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Automobile in American Life and Society

The Degradation of Work Revisited: Workers and Technology in the American Auto Industry, 1900-2000

by Stephen Meyer


The industrial technology of the American automobile industry had its origins in the American System of Manufactures that evolved through the second half of the nineteenth century. In many ways, the new mass production technology that evolved in the Ford Highland Park plant from 1908 through 1913 represented a culmination of this unfolding technical system. As the sociologist Ely Chinoy noted, the Ford Assembly line “has been a dominating symbol of modern industrialism.” The new automotive production technology was indeed the dominant industrial technology for most of the twentieth century. As Peter Drucker proclaimed: “The automobile industry stands for modern industry all over the globe. It is to the twentieth century what the Lancashire cotton mills were to the nineteenth century: the industry of industries.”

As the twentieth century’s “industry of industries,” the American automobile industry dramatically transformed the nature, the character, and the shape of work for the modern world. When it first emerged at the dawn of the new century, the manufacture of automobiles rested on a craft system of production utilizing the discreet and complicated skills of craft workers from Detroit ’s foundries, machine shops, and carriage-making shops. As the Ford Motor Company struggled to meet the huge popular demand for what Henry Ford called his “motorcar for the great multitude,” the Model T, industrial managers and engineers rearranged and transformed how automobiles were manufactured and how auto workers labored. Instead of requiring the highly refined mental and manual skills of the craft worker, the new industrial processes called for simple tasks repeatedly done over and over again. The result was what some have labeled “the degradation of work.” To be sure, new methods, new materials, and new technologies at times reshaped and at times eliminated some of the more onerous and arduous work tasks. Yet, despite numerous and varied technological advances, work became generally more monotonous and more degrading for countless auto workers.

For American automobile workers, one relatively constant feature of their daily factory lives was this simplified, monotonous, and degraded work. Although work tasks, work situations, and work routines varied considerably from automobile firm to automobile firm and from one shop or department to another, the work tasks of assembly line workers were the simplest, most boring, and most degrading. As Chinoy observed in the 1960s, while a small proportion, no more than 18%, of auto workers were classified as assemblers, many other auto factory jobs, such as “paint sprayers, polishers, welders, upholsterers,” and others, “have been subject to the same kinds of job experiences as those engaged in assembly.” And, many, many others worked at machines whose rhythms and cycles shaped and determined their specific work tasks and work pace.

Labor in the Craft System

At the dawn of the auto-industrial age, such a work regime was not the typical one. The first automobile firms were small-scale producers who either assembled parts and components manufactured by others or, less often as the firms grew in size, manufactured and assembled their own parts and components. Most important, a craft system resting on the varied and multifaceted skills of tradesmen prevailed in the foundries, machine shops, and carriage- and wagon-making shops that evolved into the American automobile industry. To be sure, the workers of this craft system were not all highly skilled. Some were semiskilled specialists who knew only a part of the skilled worker’s trade. Many others were largely unskilled laborers or helpers who fetched and carried for or assisted their more skilled workmates. The skilled workers—the iron molders, machinists, and body builders—in the early auto shops and plants possessed highly refined work skills that often required several years of training. In their apprenticeships, these workers acquired a wide range of discrete mental and manual skills of the all-round craftsman. Since the skilled craftsman rarely performed backbreaking labor, the unskilled workers did the difficult work and literally labored or sweated on the shop floor. They moved and trucked materials, parts, and components from work station to work station in the early workshops. If a skilled workman required a heavy piece of work at his workbench or machine, a laborer or helper would often do the moving and lifting.

The craft system also established a specific array of social characteristics of the early auto workforce. For the most part, the auto workforce was overwhelmingly male. Only as auto production increased did a few women appear in the auto shops, most commonly in the cut-and-sew departments that worked on fabric to produce convertible tops or seats. They also worked in the light assembly departments of the larger factories or in the small parts plants, such as AC Spark Plug or Delco. In addition, the workforce was overwhelmingly white, since few African Americans entered the auto plants until the labor shortages of World War I. With the exception of the Ford factories, black workers toiled only in the dirtiest, most arduous, and most dangerous job categories. In the new auto shops and plants, an ethnic division of labor prevailed that relied on assumed stereotypical traits of different ethnic groups. The most skilled positions were reserved for native-born Americans and for Germans, British, and northern European immigrants, workers from the more industrialized nations of Europe. The laborers and unskilled workers were mostly the newer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe: the Poles, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Syrians, and others. From the 1890s, the new semiskilled category of worker appeared in American shops and factories. These semi-skilled workers, often Americans from rural areas or second generation immigrants, were a consequence of the subdivision of labor and the early breakdown of skilled trades and possessed only one or two of the skilled components of the all-round craftsmen’s trade.

