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

by Stephen Meyer


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.


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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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