On a hot and humid August day almost fifty years ago, I was one of a group of neighborhood boys that managed to convince Mr. Smotzer that he should take us swimming at the city pool. We needed Mr. Smotzer because it was Thursday, and Thursdays were Father and Son days. Every kid had to be accompanied by a parent. It was hot enough that we were sure the rules could be bent enough to allow Mr. Smotzer to take his six "sons" swimming.
We got in, and we enjoyed about thirty minutes of respite from the heat, when either someone complained or an over zealous guard sensed a rule infraction. Mr. Smotzer was approached by a lifeguard and reminded that it was Father and Son day. It was obvious, the guard said, that not all children could be his. Timmy and I were singled out to make the case. We were the same age, and looked nothing like brothers, or for that matter, anything like Mr. Smotzer.
"You can only have your own children here," the guard said. "Which one of these kids is not yours?" We all held our breath while Mr. Smotzer rubbed his jaw in contemplation.
"Him," he said pointing at me.
"And the rest?"
"Yeah, they're all mine."
"Then this one will have to wait outside," said the guard.
And so I went outside and watched from the other side of the chainlink fence as our neighborhood group played in the pool. True story. I hadn't though about it for many, many years until just this past week. On a hot Thursday afternoon, I attended a hastily called meeting of the workers at the Nummi assembly plant where we were told that the plant would be closing.
Nummi was begun back in 1984 as a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. Toyota wanted a partner to help it enter the U.S., and G.M. wanted a closer look at the much talked about Toyota Production System. I first got involved with Nummi in 1985. The company I worked for became a Nummi supplier. When you dealt with Nummi, you really dealt with Toyota. They ran the show. A Toyota person was appointed by Toyota to be president, Toyota engineers were in every department as "advisors," the language (like kaizan and muda) was imported from Toyota, and the vehicles that were built were Toyotas, even if some of them were called Chevy, Geo or Pontiac. When you talked to anyone from Nummi, especially in those early days, you invariably got the lecture about how poorly run the plant had been under G.M., and how much better it was to be in a Toyota facility.
Ten years later in 1995, I actually hired on with Nummi. Different people, same lecture -- it's better than it used to be. It was better in lots of ways, but in no small part it was perceived as better because Nummi had adopted Toyota's policy on job security that said the company "recognizes that job security is essential to an employee's well being ... Hence the company agrees that it will not lay off employees unless compelled to do so by severe economic conditions that threaten the long term financial viability of the Company" (from the Collective Bargaining Agreement between Nummi and U.A.W.). This was seen, mistakenly, as an extension of Toyota's lifetime employment pledge to its workforce.
Jump ahead again, to this past Thursday. Despite the contract language, and despite President Toyoda's statements as late as June of this year that Toyota planned no plant closings or layoff, it was announced that the end would arrive in March 2010. For the first time in their history, Toyota would be shutting down and walking away from a major facility. Those of us who work there are being cast out, and while we will be permitted to apply for positions in other Toyota facilities, we will be given no preferential treatment.
Some would argue that it was the United Auto Workers and its negotiated wages that were the problem, but the subject of our wages never came up. We were never once asked if we would work for less.
The problem, it seems, is that we were the bastard children of Mr. Toyoda. We were not, after all, really Toyota employees, just as we were not really G.M. employees. We worked for Nummi, Toyota's affair with General Motors. It was G.M, who having lost all its money at the race track, left a note on the pillow that read "Dear T, it's been swell. See ya around the block. GM." Once Toyota read the note, it took a shower, put out a plate of cookies and headed for the door, leaving the key on the table.
Oh well. The life guard blows the whistle, and somebody gets kicked out of the pool. No harm done, eh? The market economy is at work correcting the excesses in fine Darwinian fashion, right? Bigger forces at work here, ya know?
Most of us at Nummi are probably going to do just fine eventually. A few homes will be lost, some cars repossessed, a number of marriages will end under the stress, but eventually we will find a way.
And G.M. and Toyota? Don't let the door hit ya on the way out, guys.