In the early shops, the skilled craftsmen ruled the workplace, because they best knew how to do the work. As the radical labor leaders Big Bill Haywood and Frank Bohn proclaimed in 1911, the “manager’s brains” were “under the workman’s cap.” In other words, the skilled worker normally underwent a long apprenticeship that imparted the accumulated wisdom and years of practical experience about the arts and mysteries of the trade. Even Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “father” of Scientific Management, trained as a skilled worker in Philadelphia machine shops and thus fully understood the importance of craft knowledge in the manufacturing process. Workers, he believed, used their knowledge to control the pace of their work and to regulate the amount of their output. In his published work, Taylor railed against the “soldiering,” or withholding of work effort, and “systematic soldiering,” or output restriction, of skilled workers. Since he believed that the skilled workers, not the managers, best knew the work process, one of Scientific Management’s important principles involved “the gathering together of all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen.” Since craft work involved the broad range of both mental and manual skills, or work with both head and hand, Taylorism attempted to separate the mental skills, or the traditional knowledge, from the work process and to put these mental skills into the hands of industrial managers and engineers, leaving the mere manual skills with the workers.

The all-round machinist was the prototypical craftsman in the formative years of the emerging auto-industrial age. The skilled machinist often served a five- to seven-year apprenticeship during which he learned the varied and multifaceted mental and manual skills that constituted the arts and mysteries of the craft. He learned the reading of blueprints, the various uses of multiple-purpose machine tools (the drill press, the lathe, the planer, the milling machine, etc.), the bench work of filling and fitting of components for other machines, and the assembly of the varied components into the final product. The measuring and the marking of rough castings transformed ideas from two dimensional blueprints into three-dimensional parts, often meeting exact standards. Based upon years of experience, a skilled machinist often judged the feel, the smell, or the color of the metal being cut to assess the progress of work on the machine. In the assembly process of an automobile engine, for example, the skilled machinist effectively put together the many parts of a three dimensional jig-saw puzzle. Sometimes parts needed to be filed and fitted in order to complete the assembly process. The skilled machinist made many small decisions about how to produce and to assemble the final product and dexterously manipulated the tools, the parts, and the machines.

For the skilled machinists and other craftsmen, their knowledge represented their power in the production process and resulted in the powerful shop traditions of the autonomous craftsmen. Based upon traditional notions of a “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” this shop culture controlled and regulated production through various output quotas and restrictions on the amount of effort exerted or output manufactured. It called for a “manly” bearing towards the boss and fellow workers, embraced union work rules to protect the trade, and embodied an ethic of mutual support. All of these constituted the foundation of skilled craft unionism.

Auto body builders, for example, comprised an important group of skilled workers who created their independent and autonomous shop-floor culture. Joseph Brown, a labor journalist, maintained that the construction of automobile bodies was a highly skilled trade until the early 1920s. One group of skilled body workers, the panelers, worked on piece rates, receiving a set amount of pay for each job completed. As automobile production rapidly expanded through the 1910s, their skilled work was in high demand and merited high piece rates. In 1920, the Fisher Body panelers received $1.85 for each job, normally finishing eight sets of panels per day and earning around $14.50 per day. (At this time, the Ford wage for auto workers was $6.00 per day.) But, as seasonal production schedules increased, they might do nine or ten jobs and earn as much as $18.50 per day. Other body workers, Brown noted, received equally high wages.

These highly skilled body builders created an independent work culture that they alone controlled. As Brown related: “The piece workers worked slow or fast as they chose.” If they felt like stopping work for a shop-floor conversation, “they paid no attention to foremen or straw bosses. It was none of their business.” They decided when to take lunch and for how long to take it. “As long as the daily production was turned out,” he wrote, “what the body workers did was their own business.”

