Automobile in American Life and Society
“An Economic ‘Frankenstein’”: UAW Workers’ Response to Automation at the Ford Brook Park Plant in the 1950s
by Stephen Meyer
This essay is reproduced with minor alterations from Michigan Historical Review 28 (2002): 63-90. Reproduced by permission of the Clarke Historical Library.
In 1953 Alfred Granakis, president of UAW Local 1250, wrote to UAW president Walter Reuther about “wrestling with myself for weeks on end” and being unable “to come to any solution” on some thorny shop-floor problems at a new Ford plant in Cleveland, Ohio. The local union president described his concern about the Brook Park engine plants and foundry, depicted by Ford officials as “today’s nearest approach to a fully automated factory in the automobile industry.” This complex, they proclaimed, was “another milestone” comparable to Henry Ford’s original assembly lines. In his letter to Reuther, Granakis declared, “I am greatly distressed and deeply concerned about the problem of automation.” Although he acknowledged “the theory that mechanization brings about increased employment,” he worried about “what happens during the period of transference from multi-manned operation to limited manned operation. Of course, I do not advocate a return to pre-Industrial Revolution days, but what happens to the workers’ equity when there are fewer workers to share in a given sum which many more shared in before. Is that an economically sound situation?”
In negotiating his local contract with Ford officials, Granakis was the first local president to confront the shop-floor consequences and labor-displacing implications of the new automated factories. As such, he feared the establishment of undesirable precedents and pleaded for Reuther’s aid in dealing with Ford management. “I am not,” he wrote, “critical but merely fearful of being a party to any agreement that may at some future day be prejudicial to the workers’ endeavors in their struggle for their attainment of just economic demands.” In his plaintive appeal, Granakis raised a popular image of science and technology gone awry:
In the mid-1950s, automation, or what some manufacturers labeled “automation hysteria,” captured the full attention not only of American social and economic commentators, industrial leaders, and managers, but also of factory workers and their union leaders. At the time, Brook Park was the nation’s most highly automated automobile production plant, and industrial engineers from across the nation toured and studied its state-of-the-art facilities. Though others have examined broadly the issue of workers and automation, this essay focuses on how the leaders and members of one union local perceived and reacted to the coming of industrial automation. Reuther viewed the coming of the automated factory from the lofty premises of his Detroit UAW office, but Alfred Granakis and his fellow union members confronted the new production technologies as they evolved on the shop floor of the Ford Brook Park plant. The view from that perspective was somewhat different. Granakis and other UAW Local 1250 members wrestled with difficult new workplace issues without effective means to either combat or control them.
In recent years several labor and social historians have examined and reassessed the various issues and problems concerning the relationship between workers and automation. For Ronald Edsforth automation presented an important, but missed, opportunity to shorten the work week of American automobile workers in the 1950s and 1960s. In response to the dissident Ford River Rouge Local 600’s “30 for 40” campaign—seeking a thirty-hour week for forty hours’ pay—Reuther consistently “urged bargaining for greater income security and more goods, instead of bargaining for shorter hours and increased leisure.” In his important biography of Walter Reuther, Nelson Lichtenstein focused on the UAW leader’s national programs and policies and only briefly touched on the interconnectedness of automation, productivity, and job displacement. Rather than directly confront automation’s social implications, the UAW leader “retained the faith that a combination of Keynesian demand stimulation and government economic planning were tools sufficient to handle unemployment.” And in his study of Detroit’s postwar conflicts and decline, Thomas Sugrue underscored the social consequences of deindustrialization and job displacement, especially Ford’s use of automation and decentralization as a means to weaken and tame the militant River Rouge local. Reuther and other top UAW leaders “worried about automation only insofar as it affected employment levels nationwide.” Then, they “poured their energy into cushioning the effects of layoffs through extended unemployment benefits, improved pension plans, and preferential hiring for displaced workers.” For the most part these historical studies have accented the perspectives and policies of national UAW leaders and emphasized the social impact of automation as seen from the top down rather than from the bottom up.
This essay focuses on how the “economic ‘Frankenstein’” of automation affected the everyday lives of Ford workers on the shop floor and how local UAW leaders struggled with its immediate consequences in the workplace. In the early 1950s these new and evolving production technologies transformed deep-rooted shop traditions, such as the social structures and social relations of work and the privileged nature and carefully defended boundaries of the skilled trades.
Automation’s Effect on the Brook Park Workforce
For automobile workers the major consequence of industrial automation was the transformation of the content of their work. As automated production emerged in the Brook Park plant, Ford officials claimed that the “increasingly complex and complicated” new industrial technologies “brought about a significant change in the relationship between production and maintenance employees.” In other words, the routinized production work typically done by assemblers and machine operators often blended into the diversified and more skilled tasks performed by maintenance workers. The new production system brought the two types of workers “closer together to the extent that they now merely play different positions on the same team.” The materials-handling devices and the automatic machines and conveyors were “electrically connected and interlocked so that a mechanical breakdown anywhere along the line may stop production until the trouble is diagnosed, located, and repaired.” The “maintenance functions” had to “be synchronized with production so that mechanical interruptions may be held to an absolute minimum.” In effect, formerly autonomous maintenance workers became directly attached to line production operations. In time, the distinct roles of production worker and maintenance worker would be fused into a new job classification: automation worker. What this company analysis failed to emphasize, however, was that not enough slots for automation workers would be created to employ all the former production workers.
