanese to set up car assembly plants in the US, as the United Automobile Workers (UAW) has been urging.

One Japanese concern is that the massive American effort to produce small cars will take effect just about the time new Japanese plants here could begin production. The Japanese do not want to invest millions of dollars in new facilities in the US only to sink back to a small 8-to-10 percent share of the market.

So far Honda, which has been assembling motorcycles in its marysville, Ohio, plant since last fall, is the only Japanese automaker to announce plans for a passenger-car assembly plant in this country. Slated to begin production by 1983, that new facility will employ some 2,000 workers.

Nissan Motor Company, producer of Datsun, so far plans only a light-truck assembly plant about the same time. It is expected to employ 2,200 American workers and rely on US materials for at least 50 percent of the content. Datsun vice-president Yashuhiko Suzuki in washington insists that any further plans depend on the success of the truck venture.

"We might think about it then, but at the present time everything's up in the air," he says.

A spokesman for Toyota, japan's largest automaker, says any further plans for US plants await the outcome later this year of three feasibility studies under way in the US and Japan. Toyota's only US output now is a California plant that produces cargo beds for pickup trucks.

But many here would like to see the Japanese, whose cars now account for almost one of every four purchased in this country, do far more. US protectionist pleas for import quotas and higher tariffs are favored by a majority of the American public, according to a Harris survey in June.

So far those pleas have gotten little response in Washington.

But the Japanese are concerned that stiffer trade bariers still could come. One particular worry is a report from the International Trade Commission expected within the next three months on the specific question of whether car and truck imports have "seriously injured" the US auto industry. The UAW, which petitioned for the finding in June, has since been joined by the Ford Motor Company in its bid for import restrictions.

"The Japanese are under a lot of pressure right now to prove that they're not out to put Detroit six feet under," one US source says.

For some Japanese automakers the pressure emanates from home as well as abroad. Japan, too, is suffering from a recession and its own car sales have not been growing that fast. The situation is forcing a harder look at the possibility of building abroad as one way of opening new markets. Nissan, in particular, as Japan's second largest automaker, has already made major manufacturing investments abroad and is said to be searching for more production and assembly sites.

The combined pressures, many trade experts feel, will lead to more "made in America" labels for Japanese cars in the relatively near future.

"There's no question but that many more Japanese companies will be coming here," says Dr. Howard Sulkin, an expert on US-Japanese trade relations on the staff of De Paul University here. "But in most cases they won't come because they want to but because they feel forced -- they're scared stiff that Congress will impose significant trade barriers."

Just how major a dent such moves would make an American unemployment, however , is a point of some dispute.

The consensus of most experts is that there will be many more jobs for American auto workers if the Japanese open assembly rather than manufacturing plants here. Most automation in Japan, as in this country, is in welding, painting, and parts production. By and large in both countries the final assembly line, which accounts for about half of the labor hours spent producing a car, s manned by human workers. And it's likely to remain that way. Jobs there involve everything from placing and fastening the sets inside the body shell to putting in the gas pedals and steering wheel.

"The final assembly of cars is a very labor intensive operation," insists Bernard Karsh, professor of labor and industrial relations and of sociology at the University of Illinois. "And if the Japanese have somehow found a way to do it without humans, then we as Americans are incredibly ignoran. . . .You can't assemble a whole automobile with robots."

"Welding can be done on the assembly line as the car goes by, but no one has yet devised a piece of automated equipment which can move along the [final] assembly line and do the varied jobs required," agrees a UAW spokesman. "People talk about automation as i there would be workerless factories, but there's just so much you can automate. . . . Automation is increasing but there would still be jobs for thousands of US workers [if the Japanese set up more auto plants in this country]."

"It's true that there's no way you can run an auto plant without workers, but the number is likely to be much smaller than we would employ in the US, if we were building a similar plant," says Dr. Sulkin.

Professor Karsh, who has visited several Japanese auto plants including Nissan's Zama plant outside Tokyo (considered a pilot for overseas production) where 96 percent of the welding is done by computer-controlled robots, says the Japanese have a certain automation advantage in producing smaller cars for export that are less complicated in design and assembly and stocked with fewer complex accessories than American cars. But he argues that the Japanese production advantage lies less in technology and degree of automation than in the way the Japanese use employees, teaching them a variety of assembly line jobs and generally "humanizing" the work so that no one has the "time" to be bored.

Whatever path of expansion Japanese automakers choose over the next few years , the key benefit may fall generally on US workers rather than on autoworkers in particular. Some call it the "ripple" effect. Datsun, for instance, which as yet has no plants in this country, claims to have opened up well more than 40, 000 jobs for Americans ranging from dealerships and port operations to suppliers and headquarters personnel.

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