As with other skilled craftsmen, the body builders were a privileged labor elite whose shop-floor autonomy and independence rested on their sorely needed skills. “These workers,” Brown concluded, “had craft pride and could not be replaced easily . . . . These workers were very independent and knew that if they quit that they could get equally good jobs elsewhere.” In the early 1920s, when General Motors decided to compete with Ford in the inexpensive auto market, the firm needed to reduce drastically the labor costs of Fisher automobile bodies and in the subdivision of labor that appeared in the various body building trades. Increasingly, the piece rates were reduced and the labor became more and more sweated. Later, with the introduction of all-steel frames and bodies, new methods and new technologies seriously eroded the independence of these highly skilled craft workers.

Labor under Mass Production: Ford and the Five Dollar Day

As the late nineteenth century American system of manufacture evolved into the early twentieth century, the Fordist system of mass production—the standardization and interchangeability of parts, the increased use of machinery, the substitution of less skilled labor for skilled labor, and high volume production—gradually reshaped and transformed the shop traditions and work cultures of craftsmen in American shops, plants, and factories. Encapsulated in the popular image of the assembly line, the Ford system was the culmination of this transformation in the theories, practices, and methods of production. In the minds of Ford engineers, Fordism was actually “progressive production,” or the sequential arrangement of all phases of the production process in both machine work and assembly operations, and involved both organizational and technological changes in work routines and processes.

As it evolved in the new Ford Highland Park factory from 1910 to 1914, the essence of Fordism involved several important principles. First was the rigid standardization of a new product — the Model T Ford — which enabled the rigid standardization of work tasks. Effectively, the principles of Taylorism enabled the extensive division and subdivision of labor. The simplification of work tasks allowed Ford engineers to adapt and design special-purpose machines that would duplicate the simplified work operations. Finally, the concept of progressive or line production viewed the factory as an integrated system where each part and component followed its predetermined path through the Ford Highland Park factory. After the rearrangement of people and machines, the work-in-progress moved from foundry to machine shop to assembly department, seemingly flowing from tiny streams to small rivers and ultimately to the final assembly line.

The organizational and technological transformation at the Ford Highland Park factory drastically reconfigured the work routines and shop-floor lives of American automobile workers. First, it completely transformed the various work tasks and work routines of Ford workers and created the repetitive, monotonous, and alienating work of the modern industrial world. Second, it altered the traditional social relationships of the workplace as the role of skilled craftsmen declined and the role of the deskilled or unskilled specialized workers increased. Third, the mass production system instituted new forms of control over the new unskilled workforce that now labored at the single-purpose machines or on the new assembly lines.

In both machine and assembly operations, the work tasks and routines of automobile workers became more specialized, more repetitive, and more automatic. In contrast to the all-round machinists’ use of both head and hand, the new machine operators used machines whose design made almost all work basically similar. In the words of industrial engineers, the skilled dimension of the work task was designed into the machines. The worker simply inserted a piece into the machine, turned a switch, and the machine performed its operation and automatically stopped. Then the worker removed it and passed it on for the next machine operation. The cycle of the machine determined the work tasks and the pace of production. In the 1920s, one harried auto worker described how his machine paced his work. Despite the constant exhortations of supervisors to hurry up, he complained: “The machine that I am on goes at such a terrific speed that I can’t help stepping on it in order to keep up with it. The machine is my boss.” If the machine cycle was long enough, managers assigned the operator another machine for the idle moments at work. Workers labeled this doubling up on machines “stretch out.” Also, the new arrangement of machines to match the sequence of production allowed straw bosses, foremen, and supervisors to detect inefficient workers from the piles of unfinished work at their work stations.

A similar situation existed on the new assembly lines. Shortly after the development of line production and the announcement of the Five Dollar Day, John A. Fitch, a Progressive Era journalist, described how workers performed only small fragments of work in the motor assembly department:

One man fits the parts together, so that the bolt holes come right. The next man fits the bolt holes into place. The next has a pan of nuts before him and all day he scoops them up and with his fingers starts them on the thread of the bolts. The next man has a wrench and he gives the final twist that makes them tight.

Although Fitch marveled at the wonderful efficiency of the system, he concluded:

“It may be fine to see an automobile come through that door every twenty seconds—but you don’t see them if your job is to start the nuts on the threads. You haven’t time. There are always more bolts to be capped.”