In the conventional mass-production automobile plant, semiskilled workers—machine operators and assemblers—constituted the overwhelming majority of the factory workforce. Situated between small numbers of unskilled laborers and small numbers of highly skilled tradesmen, these workers comprised the huge middle layer of the shop social structure. But Brook Park needed far fewer of these semiskilled workers. Ben Seligman, a UAW analyst, described the automated operation of the fifteen-hundred-foot-long battery of machines at the Brook Park engine plant: “Automatic machine tools perform more than 500 boring, broaching, drilling, honing, milling, and tapping operations without any human assistance.” On this automated machining line there were “less men . . . than formerly. In one part of the line 25 men perform the same as 117 did using the old method, mainly because it is no longer necessary to stand before each machine and accurately position the work before the machine tools can do the job.”
Whereas the old-style shop-floor hierarchy had a small upper layer, a huge middle level, and a small bottom stratum, automation upgraded some workers from the middle (thereby alarming some skilled workers who feared encroachment) and then emptied out much of the rest of the middle. In his analysis of the displacement of the machine operators in automated automobile plants, the sociologist Bernard Karsh described the new bifurcated social composition of the factory workforce. Two types of employee predominated: “the unskilled worker, the broom pusher, whose job may be too menial to automate and . . . the highly skilled worker, who designs, constructs, repairs and programs the machine.” The new production technologies eliminated large numbers of semiskilled machine operators and assemblers. Hyman Lumer, a leftist union critic of the new production technologies, noted, “With complete automation, it is estimated, maintenance personnel would equal or exceed the number of operators on the production lines.”
If automation meant more highly skilled workers on the shop floor, it also drastically altered the traditional character of skilled work. In the new Brook Park engine plants, Lumer estimated that skilled machine maintenance workers constituted 21 percent of the workforce, whereas in a conventional auto plant they normally constituted only around 5 percent. Moreover, traditional skilled maintenance workers in automobile plants often were far removed from direct production operations, worked within strictly defined craft boundaries, and had considerable autonomy in their work routines. As the number of relatively skilled workers and their direct involvement in production increased, their exclusiveness and autonomy were threatened.
Confronted with these considerable changes on the shop floor, local UAW leaders like Granakis could call on few real resources to combat the challenges to their workers’ established tasks, routines, and work structures. In the new post-World War II system of “workplace contractualism,” UAW leaders negotiated national and local agreements that specified both workers’ shop-floor rights and detailed rules and procedures for adjusting them. Typically, these fairly rigid rules lasted the life of the contract, prescribed a narrow and well-defined path through grievance procedures as the sole remedy for problems, and only rarely allowed the use of labor’s most potent weapon—the strike. At the time, the only permissible reason for a strike was a dispute over production standards, that is, over the nature of the work, its speed, and the effort required for specific job assignments. Granakis’s UAW Local 1250 was caught in the middle of a five-year contract when automated production was introduced, so he and other local leaders engaged in numerous shop-floor disputes about how automation affected production standards. These disputes might seem petty in hindsight, but they were actually quite significant. Because of the contract, Local 1250 was limited to the narrow issue of production standards and to the related issues of wage rates, job classifications, work content, and work tasks in its negotiations with Ford officials. And to compound the local’s problems, Granakis initially had difficulty drawing the attention of top UAW leaders to the formidable shop-floor problems posed by automation.
Ford Embraces Automation at Brook Park
Automated manufacturing reached back to Milwaukee’s A. O. Smith automobile frame plant and the British Morris Motors engine plant in the 1920s and gained momentum in the manufacture of military materials during World War II. Meanwhile the emergence of the UAW’s assertive industrial unionism during the Great Depression challenged managerial prerogatives and forced reformulation of wage calculations in the immediate post-World War II years. Automobile workers now demanded a larger and larger voice in how the shop floor was managed and how the economic pie was divided. As the cost of unionized labor increased, so too did the potential savings automobile companies could realize through automation.
At the same time, Ford had a heritage of troubled labor relations from the brutal Harry Bennett era. Though the UAW acquired full recognition in the violent 1941 Ford strike, the River Rouge plant experienced several hundred strikes during World War II despite the UAW’s no-strike pledge, as well as turbulent shop-floor relations between supervisors and workers. River Rouge’s Local 600 also had leftist leadership and a militant membership. Although Henry Ford II managed to wrest control of labor relations from Bennett in 1946 and hoped to establish a softer human-relations program, Ford officials, in the words of Robert Asher, “constantly tested the power of its [River Rouge’s] production workers and the authority of the UAW.” This testing of union shop-floor power involved numerous workplace disputes over production standards. In the late 1940s Ford officials insisted on their unilateral right to set new production standards. In 1949 the sixty-two thousand River Rouge workers, who then constituted 58 percent of the Ford workforce, exploded with a twenty-five-day strike against management’s speed-up efforts. “In 1948 and 1949,” Asher observed, “Ford tried to force the UAW to accept a virtual ‘unconditional surrender’ of the rights of workers to bargain with management on production standards. It was a major offensive. The UAW counterattacked. Ford lost the battle.”
The River Rouge local’s militancy certainly influenced Ford’s decisions to decentralize operations away from Detroit and undertake an expensive automation program. The River Rouge workers were so aggressive and intractable that the prospect of an almost workerless factory teased and tantalized Ford officials. They had already embarked on an automation program prior to the speed-up strike, and it surely influenced their decision to move forward with an automated stamping plant in Buffalo and later the Brook Park engine plants and foundry. Constructed between 1951 and 1955, the Brook Park facility consisted of three separate buildings—engine plant no. 1, the foundry, and engine plant no. 2. Originally, Ford production engineers designed each plant to employ about three thousand workers, although the plants did not approach full capacity until around 1956. The new complex constituted an integrated production system for the eventual manufacture of Ford, and later Mercury, engines. The facilities, Ford officials reported, would “constitute a highly integrated production operation, with complete interdependence in both scheduling and production.”
