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OM in the News: When Detroit Was a Cluster

August 4, 2013
VW's plant in Chattanooga TN

VW’s plant in Chattanooga TN

Clustering is an interesting topic when you are covering location decisions in Chapter 8. Indeed, here in Orlando, over 70,000 people are employed in the theme park cluster that includes Disney, Universal, Legoland, Sea World, Gatorland, and more. This week, Universal Studios announced record profits after sinking a quarter billion dollars into the Harry Potter exhibit–and is adding yet another 1,800 room hotel to its site. The Wall Street Journal (July 31, 2013) adds to the discussion with an article titled “Detroit Was a Cluster”.

“Clusters,” writes The Journal, “offer powerful advantages such as labor market pooling. But these potent synergies can be lost when special technological competence becomes outmoded.” With lean manufacturing, clustering has become more important in the auto industry, with suppliers required to be between one hour and one day’s drive of factories. A new cluster has formed, known as the “auto corridor” between I-75 and I-65, which still includes the upper Midwest but has pulled the industry’s center of gravity steadily south.

The reason is well known: The Japanese, Germans and Koreans located their plants in the South to avoid the United Auto Workers. Honda was the bellwether when in 1980 it picked Marysville, Ohio for its first plant. Honda was expected to be required to employ the UAW, but picked a site in rural Ohio with little union presence. The firm soon concluded that its production system would be impossible with union workers, and that a UAW workforce could be avoided without undue political consequence.

Even a decade ago, more than half of all auto production jobs were still in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Now it’s below 44%. Kentucky alone today claims 440 auto manufacturing-related businesses! The transplants made little secret of their motivation in passing up the substantial benefits of the then-cluster around Detroit. Every Toyota factory in the U.S. is non-union and all but one is in the South. Ditto Nissan, Mercedes, Hyundai, BMW and Kia.

Discussion questions:

1. What is a “right-to-work” state?

2. Why are so many auto suppliers and plants clustering in Kentucky?

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