The new Ford system of mass production significantly transformed the social relations of the workplace. At the end of the nineteenth century, the all-round craftsman dominated the workshop and represented about 40% of the workforce. The partially skilled machine operators and the unskilled laborers each constituted about 30% of the workforce. After the coming of mass production, the Ford Highland Park factory employed a majority of unskilled (definitely not semiskilled) specialists, both as machine operators and assemblers. By 1917, the unskilled specialists amounted to over 55% of the Ford workforce. The enormous popularity of the “motor car for the great multitude” exerted immense pressures for higher and higher production and contributed to this technological revolution.

So great was the early demand for labor that the technical solution became the massive substitution of expensive and sophisticated machines for skilled or semiskilled workers. This substitution also meant the replacement of American-born and northern and western European craftsmen with southern and eastern European laborers and unskilled workers for the new mass production jobs. By 1914, foreign-born workers, and especially southern and eastern European workers, represented the majority of the 14,000 workers in the Highland Park factory. The industrial journalist O. J. Abell wrote: “Three quarters of the [Ford] employees are of foreign birth, a large number of them non-English-speaking and of the grade ordinarily fitted for common labor.” The social composition of the Ford shops now contained many different national groups. Aside from American-born workers (29%), many were the sons of immigrants; the five largest were now Poles (21%), Russians (16%), Romanians (6%), Italians and Sicilians (5%) and Austro-Hungarians (5%). In fact, slightly over half of the Ford workforce came from the least industrialized nations of Europe and lacked the work skills and work discipline for a modern industrial society. Since the reorganization of work and the adoption of new technologies removed skill from ordinary work tasks and routines, the installation of work discipline and the control of workers became a priority of the modern system of mass production.

Ford managers and engineers achieved the new forms of control through the stricter supervision of workers, the design of new machine tools, and the major innovation of line production. Under traditional craft production, the skilled craftsman often supervised himself and the helpers and laborers who worked with him. The years of apprenticeship and the pride in craft reinforced the self-discipline and self-supervision as to the amount of output and the quality of the product. To be sure, craft notions of equity in the amount of effort and the amount of pay might inhibit management expectations for excessive overwork. In contrast, at the Highland Park factory, a large contingent of foremen, straw bosses, inspectors, and clerks directly supervised and monitored Ford workers and their output. Foremen and straw bosses encouraged the men continuously to hurry up and work faster. The inspectors and clerks also assured that the quality and amount of work met supervisory expectations.

Since industrial managers and engineers arranged both machines and assembly sequentially to follow the necessary operations, they could readily monitor, supervise, and control the men on the shop floor. At the machines, the operators passed the finished work from their work station to the next. The worker with too many unfinished pieces at his work station attracted the foreman’s or the straw boss’s attention and received calls and exhortations to hurry up and work faster. On the assembly lines, the situation was similar. And, where the assembly line moved, the pressure to maintain a specific pace of work was even greater. In this instance, the line speed (like the cycle of the machine) controlled the pace of the assembler’s work.

Many industrial engineers and journalists noted the advantages of these forms of organizational and technical control over the workforce. Since a machine had a predetermined cycle, their ratings or standard output set the volume of production for the machine operator. O. J. Abel reported that it was “preferable” to accept a machine’s rating and to “bring the human element in step with the rated machine capacity.” In other words, through the use of machine ratings, the machine rather than the worker controlled the rate of production.

Similarly, conveyors and other devices to move work and materials through the plant provided Ford engineers and managers with the greatest amount of control over their workers. “The chain drive,” Horace Lucian Arnold and Fay Leone Faurote, two industrial writers, observed, “proved to be a vast improvement [over the hand movement of work], hurrying the slow men, holding the fast men back from pushing work to those in advance, and acting as an all-around adjuster and equalizer.” Another industrial writer, Harold W. Slauson, related: “the output is regulated by the speed at which the traveling chains are operated. Speed up the electric motors a notch and—presto! Ford production has increased another hundred cars per day without hiring a single workman.” The new industrial technology certainly became a principal means for the control of the workforce in the new automobile plants.