Until the Cleveland plant was constructed, workers were essential to productive operations in the automotive machine shops. Even in the most modern plants, workers were required to move the castings from machine to machine. Since operators continued to handle the work, they also managed to control and pace production. “Despite metalworking’s progress in building and using the high-speed machine and the transfer machine,” wrote Rupert Le Grand, associate editor of American Machinist, “operators still generally handle loading, cycle starting, and unloading. The operator paces output.” In the Brook Park plant, Le Grand continued, Ford engineers overcame “the failure to realize the true potential of modern machine tools and metal-removal rates.” In other words, modern machine tools could cut metal faster than workers could load and unload the machines. Consequently, the use of automated methods offered “important gains . . . in respect to the number of pieces that can be produced hourly and in savings of direct labor.” Ford Vice President D. J. Davis claimed that automation achieved 80 percent efficiency, whereas without automation “you would be lucky to get 65 percent efficiency in that line.”
The mechanization of materials handling was the secret of Ford’s success in automation. The Ford automated production line used conveyors and “automation devices” for materials handling. “In the postwar boom,” Le Grand reported, “Ford had to conserve jobs where human skill is needed, and it had to get more pieces through existing machines in a shift.” One way was to substitute mechanical loaders for human production workers. These mechanical loaders, or automation devices, eliminated worker intervention as castings moved between machines on the huge transfer lines. Essentially, an operator loaded rough stock onto the transfer line’s first automation device and the piece moved from machine to automation device to machine until another operator removed the completely machined casting at the end of the line. “Perhaps for the first time . . . ,” Joseph Geschelin claimed, “the progressive transport of all parts and subassemblies has been automated, into and out of machine lines and onto monorail conveyors.”
The heart of the Ford automated production system was the cylinder-block machining line. According to Ford officials, this was “a veritable assembly line” that moved the work sequentially from operation to operation and which, “if stretched out in a single line, would extend for some 1200 to 1500 feet.” This battery of machines performed more than five hundred operations, one labor researcher reported, “without any human assistance.” Ford officials stated that one segment of the machine performing broaching operations was 100 to 120 feet long and processed forty to fifty pieces at one time: “All of these various operations are interlocked with electrical connections so that if there is any failure in any of these complex mechanisms, production will stop and will remain stopped until the defect is corrected.” In effect the cylinder-block machining line was a single massive machine composed of a thoroughly integrated complex of smaller metal-working and transfer machines.
The Cleveland engine plant greatly reduced production costs. For the most part, the savings came from the displacement of semiskilled machine operators and the increased speed of operations. Before the installation of the new machines, according to Bernard Karsh, it took four hundred workers forty minutes to machine an engine block; automated production required forty-eight workers and fewer than twenty minutes. Other accounts described similar reductions in the number of workers and the amount of time needed to machine a piece.
Among themselves, automobile manufacturers were quite frank about the use of new technologies to displace workers. “Automation,” one Big Three manager told E. J. Tangerman, the executive editor of American Machinist, “is any operation that removes a man from production.” Upon reflection, however, this executive added, “Don’t pin my name on that. We have a labor problem to think of.”
The UAW Responds
After Ford hired the first workers into the Brook Park facility, the UAW began to organize there. The union quickly won representation elections and formed the new UAW Local 1250. From the start Ford workers began to raise grievances connected to the new automated production systems. Even during the UAW’s organization drive, a union leader wrote to Ford’s personnel manager about worker grievances in the Cleveland engine plant and suggested that solving these conflicts would result in “better relations.” The “predominant grievances” included unequal distribution of overtime, the “speed-up” from “antagonistic” foremen who were “pushing production beyond normal,” failing to grant raises “at proper periods,” not following the promotion provisions of the Ford agreement, and “working out of classification.” At Brook Park these issues—production standards, speed-up, wage rates, and job classifications—would plague workers’ shop-floor relations with foremen, supervisors, and managers for several years.
Almost a year later, automated production first raised union concerns about the boundaries of the skilled trades and created a number of novel production-standards issues. Robert J. Schmitz, the UAW Local 1250 skilled trades representative, requested copies of the UAW’s apprenticeship standards, especially the standards for hydraulic apprentices. Later he asked for copies of the skilled trades agreement, which were “urgently needed to settle some questions that are being asked here in our Plant.” Around the same time the new UAW local’s president, Alfred Granakis, pleaded for assistance from Ken Bannon, the director of the UAW Ford department, on a production-standards dispute in the Brook Park plant. Given the unique nature of the dispute, Bannon suggested that Granakis try to get the Ford work sheet for the disputed job. “This is necessary,” he wrote, “in view of the fact that to the best of my knowledge it is practically impossible to establish a production standard on a job such as this.” Bannon here alluded to the unprecedented blend of skills (such as machinist, electrician, and pipefitter) required by the new automation job classification.
