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

by Stephen Meyer

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.


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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


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