Ultimately, the most significant means to control the Ford workforce was the famous Ford Five Dollar Day, especially when connected to the welfare programs of the Ford Sociological Department and Ford English School. A unique experiment in industrial paternalism, this was a comprehensive effort at the social and cultural control of the workforce, especially the large numbers of immigrant workers. The Five Dollar Day attempted to address important labor problems which appeared in the Ford Highland Park factory with the creation of mass production system. Despite extensive technological innovations in the production process, the new factory had much lower than expected levels of output in all shops and departments. Many factors contributed to this shortfall in production: mainly a largely preindustrial and unskilled immigrant workforce and a deep-seated worker discontent expressed in high rates of absenteeism and labor turnover and in shop traditions to regulate the pace of work through soldiering and output restriction. In 1913, the rates of absenteeism and labor turnover, or quit rate, were staggering. Daily absenteeism averaged 10 percent per day, which meant that around 1,300-1,400 extra workers needed to be hired to keep the integrated production system in operation. With a yearly labor turnover rate of 370 percent, Ford managers had to hire 52,000 workers to maintain Highland Park ’s existing workforce. Another indication of worker discontent was the flurry of union activities when both the radical Industrial Workers of the World and the more conservative American Federation of Labor threatened to capitalize on this deep auto worker disaffection to organize auto workers in 1913.

As a consequence of this profound discontent, Ford officials announced the famous Five Dollar Day in January 1914, which more than doubled the ordinary worker’s daily income. This was not a simple wage increase, however, but a sophisticated profit-sharing scheme to transform the social and cultural lives of immigrant workers and to inculcate the life-style, personal habits, and social discipline for modern factory life. The Five Dollar Day was divided into two parts: a worker’s wages (approximately $2.40 per day for an unskilled worker) and a worker’s profits (about $2.60 per day). All workers received their wages for work performed in the Highland Park factory. They received their profits, however, only if they were “worthy,” or had the appropriate habits and life-style and lived in proper homes. The counseling of sociological investigators, the publication of pamphlets, the lessons of the Ford English School —all advised and taught immigrant auto workers what Ford officials thought the proper American values, living conditions, and work habits were. Though short-lived, the Ford profit-sharing plan was a unique experiment in the social engineering of immigrant auto workers to inculcate the personal habits and work discipline suitable for assembly line production. In effect, the standardization of production required the standardization of labor. In the 1930s, one Ford union activist told federal investigators: “You see, the principle of the Ford plant is like making machines, he attempts to standardize the machines, and so he does with labor.” In the end, the Ford system of welfare capitalism worked and the Ford labor problems significantly declined. Auto workers took the high wages, adopted the new industrial work habits, and reluctantly accepted the degraded and monotonous line-production work.

Ultimately, the main objective of work reorganization, line production, and the social engineering of workers’ lives was to produce more and more Model T Fords to match the enormous and growing popular demand for them. Once Ford officials solved their labor problems, the powerful new production system proved hugely successful and profitable. As a measure of the success, consider the enormous amounts of money Ford invested for Model T production. Between 1910 and 1919, he invested millions of dollars in the new Highland Park factory, he more than doubled the wages of thousands of workers, he reduced the Model T’s price from around $800 to $350, and he became the world’s first billionaire.

More of the Same: The Rise of Sloanism and Flexible Mass Production

From World War I through the 1920s, Fordism became the global paradigm for efficient and profitable production. (In Germany, the new technological system was labeled Fordismus and in the Soviet Union, Fordizatsiia.) After World War I, Ford officials and managers embellished upon and refined the Highland Park methods and constructed the River Rouge plant, which concentrated and located all phases of automobile production into one huge industrial facility. The culmination of Fordist industrial principles, this massive plant ultimately employed as many as 80,000 workers. In the late 1920s, one Ford worker described its “new and more complicated conveyor system” as over two miles long. “This new mechanical monster with its tributaries of chains, belts and slides,” he added, “binds practically the whole plant together and automatically adjusts the speed of every worker. You must keep up with the belt or else the work piles up and the line gets clogged.”

Through the late 1910s and the 1920s, American auto and other manufacturers rapidly copied and adapted these Fordist methods and technologies in their industrial enterprises. By the 1920s, Ford no longer held an unequaled technological advantage over his automotive competitors as others speedily embraced and sometimes improved on Ford methods. Through the auto industrial age, despite some technological tinkering, the Fordist paradigm remained the bedrock foundation that shaped and formed the social contours of technology and work in the American automobile industry. For auto workers on the production and assembly lines, the brutal regime of monotonous and degraded work persisted.