It was at this time that Granakis wrote the letter to Walter Reuther expressing his fears about the “economic ‘Frankenstein’” of automation. The UAW president quickly replied that he recognized “the seriousness of the problem” and that the UAW’s executive board had created a three-man special committee, including Vice President Richard Gosser, who specialized in skilled trades issues, and two regional directors, “to check into this whole matter.” He added, “I understand they are planning an early visit to your plant to study this problem, since automation is practiced to a higher degree at your plant than any other plant.” Granakis responded and expressed his appreciation but urgently added, “We are in negotiation at the present time and to put it frankly I am looking for guidance and am a little alarmed because of the Ford Motor Company’s projected picture of Automation.” Despite this offer of assistance, Reuther and other top UAW leaders moved slowly to address the complex problems of automated production.
Granakis appears to have continued his negotiations with Ford officials. In early March 1953 UAW Local 1250 conducted a vote “because of the impasse with the Ford Motor Company, Cleveland Plants on Production Standards and rates on new jobs.” Given the stubborn workplace problems, it is not surprising that the local’s members overwhelmingly endorsed a strike at Brook Park—1,072 voted in favor and 121 against. (At the time the automated plant probably employed only fifteen hundred to two thousand workers.) Such a vote demonstrated to management how serious the contract issues were to union members.
Near the end of March the UAW convention interrupted Local 1250’s negotiations with Ford. A resolution on the convention’s agenda, “The Second Industrial Revolution,” addressed automation—predicting that “technological changes now under way in the industries within the jurisdiction of the UAW-CIO may prove to be as revolutionary as the introduction of the assembly line.” The new production technology, the UAW resolution warned, if “improperly used, for narrow and selfish purposes,” might “create a social and economic nightmare in which men walk idle and hungry—made obsolete as producers because the mechanical monsters around them cannot replace them as consumers.” It called for the UAW’s officers and executive board to “undertake a study of new technological developments . . . for the purpose of developing appropriate policies.”
Rising to speak in support of the automation resolution, Alfred Granakis, Local 1250’s convention delegate, stated, “I just want to say a couple of words on this because we have got 78 people in Cleveland doing the work of 770 people from the Rouge and we are out-producing them with 78 people. . . . I am representing more machines than I am men in Cleveland. The thing I would like to see is this changed just a little bit.” He then chided UAW President Reuther: “I wish the Executive Board would be instructed to formulate a policy and inform the local union affected by it.” Reuther responded, “We are completely aware and fully conscious of the problem which the resolution covers. . . . The Ford engine plant is the best example today where they have whole batteries of machines with a fellow on one end and another fellow half a block away with the whole thing mechanized.”
After the UAW convention Granakis again urgently wrote Reuther, “As you are well aware, the problem of production standards is one of a recurring nature and needs eternal vigilance, particularly with the reactionary Ford Motor Company.” In UAW Local 1250’s contract negotiations, automation continued to prove the most intractable issue. “As for the problem of Automation,” Granakis told the UAW President, “except for saying ‘no’ and insisting on more men on the job, I have taken no other position until I hear from you.” In order to capture the Ford negotiators’ attention, and possibly Reuther’s too, Local 1250 leaders sought and received formal approval for a strike authorization request from the Cleveland area UAW regional director.
Negotiating Job Classifications and Pay Rates at Brook Park
On 21 May, Granakis, now assisted by the UAW’s Shelton Tappes, resumed formal negotiations with Ford, discussing foundry job classifications and pay rates and automation disputes in the engine plant, including the job classifications of grinders and drill-press operators. Near the end of the meeting “a discussion was started on automation.” Granakis and DeWitt Patterson, a Ford manager, “got into a debate on the subject.” Negotiations continued two weeks later and focused on “the foundry nickel,” a five-cent raise for workers in the automated foundry, and shop-floor concerns about automation. Explaining “the company position on in-line machinery,” Patterson bluntly asserted, “We are trying to establish a higher [production] rate here.”
The following day, 5 June, the union negotiators met with Reuther and other UAW leaders in Detroit to discuss the Brook Park negotiations. Meeting notes indicate a two-fold problem: “Existing classifications are not applicable and skilled trades is [sic] involved.” The automated job “takes five skilled trades jobs and lumps them. We might get the 10 per hour but what do we call them.” As the meeting with Reuther concluded, the group’s final decision was “to sign an interim agreement without giving up our positions on classifications, wages, and number of people on each automation position or station. Above all, do not let local people strike.”
Underlying Reuther’s position was a rank-and-file rebellion of the huge Ford River Rouge local that had challenged Reuther’s famous Treaty of Detroit, a five-year contract with Ford and the other Big Three automobile firms. In the midst of this five-year contract the UAW leadership wanted to avoid a local strike at the Brook Park plant that might inspire dissident unionists at River Rouge, where decentralization and automation were important and contested rank-and file issues.
The next day, the local union returned to its negotiations with Ford officials. Both sides agreed to those foundry classifications that would receive the “dirty nickel,” an increase in the hourly rate recognizing the unpleasant nature of foundry work. More important, they also agreed to the creation of two new job classifications—automation equipment (or machine) operator and automation equipment (or machine) setter—and made pay rates for these classifications retroactive to 1 March. In so doing they recognized that new production technologies required a major reconfiguration of job categories at Brook Park.
The new UAW Local 1250 contract specified the general nature of the two new automation job classifications. Each job required some combination of skill and knowledge embedded in various skilled trades, including machinists, electricians, pipefitters, and so forth. According to the contract, the automation operators would “make normal tool adjustments and changes and . . . assist the Machine Setter on major changes.” The operator received about $1.75 per hour and the setter about $1.85. Though higher than other Brook Park wage rates, these were lower than the wage rates for some of the machining and assembling jobs in the River Rouge plant. The automation machine setter was a slightly more skilled and higher-paid classification because it involved adjusting and setting the automation machines’ cutting tools. During the next several years, union grievances would break out over the precise work content of each job classification and delineation of the boundaries between these two new job classifications or between one of the new job classifications and one of the other skilled trades.
