When GM managers shut down this plant in 1982 and laid off 5,000 workers, they were facing nearly 1,000 pending labor grievances and battling an absentee rate of nearly 25 percent. When the plant reopened two years later, pending grievances dropped to 15. The absentee rate hovers at around 3 percent. Productivity of the 2,200 workers -- 85 percent of whom hadworked at the plant before -- has soared. What had happened in the meantime is that General Motors, the Toyota Motor Company, and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) had formed a partnership in February 1983 -- New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) -- in order to produce a small automobile. The Fremont plant is the first Japanese-run automobile plant in the United States that employs members of the UAW.
Production at NUMMI reached a peak capacity of 20,000 Chevy Novas (a Toyota Corolla look-alike) per month last April. The Toyota Corolla FX16 rolled off the same Fremont assembly line in early September.
The American-built Nova outsold the Japanese-built Corolla in the US by 144,892 to 101,274 units from Jan. 1 through Sept. 20 of this year. The quality of the Nova built here now rivals the best small cars made in Japan.
``We came back to the new plant with the memory of loan foreclosures fresh in our minds,'' explains Mark O'Kennon, a worker in NUMMI's stamping plant. Mr. O'Kennon and the other production workers at NUMMI returned to Fremont as students of the Toyota production method.
On the plant floor, they listen for the sounds of classical music. The music, set off by one of McKennon's co-workers, signals a problem somewhere on the production line. According to the notion of ``jidoka,'' the quality principle, any worker can halt the production line if there is a problem with the quality of an automobile.
Labor and management stress teamwork at NUMMI. Each production team consists of six to eight members who paint or assemble part of the Nova. Team members are responsible for the quality and cost of each automobile and the safety of their work site. Generally, three teams form a unit headed by a group leader, the first line of management at NUMMI.
``Compared to other GM plants, there is hardly any management here at all,'' says Owen Bieber, UAW president. ``There doesn't have to be. Workers are taking responsibility and making decisions that would fall to management at a typical GM plant.
``People, not machines, are the center of the manufacturing process here. Sure, NUMMI has good technology, but there are no bells or whistles or technological shortcuts. NUMMI is pursuing quality, not by eliminating but involving workers.''
NUMMI's labor contract (last year's union contract was approved by more than 90 percent of the workers)reduces the 80 or so job classifications that existed at GM's Fremont plant to four -- one classification for ``team workers'' and three for skilled trades workers.
The contract also requires that the company consider cutting management salaries and contract work before union workers are laid off in a production downturn. There are no time clocks at NUMMI and managers share the cafeteria and parking lot with production workers.
``The level of automation at NUMMI is similar to Toyota production plants in Japan,'' says Tatsuro Toyoda, former president of NUMMI and a member of the founding family of Toyota. The focus of production at NUMMI and at many other Japanese-run automobile assembly plants in the United States is labor relations, not high-technology.
While robots shower sparks across the welding area at NUMMI, the paint and assembly areas have remarkably few computers and robots, and no electronic test equipment.
Workers pull parts from storage using ``kanban,'' an information system developed at Toyota that controls production and reduces inventory by tagging individual or lots of parts with a small signboard.
Kenny (KB-san) Brooks measures the ``fit and trim'' of a new Nova with calipers and a level. He tests the setting of the high beams with a hand-held chart and the reception of the Nova radio by ``just listening.'' When he wants to test engine performance, he whirls the new Nova around an th-mile test track.
``The difference between NUMMI and the old GM plant boils down to the voice that workers now have in what goes on in the plant,'' says Gus Billy, first vice president of UAW local 2244 and an original employee of the Fremont plant when it opened in 1963. ``In the old plant, you had the union on one side and management on the other. We continually fought one another. At NUMMI, labor and management work together on the basis of trust.
``The biggest change at NUMMI is not new technology or the Toyota production method, but the relationship between labor and management,'' Mr. Billy adds.
The US Labor Department selected NUMMI for study as a model of labor relations. And while it gathers information for its case study, GM sharpens its management skills at NUMMI. At any given time, 16 to 20 GM managers work at the Fremont plant. Hundreds of GM people have toured the plant for a first-hand look at the Toyota production method.
There is evidence that the revolution at NUMMI will take hold elsewhere in General Motors. GM has transferred two NUMMI managers to the Saturn project, the highly automated, highly secretive, small-car manufacturing facility that GM is planning for Spring Hill, Tenn. GM management based Saturn on such notions as open communication, shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect, and the continuous search for improvement (or ``kaizen'' as the Japanese -- and the Fremont workers -- call it).
``The Spring Hill agreement is modeled after some very innovative ideas, some of which even eclipse the ideas used at NUMMI,'' says UAW's Mr. Bieber.
``We expect [Saturn] to be a learning laboratory for continued efficiency improvements, long after regular production begins,'' says GM chairman Roger Smith.
``We also expect that what we learn from Saturn will spread throughout GM, improving the efficiency and competitiveness of every plant we operate and every product we build.''
``We've learned a lot from our experience at NUMMI,'' adds Labor Secretary William Brock. ``Spring Hill will be striking out into new territory. Saturn will be state-of-the-art in all senses of the word.
``State-of-the-art technology? Yes!
``State-of-the-art labor relations? I hope so.''