“An Economic ‘Frankenstein’”: UAW Workers’ Response to Automation at the Ford Brook Park Plant in the 1950s

by Stephen Meyer

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.

<<Previous Section       -       Next Section>>


Automation’s Effect on the Brook Park Workforce

Ford Embraces Automation at Brook Park

The UAW Responds

Negotiating Job Classifications and Pay Rates at Brook Park

Worker Absenteeism and Grievances

Wildcat Strikes


Complete Text
Printable View


Student & Teacher Resources

About the Project | Credits | Contact Us | Student & Teacher Resources | Site Map
©2004-2010 Automobile in American Life and Society