Worker Absenteeism and Grievances
Despite the formal automation agreement, work content, production standards, job classifications, and wage rates reemerged as persistent and contentious issues in the Brook Park plant. Even with the creation of new and higher-paid classifications, worker discontent rose. One indication was a classic expression of worker unhappiness—increasing absenteeism through the summer of 1953. In the plant newspaper, the Cleveland Ford News, Ford officials decried the soaring rate of absenteeism in the automated plant:
The Brook Park plant was “near the bottom of the list in Company-wide absenteeism reports.” According to R. H. Dunaway, the industrial relations manager, this was especially the case with “voluntary absenteeism” (i.e., those workers who simply decided not to come to work).
Another indication of worker discontent was the large number of grievances filed over work standards, machine performance, job classifications, wage rates, and work content in the automated plant. On 9 December 1953 the UAW-Ford grievance review board discussed a dispute over the job classification on the Interlakes machines, an integrated battery of production machines that assembled rocker arms for Ford engines. Criticizing the start-up problems in adapting this group of machines to the huge transfer line, Granakis told Ford manager Ed Edson, “They have been having a lot of trouble on these machines.” When the machine malfunctioned, Edson claimed that the machine operator simply had “to unjam the machine and keep it running.” Concerned about appropriate compensation for work content, the union president argued that the automation machine operator did more than simply unjam the machine; he also had to reset it. Hence, Granakis asserted, the worker should be categorized as an automation machine setter and have a “set-own tools” classification with its ten-cent-higher hourly wage. In effect, the union president argued that the automation machine operator should be upgraded to automation machine setter. The next day, the grievance review board discussed two other cases of “machine-setter versus [machine] operator.” These involved the operators of the Micromatic hone and Excello bore machines. Again, the main contention was that the automation machine operator should receive a set-own-tools classification. “Through the normal work-week,” Granakis observed, “the operators are required to make minor adjustments.”
In January 1954 the review board deliberated on a number of grievances that involved improper job classifications, including the earlier ones on the Interlakes, Micromatic, and Excello machines. On the Interlakes matter, Granakis proclaimed to Edson: “This is a lollipaloozer [sic], Ed. The operator on the machine operates and sets up the job. . . . A new classification should be negotiated for the job.” On the Micromatic and the Excello machines, the union grieved Ford’s preferential assignment of overtime to machine setters rather than machine operators. “The foreman tells us,” Granakis observed, “that he can’t bring in an operator on Saturday because it requires a job setter.” Arguing that the machine operators often set up their own machines, Granakis insisted that the operators should also be allowed the opportunity for Saturday overtime. Another grievance dealt with machine setters who had to carry their tools back to the tool crib. Although Edson claimed that it was “something they have been doing for years and years,” Granakis asserted that this was normally done by tool chasers, especially when it involved making salvage and scrap reports. Still another grievance involved the work content, job classification, and wage rate of a blacksmith who prepared the automated machines’ cutting tools. Unlike a similarly classified worker in the Rouge plant, the Brook Park man engaged in “the heat-treating of the tools.” Granakis suggested a “blacksmith, heat-treat classification.” Edson responded that it would be “a bastard classification.” “Why,” the union president responded, “should he do work over and above what the blacksmith is supposed to do then[?]” In all of these grievances the union leader’s intent was to recognize the expanded work content of specific jobs and then increase their wage rates.
Two weeks later the review board returned to the problems with the Interlakes machines. Edson insisted that the assigned wage rate had “been applied in error unless it was intended that the operator set up his own machine.” Granakis replied, “We say that the man should not have to repair the machine. . . . Because of the nature of the job, it is almost impossible to continually assign the work normally assigned to the trades. This guy is making parts and repairing that machine as well as setting up and operating [it]. If only operating and set-up the 1.895 [wage rate] would be proper. Either it has to be an increase with the same job content as requested or the work he is doing must properly be assigned to the proper trades.” Although Edson said the machine was the same as one in the Rouge plant and should receive the same wage rate, Granakis responded, “That machine is one of those [Rube] Goldberg contrivances if you ask me. The guy has to continually fuss with that machine because of the breakdowns. It isn’t a question of set-up and operate. He has to repair the machine otherwise you’d have the machine repairman, hydraulic, jig and fixture guys around all the time.” Another union negotiator added, “That machine takes the place of twelve men. Twelve men.” Throughout this grievance review, union negotiators used a multitude of arguments—job classifications, wage rates, and even job displacement—to obtain a fair settlement for the automation worker.
At the same review-board session, union and management representatives continued to discuss the machine setter filling out salvage tool reports as well as a new grievance aimed at equalizing overtime. Angered over the repeated disputes on work assignments and classifications, Granakis exploded: “Frankly the whole God-damned [Local] Agreement has been prostituted so much in the Foundry and Engine Plant. I hate to think how much.” Additionally, the participants argued about a new grievance on the work content of the classification paint mixer and equipment man, whose job it was to mix paint and maintain the spray guns. Granakis claimed that the worker “looks after the equipment and repairs spray guns.” He added: “Nobody else is doing this much work in the Ford Motor Company.” Emphasizing the principle of more pay for more work, the union president asserted that “we feel that it[’]s no more than proper that the man be compensated for the additional work he is doing.”
