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Doing business in Detroit: Mazda embraces the UAW

Seven Japanese carmakers have built or are building plants in the United States. Only Mazda has chosen to locate in the Detroit area. And only Mazda and NUMMI (a Toyota-GM joint venture in Fremont, Calif.) are so far dealing with the formidable United Automobile Workers (UAW).

``Detroit is where the US auto industry is based,'' says Masaharu Shishime, a senior official of Mazda Motor Manufacturing (USA) Corporation, known as MMUC. ``If we are going to make cars in America, it makes sense to come here. This is where the know-how is, where the skilled workers are, where the parts are.

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``Also, if we are going to make cars here, we can't avoid having a relationship with the UAW,'' Mr. Shishime continues. ``Our experience in Japan has been that the existence of a labor union is a plus.... So one of the first things we did when we decided to build cars in America was to go and talk to the UAW.''

The UAW, angry at being shut out by companies like Honda and Nissan, responded with enthusiasm.

``For a long time we have held the view that if you sell cars in the US, you should make cars in the US,'' says UAW spokesman Reg McGhee. ``We want Japanese companies not to oppose or support unions, but let the workers decide. We are pleased that Mazda [and NUMMI] have done this.''

MMUC is 100 percent owned by Mazda of Japan, and its three top executives, including its president, Osamu Nobuto, are from Japan. The two top American executives are vice-presidents in charge of personnel and manufacturing. The number of Japanese employees has been declining, says public relations manaager Nancy Hennigar. From 450 during construction a year ago, the number will eventually decrease to about 100.

How good a company is MMUC to work for? ``I feel no qualms,'' says Mike Buchanan, who works in the body shop on quality control. ``We're an American company using Japanese methods.''

Mr. Buchanan calls these methods ``fantastic'' and says that the three months' training he received at the beginning - from Americans who had been trained in Japan - ``changed me.'' He repeatedly stresses how impressed he was by the emphasis on quality and by the openness of communications.

Becky Amyx, who now does labor production analyses for Mazda, says that this company is not for everyone. Mazda wants people who can work with one another as a team - ``people willing to listen to others.''

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Ms. Amyx says the occasional misunderstandings so far have been due mainly to cultural differences. For instance, her group did a study of people quitting their jobs, which greatly bothered her Japanese superior. She could not understand his distress, until finally it came out that a rate that seemed perfectly normal to Americans - 5 or 6 percent out of 200 hired each week - seemed terrible to him. ``It's much lower now,'' she laughs.

Buchanan, who had been employed by a small building concern, is also delighted with his job at Mazda. ``This offers me much more security and advancement,'' he says.

When he was notified 18 months ago that he had passed Mazda's battery of tests, Buchanan says he felt like he'd ``hit the lottery.''

His pay packet of $12.62 an hour is better than he used to receive. By MMUC's agreement with the UAW, pay at the plant will go up an average of 5 percent a year until it reaches Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) levels.

Buchanan is a member of UAW Local 3000, and says he thinks of the union as ``our lawyer,'' or ``our representative in contracts with the management.''

According to Shishime and to UAW spokesman Reg McGhee, MMUC and the UAW have agreed that there will be essentially just two categories of workers - maintenance people, who are skilled, and production people, classified as unskilled. This gives the company great flexibility in allocating jobs.

In return, the company has pledged to have no layoffs except under extraordinary circumstances, and that, even then, management will first cut its own pay while trying to find other jobs for union members.

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