In the 1920s, the technical innovations of Sloanism characterized the further evolution of modern automotive production technology. This Sloanist transformation began in the recently reorganized General Motors Corporation. While the Ford system of mass production relied on the manufacture of a single model, Sloan hoped to compete with and to overcome the Ford market advantage through the introduction of fashion or style accompanied with the annual model change and through the establishment of several lines of automobiles, as he noted for “every purse and purpose.” With stylish automobiles, Sloan hoped to attract women as new purchasers and to introduce an early notion of planned obsolescence where owners would want to possess the very latest model. With a full line of models, he wanted to cover the market for the entire social spectrum, from the many owners of the lowly Chevrolet to the select few owners of the high-priced Cadillac.

This new marketing strategy called forth a new production strategy. The introduction of diverse models and continuously restyled models represented a major departure from the fundamental premise of Fordist mass production of a single model. A wide variation in the appearance of automobiles necessitated a much more flexible system of mass production. In 1921, A. J. Baker, a Willys-Overland engineer, offered a critique of the Fordist specialized machines that guided General Motors in the development of more flexible high-volume production. Although specialized machines met the needs of volume production, he maintained, they “faced the ever-present danger that a change of design may render the machine of no value what so ever.” To solve this technical problem, he called for a new middle-range machine that used the unskilled labor of the Ford single-purpose machine and contained some of the flexibility of the general purpose ones. Such a semi-special machine would require a skilled set-up man to readjust and to reset its parts or components for changes in design. But the machine operator who worked in a sequentially-arranged machine shop did not see any significant change in the character of work tasks and routines. For assembly line workers, the annual model change meant several days or weeks of fussing and fumbling until they adjusted to the new routines and rhythms of their work. Despite its flexible nature, the Sloanist system of production still rested on the foundation of Fordist principles of mass production.

Men at Work? Masculinity and Mass Production in the 1920s and 1930s

In the 1920s, the new production technologies and work simplification undermined the traditional auto worker notions of manhood. Just as the Ford production techniques allowed more and more unskilled immigrant workers to enter American auto plants in the 1910s, the diffusion of these methods after the curtailment of immigration encouraged automobile manufacturers to hire more and more women into light machine work and assembly jobs. In addition, the new methods permitted more and more young workers to replace older veterans in the auto shops. The reason was simple—female workers cost much less than men, and young workers labored more vigorously at the new production lines.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, male auto workers consistently decried the increasing numbers of women in American automobile plants. One Studebaker worker complained about the appearance of more and more women in the light machine operations: “One is immediately struck by the sight of so many women at work. Men are being replaced by women on drill presses, lathes, and even internal grinders.” The social and cultural conventions of male workers defined work with metals and machines as male work. Articulating a common fear of replacement by less expensive women workers, one labor journalist labeled Detroit the new “she-town”:

Because women can do the semi-skilled work of running punch presses and drills in the auto factories, men are being laid off to join the mob of unemployed workers. Women are being given jobs because the prevailing wage for them is 20¢ to 30¢ an hour lower for the same work. Detroit is beginning to take on the aspects of a “she-town” in which the woman works out and the man looks after the kids.

In the 1930s, a Toledo Chevrolet worker also complained about how work simplification resulted in the hiring of more and more women to work at the milling machines, lathes, presses, and punch presses. In his mind, this machine work was men’s work: “no women should be allowed to work some of those machines; they are too dangerous, they cut their fingers off.” With an increasing ratio of women to men on the shop floor, he worried: “That leaves the men at home to wash the dishes and sweep the floor and make the beds while wives and mothers run lathes and milling machines and drill presses.”

At the same time, from the 1920s on, the brutal work regime favored the youthful worker. In the mid-1920s, a Yale student worker in the Ford River Rouge plant observed: “In most cases complete mastery of the movements does not take more than from five to ten minutes.” The only on-the-job training was the “one or two demonstrations by the foreman or the workman who has been working on that job.” Once shown how to perform these tasks, the novice worker “is considered a fully qualified ‘production man.’ All that he has to do now is to automatize these few operations so that speed may be rapidly increased.” Such a simplified work regime easily resulted in an abusive and intolerable work pace. In the early 1930s, one Scandinavian worker commented on the unbearable speed of the assembly lines: “We had line speeds and people couldn’t keep up and if you weren’t in A-1 shape and you were sick or anything it was just too bad. You didn’t keep the job; that’s all.” Another noted that in the early 1920s, a “comparatively small number of young workers” worked in auto plants. By the end of the decade, “simplified production” resulted in “more young workers.” The older men faced lay-offs, and “boys and young girls fill[ed their] places.”