So contentious were the workplace disputes over production standards and job classifications that union representatives and foremen squabbled continually on the shop floor. One such grievance revolved around the contentious distinction between automation machine operators and automation machine (or job) setters. In this instance Wilbur Gratton, a union shop committeeman, advised a job setter not to operate a machine. The foreman disciplined the shop committeeman with a Reprimand and Warning (R & W) and the loss of nine-tenths of an hour’s pay. “Gratton,” Edson stated, “gave the man instructions counter-manning [sic] the supervisor’s orders. He told the man he should not be running the machine.” The foreman, Granakis angrily argued, “is beyond reasoning. He has no sense of responsibility. He’s a liar. His idea of getting along with people is what he can f--- them for and it is difficult to establish any kind of a relationship with that guy.” Emphasizing that the disciplined union representative only advised the job setter and that “no work stoppage or improper action” resulted, the union president bellowed: “God dammit, you’re reprimanding our guy and we say it’s an unfair labor practice and you’re sayin[g] we can’t go up and talk to our constituents then. If I want to go in the department and talk to a man I will; Gratton had a right to. . . . I’ll go into that department and believe me the first f-----g operator that does job setting when he isn’t entitled to SOT [the set-own-tools wage rate], by God, you’ll hear about it and those f-----g job setters are going to set up those jobs.” After Granakis remarked more calmly that this grievance “leaves a bad taste in the mouth,” the Ford manager agreed to remove the charge from the worker’s record.
During the next several months worker grievances about production standards and job classifications continued to vex labor-management relations. In April the stubborn dispute over the Interlakes machines reappeared as the breakdowns persisted. Granakis complained, “There are continuous breakdowns on it. It would be impractical from an efficiency point of view to have a machine repairman and a hydraulic repairman stationed all the time at the machines to make minor adjustments.” The worker, he argued, both set up his own tools and repaired the fussy machine and was entitled to a higher wage rate. The Ford manager responded that the workman was properly classified and finally refused to alter the classification and raise the wage rate. The union appealed to the Ford umpire—who represented the next step in the grievance process.
At the same grievance review session the union and management representatives discussed another classification case, this time involving the addition of less skilled work to the traditional tasks of a skilled tradesman. Shop managers, union officials argued, assigned a skilled millwright to perform demeaning labor more appropriate for an unskilled laborer. In this instance, when “engine carriers” piled up and caused congestion in an area near the shipping dock, management assigned a millwright to move the carriers. This was appropriate, Edson tenuously maintained, because the millwright was “held responsible for the over-all functioning of the conveyor.” Granakis responded, “This, in no way, can be construed as any part of a millwright’s job. When you tell me the millwright has general charge of the area to keep it functioning, it doesn’t mean he is going to move boxes.” The union position was simple—skilled tradesmen were not supposed to perform unskilled labor or to work on production.
All that spring grievances on wage rates and job classifications continued. In May the union protested the difference between wage rates for production checkers and those for final inspectors. In June it requested the creation of “a utility application to machine setter.” This was the upgrading of a machine setter to utility man since he served as a more skilled relief man for other machine setters. In the face of Ford policies enlarging work routines, reducing manpower, and maintaining old wage rates, the union attempted to define work tasks clearly and to increase wages as much as possible.
In the summer of 1954, the UAW Local 1250 newspaper, the Enlightener, reported to union members on the numerous production standards and speed-up disputes. In June it linked rising unemployment with “the Ford Motor Co.’s campaign of creeping fear and speed-ups.” Joseph Utrata, the local’s health and safety person, noted:
In his president’s report to union members, Granakis agreed, “We are making a complete review of Production Standards both in the Engine Plant and the Foundry. Speed-up, of course, is a never-ending fight.” In July Joe Bors, another union official in the engine plant, reported on problems with the assembly line, especially the “constant irritation” of “improper manpower allotment” and “the line speeds . . . in relation [to] the manpower.” He added that these were being “closely watched by our Committeemen and our Time Study Man.” On production standards Utrata declared, “We are now entering into a period of survival of the fittest. The company is tightening up more and more on standards by introducing a methods change and re-timing various jobs.” In one instance, Utrata reported, “The Company has installed a new type of chesil [sic], timed the job, and come up with a standard of 257 per hour. The old standard was 188 per hour.”
In its July issue the Enlightener also interviewed Wilbur Gratton, then the UAW Local 1250 recording secretary. Asked about the “outstanding problems” in the automated plant, Gratton responded, “I should say speeding up lines and jobs as soon as the Committeeman leaves the area, eliminating men by combining jobs, promoting people without regards to seniority, and certain violations of Contract because of lack of knowledge by foremen.” Among the “knottier problems” he cited were “men working out of classification without due consideration to the pacing factor and a lack of consideration for [the] fatigue element as employed in conjunction with the effort to speed up.” As for future problems, Gratton alluded to the massive unemployment caused by the Great Depression and said that he feared “the ghostly Hooverism in industries, [the] failure to recognize the impact of automation as it accelerates widespread unemployment and depletes the purchasing power of the man in the street.”
An August grievance illustrated how much automated production put pressure on the machine operators and machine setters who needed to keep the production line operational. In this case the union challenged “a penalty of R & W and a loss of six hours for careless workmanship.” When the machine setter first set up the machine, a breakdown occurred at another position where he worked with his foreman on the problem for six hours. The machine operator ran the job after the machine setter left. In the rushed effort to correct the new malfunction, the machine setter did not have a chance to “check out [the size of] the bolt hole. As a result the job ran all day.” The result—"610 pieces were produced which had oversize bolt holes.” In his vigorous protest, Granakis declared, “This is automation. This is another one of those deals where we have reduced manpower to such an extent that it has become ridiculous.” The union leader then complained about how increasing work tasks stretched the workers to unreasonable limits. “Actually,” he stated, “we could get into a long hassle and blow the roof off this automation deal. You’ve got one guy responsible for twenty or thirty operations within a certain station and it is his responsibility to inspect, setting, loading, unloading, etc.?” After substantial give-and-take, Ford managers finally agreed to remove the R & W and pay the worker.
