On September 8, 1986, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Yutaka Kume, the president of the Nissan Motor Company, officially open Nissan’s first European manufacturing plant in Sunderland, Britain. Sunderland is situated in the northeastern part of England, a region that was hit especially hard by the deindustrialization and economic strain of the 1970s and 80s. Many of its coal pits, shipyards, steel mills, and chemical factories had closed or were closing, and the Japanese company’s arrival gave many of the town’s residents hope for the future. Twenty-five thousand people applied for the first 450 jobs advertised at the plant.
Nissan brought a new kind of shop-floor culture to a place where labor-management relationships typically ranged from frosty to belligerent. The Sunderland factory was a different, more cooperative kind of workplace: Instead of enmity and strikes, it had kaizen, a Japanese philosophy of continual improvement that applied to workers and their bosses alike. Meanwhile, everyone wore the same blue coveralls and ate in the same lunchroom, and plant foreman received the same pay as design and manufacturing engineers. Likely as a result of this egalitarianism, at least in part, the factory soon became the most efficient and productive auto plant in Europe, and it exported 75 percent of the cars it made. (Some were even sent back to Japan.) It was also the largest car factory in England, building one of every five British-made cars.
With all this good will and productivity, it seemed like the plant would be successful forever. In June 2008, Sunderland’s 5 millionth Nissan rolled off the assembly line, and at the beginning of 2008 the factory was hiring hundreds more workers to keep up with increased demand for Nissan’s new hatchback, the Qashqai. Just one year later, however, the economic downturn had resulted in almost 1,500 layoffs at the Sunderland plant–25 percent of its workforce. This was a disaster for those workers, of course, but also for Sunderland itself: Five thousand people had worked at the plant, but 10,000 more–parts suppliers, service and support workers, supermarket operators–depended directly on Nissan for their livelihood.
At the same time it announced the Sunderland job cuts, Nissan unveiled a new product: a deluxe sports car that will, when it goes on sale, cost 107,000 pounds. It seems likely enough that no one in Sunderland will be buying.