There are only two ways an assembly plant worker can hurt his or her employer: Do a lousy job, or ask too much money for it.
Neither applies to the employees of this city's Ford assembly plant, which opened in 1925 to build Henry Ford's Model T, and today rolls out a new F-150 pickup truck -- the world's best-selling vehicle model -- every 67 seconds. Of the three Ford plants producing the F-150, Norfolk has the highest productivity -- utilizing the fewest workers per truck -- and the lowest rate of defects.
So what have the 2,275 hourly workers in Ford's most efficient plant producing its most profitable product earned for their efforts? The end of their livelihoods. Ford on April 13 an nounced that the Norfolk Assembly Plant will close by 2008.
To listen to Ford, Norfolk was victimized by little more than geography; the plant is farther from the company's Detroit hub than the other F-150 plants, so the company is hoping to save the cost of shipping parts to the East Coast. Translation: It's not the Norfolk workers' fault. But they're going to pay anyway.
''If I'm in business to make money, I want to make money,'' quality control specialist and United Auto Workers Local 919 member Rick Page, 51, told me when I visited the plant April 19. ``I can understand that Ford wants to bring everything closer to their hub.
''But the F-150 is the No. 1 best-selling vehicle in the world, and we build the highest quality F-150 of any plant in the country,'' said Page, whose father worked at the Norfolk plant, and whose son works there today. ``We're one of the most efficient and productive plants of any in the United States. We have good people here. We take pride in what we do. And we feel we got slapped in the face.''
Since the dawn of the Reagan era in 1980, Americans have been conditioned to regard corporate executives as the gods of Western civilization. We view them as knowledgeable and wise because they have survived in the corporate jungle. And if you believe conservative contemporary wisdom, they've triumphed despite the meddling of thickheaded government clods and the sabotage of parasitic and corrupt labor unions.
But one can't blame government for Ford's domestic failures -- never in the history of this nation has there been a more corporation-friendly administration in Washington.
And it's hard to blame laborers for the closure of the Norfolk plant and 18 other Ford and General Motors plants around the country, which will eventually idle some 60,000 workers. All workers do is build the cars -- they're paid the same rate and apply the same expertise whether working on profitable or unprofitable lines. Management decides what cars to build, designs them and sells them. Ford earned $2 billion overall last year, but it lost $1.6 billion on North American operations, prompting the cutbacks.
If CEO-gods get the credit for corporate successes, shouldn't they bear the responsibility for failures? Yet when was the last time you heard of a top corporate executive being fired -- without a golden parachute -- for racking up nine- or 10-figure losses? The Norfolk workers are paying for management's failure to adapt to a changing marketplace. And they are paying for the refusal of politicians to establish tougher fuel-efficiency standards, to structure free-trade agreements to protect the jobs of American workers, or to create a national health insurance plan that would allow U.S. companies to better compete with the rest of the industrialized world, where national health insurance lowers business costs.
Yet when capitalists in the contemporary free market make bad decisions, the blameless typically suffer far more than the culpable. These days, if the corporations' strategies succeed, good U.S. jobs flee overseas. If they fail, good domestic jobs just disappear.
So there is plenty of reason to doubt -- at least from the standpoint of the average American -- the wisdom of the conservative campaign the last 25 years to neuter labor unions, defang government regulation and globalize laissez-faire economic policy, all of which gave nearly free rein to the CEO-gods. And that's before we factor in corporate corruption implosions such as Enron, Worldcom and Tyco, or bankruptcies such as Delta, K-Mart and United Airlines.
Is it too nave to long for a return to a form of capitalism in which the interests of shareholders, management, labor, consumers and the public are represented in the making of policy? It's hard to accept that under the current brand of capitalism, it should be considered natural that the dedicated workers I met in Norfolk, who did nothing but their best, should be the ones who suffer the most.
© 2006 The Miami Herald