Since the new production technologies raised novel issues and established precedents for future UAW negotiations, the Local 1250 officers carried many of these automation grievances through the costly appeal process to the Ford umpire. Two appealed grievances—the one about the Interlakes machines and the other about the millwright doing unskilled work—highlighted shop-floor problems with automated production. The union noted in its appeal that the operation of the Interlakes machines “is a complicated process where the rocker arms are assembled. These machines are forever in need of repair.” Although the work usually fell under “the normal work of either machine repairman and/or hydraulic repairman,” union officials conceded that set-up men could “perform the necessary maintenance work that keeps these machines in operation.” The UAW simply wanted the machine operator to receive the set-up man’s wage rate.
In the appeal concerning the millwright who maintained the conveyors near the shipping dock, automation problems also figured prominently. Since the automated plant required flexibility in job classifications, the millwright had “been for some time, with other like classified employees, assigned to what management calls preventative maintenance work.” This involved the maintenance of conveyors that moved finished motors to the shipping dock. Whenever the engine plant shifted from one engine type to another, e.g., from Ford to Mercury engines or vice versa, the union objected, “These changes in schedules result in jam-ups at the terminal point in the conveyor.” If a jam occurred, managers assigned the millwright to clear it, although the job was classified as motor coordinators production. In addition to depriving a production worker of his or her entitled work, the practice severely eroded the millwright’s craft. If Ford millwrights applied for a job elsewhere, the union reasoned, they might need to falsify their applications by “omitting on the employment application that they performed log-jammed work,” or else “these facts may throw doubt on their status as journeyman millwrights.” The added work was a “matter of deluding [sic] the skilled trades classification by introducing work that does not belong there.” This management practice, the union concluded, “is placing the millwrights in jeopardy in [the] matter of future employment and also results in watering down these skilled trades.”
In addition to high rates of absenteeism and numerous shop-floor grievances, authorized and unauthorized work stoppages were an important way for workers to express their dissatisfaction and anger about the changes that automation created. As already noted, an overwhelming majority (almost 90 percent) of the engine-plant workers voted to authorize a strike in the midst of collective bargaining over automation problems. In 1953 the Ford Cleveland engine plant and foundry had four unauthorized work stoppages; in 1954 there were two unauthorized walkouts. These wildcat strikes idled 1,970 men and resulted in 8,439 lost man-hours. These walkouts comprised the tip of the iceberg of worker discontent over automation.
In late January, 1955 Granakis and other Local 1250 officials reached the limits of their patience. “After numerous meetings in an attempt to bring your attention to a calculated program of speed-up by Management,” Granakis testily pronounced in a letter to R. H. Dunaway, the industrial relations manager, “I am writing this communication to you as a last resort.” Granakis and the Local 1250 bargaining committee believed, “On job after job in the Foundry and Engine Plant, without any notification to the Union, supervisors have been speeding up the Lines and increasing production standards to a most unbearable rate.” Granakis warned: “I WOULD LIKE TO SERVE YOU NOTICE THAT I INTEND TO GO BACK TO THE MEMBERSHIP SO THAT WE CAN FIGHT MANAGEMENT EVERY INCH OF THE WAY ON UNFAIR STANDARDS.” Asserting his willingness “to meet anytime, day or night, so that we can resolve these problems” and recalling past efforts “to amicably resolve our problems,” Granakis added, “Management must change their attitude of going hog-wild production crazy, or else they must be prepared for the inevitable results of this kind of speed-up. This speed-up must stop.”
In late February, 1955 the “inevitable results” ensued. The mounting tensions exploded into two wildcat strikes in the Brook Park plant. Although the initial strike was small-scale, the second one quickly involved almost all workers in the two engine plants and the foundry. On Friday, 25 February the smaller first strike broke out when forty-eight shipping-dock workers congregated at the shipping-department office to protest the penalty of a disciplined worker. The incident lasted only half an hour. Nonetheless, Ford Labor Relations Supervisor R. U. Obringer noted, “As a result of this work stoppage, a total of 647 employees of the Cleveland Engine Plant #1 were idled for the period of the work stoppage. Also, due to this work stoppage, it was necessary to shut down the 6-Cylinder Assembly Line and send approximately 200 employees home 1.6 hours early.” Though limited in duration and extent, the wildcat strike was certainly the main topic of conversation over the weekend among aggrieved Ford workers in their homes, neighborhood taverns, and the local union hall.
On the following Monday at 2:30 p.m., thirty-three shipping-dock workers in Engine Plant #1, Obringer reported, "walked off their jobs and left the Plant.” They immediately established a picket line at the main gate, preventing workers for the next shift from entering the engine plant. Within fifteen minutes, word that the engine plant had walked out spread to the foundry. “Immediately,” Obringer noted, “the employees of the Cleveland Foundry stopped working and walked off their jobs.” They too established a picket line and prevented others from entering the plant. At the start of the next shift, “there were pickets at the entrance gates to all three plants; that is Engine Plant #1, The [sic] Cleveland Foundry, and Engine Plant #2. No employees were allowed to enter.” The entire plant was shut down until the third shift on the following day. “As a result of this work stoppage,” the supervisor continued, “7554 employees lost one or more shifts of work. Also, there was a complete loss of production in each of the plants.” For abetting and leading the wildcat strike, Ford officials gave six workers a thirty-day disciplinary layoff.
