This week's long read is from the Virginia Quarterly Review on the real effects of the relentless push for more and more productivity in the corporate world. The city of Sparta, Tennessee played by all the rules and workers turned a struggling factory into one of the most productive manufacturing plants in North America. Lisa Norris and Dave Uhrik were on the management team that put Sparta on the map and the plant was held up as a model of American "reshoring" of jobs.
And then they watched as all the jobs were shipped to Mexico anyway.
The humming Sparta plant had it all. For one thing, the town is within a day’s haul of most US markets—from New York and Chicago to Atlanta, St. Louis, and Dallas. Tennessee has decent, well-maintained highways. The plant was union—a new experience for Norris—but this IBEW local was steely-eyed about keeping and creating jobs; it had, for example, accepted a two-tier pay scale and surrendered contract protections in order to attract a highly automated production line from New Jersey. The press for that new line, known as a Bliss, was nearly three stories high (so big it had to be anchored twenty feet underground) and could stamp out eight or ten massive commercial fluorescent fixtures every minute. It attracted lucrative contracts from hospitals, prisons, grocery-store chains, and Walmart supercenters. Norris called it “a monument.” Brent Hall, the union rep, described it as a beating heart. “Every time that press rolled over,” he said, “the whole building would shake.”
Other production lines at the plant could push out smaller, custom products tailored to the needs of a specific buyer. A whole swath of the maintenance crew had been sent, on the plant’s dime, to get certified as industrial electricians and welders and millwrights so that they could retool machines on the fly, switching production from one job to the next in a matter of minutes. “Anything they wanted, we’d build it for them,” Scott Vincent, one veteran electrician told me. With Uhrik and Norris at the helm, the plant started buying steel and other inventory on consignment, and trimmed turnaround times to the point that its invoices would be getting paid before the bills on raw materials were even due. Tasked with cutting costs by $4 million, the management team tapped employees to identify inefficiencies in the assembly process, worked with suppliers to reduce components costs, and drastically reduced the number of products with defects. The plant boosted productivity by 7 percent and kept labor costs low, at around 4 percent. Still, thanks to the union, most workers were earning $13 to $15 an hour—“real decent money around here,” as one maintenance worker told me, especially for a workforce where many had never graduated high school—with two to three weeks of vacation and a blue-chip health plan. Employees stuck around for years, knew their jobs inside and out, and had a rare esprit de corps. When they faced tight deadlines, fabricators would volunteer to come in as early as 4 or 5 a.m. so they could get a head start before the paint crew arrived at six. In December 2009 the Sparta facility was named by IndustryWeek as a Best Plant of the year, one of the top ten in North America. In the months that followed, it won Best Plant within Philips’s global lighting division as well as the firm’s global “Lean Challenge.” That summer, plant managers invited state officials and legislators to Sparta to celebrate.
Then, one morning in November 2010, a Philips executive no one recognized drove up and walked into the plant, accompanied by a security guard wearing sunglasses and a sidearm. He summoned all the employees back to the shipping department and abruptly announced that the plant would be shut down. Though the workers didn’t know it at the time, most of their jobs would be offshored to Monterrey, Mexico. The two of them then walked out the door and drove off. “It was a shock, I’ll tell you,” Ricky Lack said more than two years later. Still brawny in his late fifties, he’d hired on at the plant in 1977, when he was nineteen years old. “My dad worked there,” he said. “Half the plant’s mom or dad or brother worked there. We still don’t know why they left.”
They left because they thought they would make moeny making light fixtures in Mexico and selling them to Americans. Then a funny thing happened: we stopped having good jobs where Americans could afford to buy things.
Do read the whole thing.