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

by Stephen Meyer

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 old industrial bugaboo which slows production, cuts employees’ take-home pay and, in general, wreaks havoc with both employees and the Company has reared its head in the Engine and Foundry plant.

The bugaboo is absenteeism, which according to official reports has reached an alarming six to seven percent daily figure here.

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 Ex-Cell-O 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:

There are more and more problems in time study and Health and Safety confronting us every day.

The Company is trying to consolidate two or more jobs into one. This is a cute way for Management to formulate the old stand-by of Process of Elimination.

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.”


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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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