Shop-floor tensions and unresolved grievances were the root causes of the wildcat strikes. Though the initial strike involved a small group, its rapid spread to the entire workforce demonstrated the deep-seated anger and outrage felt by all Ford workers. Just before the Friday work stoppage, Labor Relations Supervisor Obringer reported that the union’s district committeeman “was quite upset and showed me a disciplinary action report involving an employee who had been sent home for the remainder of the shift.” During the short stoppage, a number of workers shouted, “We won’t return until Lalko is paid for the time he lost!” In his defense of one disciplined worker, Granakis claimed that the walkout was the “result of numerous attempts to resolve production standards disputes which at that moment and now still remain unresolved.” At the time of the second strike, a group of workers told one who had been disciplined “that they were sick and tired of Management promising to resolve their grievances and not doing so.” In his defense of another worker, Granakis observed that he was “not less nor any more guilty than the other 8,600 people who were protesting Management’s recent arbitrary attitude in grievances.” The week prior to the wildcat strike, he added, “had been a rather tense one since it had been necessary for [the union plant] Chairman and the union production standards man . . . to visit the department on a number of occasions in [an] attempt to resolve some grievances.” In the union president’s view, the six laid-off Ford workers, were “being made scape goats by the Ford Motor Company in an attempt to correct all ills in the plant.” Granakis conceded that the six “walked off their jobs but so did 10,000 others.”
There was no final resolution to these disputes at Brook Park. Labor-management troubles there would persist in the form of grievances and walkouts for several years after 1955. But the UAW’s national leadership had finally started to recognize automation as an important union concern. At about the same time, the United States Congress also began its investigation of the impact of automation on employment. At the local level the new automation technologies generated seemingly unimportant grievances over such trivial issues as the foundry nickel, the addition of a small amount of extra work, the upgrading of an automation machine operator to automation machine setter, the subsequent ten-cent raise, and the requirement that a tradesman perform some unskilled work. These seemingly small issues nonetheless raised important principles, notably the age-old one of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” and the character and traditions of social relations in the workplace. The production workers needed a higher level of shop-floor skills, skilled tradesmen saw their craft skills combined and reconfigured into a new work classification, and these new automation maintenance workers faced pressures to ensure continuous production. In automated plants significantly fewer workers with higher skill levels filled the automated production jobs, and the number of less skilled production workers declined through a process of “silent firing” with the loss of new entry-level machine and assembly positions.
The most important result from these changes, however, was that although the new automation workers possessed more refined skills, they lost the autonomy and independence of the older skilled trades and became more attached to the batteries of machines on the assembly lines. The UAW critic Hyman Lumer observed that “the task of keeping an eye on a multitude of instrument panel lights and watching for the faulty performance of tools and machines is one which can be stepped up to the point where it becomes as nerve-wracking and exhausting as the hardest physical work.” Citing a Yale University study, he added, “The new machines have eliminated drudgery, but the strain of watching and controlling them makes the workers ‘jumpy.’”
As local UAW leaders like Granakis attracted the attention of Reuther and other top leaders, the UAW gradually developed national strategies to address worker concerns about automation. The report of the UAW’s committee on automation put automation problems on the national UAW collective-bargaining agenda. The most immediate collective-bargaining problems, it suggested, included wage rates and classifications, demarcation of the skilled trades, and displacement of older workers. These were central issues for UAW Local 1250. The automation committee urged the creation of new job classifications to secure wage increases, the defense of the integrity of apprenticeable trades against the overlapping and diluting of trade skills, and the implementation of a system of firmwide, if not industrywide, seniority for the protection of displaced older workers.
Most important, the committee on automation suggested connecting automation to the new UAW program for the Guaranteed Annual Wage (GAW). Originally conceived as an income and employment security program, the GAW was eventually grafted by the UAW’s top leaders onto the union’s automation program. The committee on automation noted that “the imminence of sweeping technological change makes it essential that the guaranteed annual wage be obtained in the coming negotiations.” With the economic security of the GAW, the automation committee reasoned, the union would create “a well-rounded program to meet the problems raised by automation.” It would provide automobile workers with income security, would regulate technical innovation due to the expense of major layoffs, and would guarantee the location of new plants near existing plants to avoid the cost of layoffs.
In the end, Alfred Granakis’s vision of an “economic ‘Frankenstein’” never fully materialized. The new automated technology was too inflexible and too expensive to accommodate changes in product design. The GAW did not come into practice as originally conceived either. The automobile manufacturers fiercely resisted this costly proposal. Within the UAW, leftist union members and union locals consistently used the specter of automation to combat the dominant Reuther faction. They inaugurated the “30 for 40” (thirty hours’ work for forty hours’ pay) and the “60 and Out” (retirement at sixty) campaigns to address worker concerns about automation. In response Reuther eventually convinced automobile manufacturers to accept a modified supplemental unemployment benefit program, which, when pegged to unemployment compensation, offered workers 80 percent of their full-time salaries. In the early 1960s the automobile union and the companies successfully lobbied for the Manpower Development Training Act, which attempted to address the social and economic problems of displaced workers. In both programs, significant economic costs of automation shifted from the automobile manufacturers to the state and national governments.