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

by Stephen Meyer

Wildcat Strikes

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.”


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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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