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Saturn's Quality of Work Life

Saturn Corporation (a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors from 1984 to 1994) outlines the successful and unique adaptation of a new approach to organizing in the U.S. automobile industry. The organization represents many of the characteristics typified by "Quality of Work Life" programs, and allows students to see the benefits of a cooperative and customer-focused HRM approach.

1. What aspects of quality of work life (QWL) programs does the experiment at the Saturn plant illustrate?
2. How can Saturn assure that employees have not only the willingness to take responsibility but also the ability to do so?
3. In this case, a completely new company was started with considerable autonomy from General Motors. Why do you think so many large organizations turn to "greenfield" operations such as this when undertaking major changes in corporate culture and operations? Do you foresee any problems down the road for GM in this regard?

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1. What aspects of quality of work life (QWL) programs does the experiment at the Saturn plant illustrate?
In 1982 General Motors began discussions about using innovative design and manufacturing techniques to build a quality, cost-effective small car that could compete with foreign-made vehicles. The following year the UAW was brought into the discussions and the Saturn Project was officially launched. GM unveiled Saturn Corporation as a wholly owned subsidiary in January of 1985 and six months later the historic labor agreement giving the UAW full partnership in the management of the enterprise was signed. In 1986 work began on Saturn's unique facility at Spring Hill, Tennessee, which accommodated the manufacture of all major components of the car on site, and the first Saturns went on sale in the fall of 1990.

One of the earliest and most repeated stories told about Saturn is that it would save U.S. industry, be a model for U.S. industrial revival, and show that U.S. auto manufacturers were able to compete with the Japanese. Saturn was announced in the '80s when Japanese imports became an important part of the car market. Patriotism, Americanism, and an "American identity" were framed and mobilized within the Saturn concept in really interesting ways that run parallel to the way in which Basque identity and nationalism were mobilized in the Mondragn cooperative setting.

Saturn and its cars were supposed to symbolize a new way of doing things and were positioned as the hope of U.S. industry. The name "Saturn" was taken from NASA's Apollo program, which was supposed to conjure up an image of U.S. competition with the Soviets. But that competitor was reimagined as Japan in a period when the U.S.'s concern was not space exploration and fighting communism but industrial competition, specifically in what had been the hard core of U.S. competitiveness, the automobile industry. So Saturn was very definitely developed as a U.S. project for a U.S. agenda for U.S. renewal.

These broad shifts in concepts of work and time have implications for Saturn where the corporate discourse constructs Saturn as a different kind of company. One of the ways in which Saturn is different is that it cultivates a family atmosphere. People I have spoken with in Spring Hill have said that Saturn does have that atmosphere and that people really do feel connected to their workplace. I want to know the extent of that connection, what it means for workers, and what it means for life outside of the factory. Saturn workers are on a difficult work schedule. They are on rotating shifts, which have an impact on family scheduling and create a kind of "Saturn time" that differs from other kinds of time.

This is what Saturn wrote to its employees: "Saturn Corporation does not in any sense reject collective bargaining for employees of our suppliers. We do not discourage employees of our suppliers from joining unions to bargain collectively with their employer. Saturn Corporation does not require, or encourage, our suppliers to resist organizing efforts by their employees. Saturn Corporation has a positive and constructive relationship with the UAW as well as the other labor organizations that represent our employees. In ...

Solution Summary

This solution discusses quality of work life programs and employee responsibility at Saturn as well as the problems that GM could face down the road (with examples) in 2137 words.

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