The new technological system definitely favored the hiring of young workers in the auto factories. At Dodge, personnel managers “refuse[d] to hire men over 45.” At the many General Motors plants in Flint, “Workers [were] scrapped at 40.” In the late 1920s, one worker even claimed: “This inhuman speeding up accounts for the great numbers of workers who are thrown on the scrap heap before reaching the age of 35.” An auto industry researcher observed: “Personnel men say that the policy is to hire young—after 8 or ten years when they have given their best it is hoped that they will shift to something else.” For many of the veterans of the auto shops, the increased replacement of older workers by younger ones constituted another form of emasculation and loss of their manhood.

If such fears were common for male workers through the 1920s, the Great Depression drastically exacerbated them, especially within the context of unemployment. The incredibly efficient production techniques ultimately resulted in overproduction, saturated markets, and mass unemployment. For auto workers, their masculine identity was embedded in men’s work and their work cultures. The subsequent loss of work in the male world of metal and machines raised questions about their male social identity. Moreover, if the 1920s were the decade of experimentation with and diffusion of the new mass production technologies, the 1930s was one of economic and technical stagnation. Since workers were cheaper and more flexible than machines and since machinery was quite expensive, manufacturers increasingly relied on human labor rather than technical innovation to increase productivity. In the worst years of the Great Depression, work standards seriously deteriorated as the “speed-up” and the “stretch-out” characterized automobile work. And these brutal new work standards were best met by the more youthful and more energetic workers, forming another basic threat to male identity.

With the onset of the Great Depression, too many men competed for too few jobs and automobile manufacturers took advantage of the glut in the labor market. The speed-up became unbearable for many workers, especially the older ones. A South Bend worker at Bendix Products described the 21 to 28 year-old workers who labored at the automatic molding machines to produce castings for carburetors. “Now,” the worker told the Automobile Labor Board, “the men that are operating these machines are most all young fellows. They have to be, because I don’t know whether the old men could stand it, . . . and they all have reported that when they came in there to work that they had lost from 10 to 50 pounds.” When a lay-off came during economic hard times, the automobile personnel offices only rehired the younger, more physically fit workers. A common tale about Depression-era workers was that sales of shoe polish increased because older workers would dye their graying hair in order to be rehired.

The Rise of the Unions and the Effects of World War II

Many of these fears diminished with the arrival of unions in the automobile industry in the mid-1930s. Aroused and angered by impossible production-line speeds and work standards, serious safety and health concerns, fears of unemployment, and overly abusive foremen, the United Automobile Workers Union was at the center of the social and economic revolution associated with the rise of industrial unionism. In the mid 1930s, the American Federation of Labor, a federation of craft unions, grappled with the issue of industrial unionism and created a Committee on Industrial Organizations. Soon renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the United Automobile Workers’ Union rapidly became a predominant force in the new national labor movement. With their long accumulated grievances, auto workers readily swarmed into the emerging UAW, especially during and after the widespread sit-down strikes in the automobile and other industries.

For the new UAW, the 1936-37 sit-down strikes fueled the growth of the new industrial unionism. In the summer of 1936, the UAW decided to take on the largest of the “Big Three” automakers—the General Motors Corporation. In Flint, Michigan, the UAW began a secret but intense organizational campaign through the second half of 1936. In December 1936, auto workers used the innovative sit-down strike tactic to prevent the removal of tools and dies so critical for production and to block the importation of strike breakers. Auto workers also sat down in other GM plants around the country. Until outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1938, the sit-down strike captured the imagination of many auto and other industrial workers who suffered grievously from the social and economic misfortunes of the Great Depression. After a sometimes bitter struggle, the UAW proved victorious, winning formal recognition from General Motors in February 1937. Subsequently, a wave of similar sit-down strikes surged through the auto industry. The GM victory brought contracts from a number of smaller auto firms, such as Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker, and also from a number of large and small auto parts firms. Eventually, sit-down strikes in several plants resulted in UAW recognition at Chrysler.

In the summer of 1937, the aggressive and growing UAW attempted to organize the last major holdout—the Ford Motor Company. But Ford proved a tougher nut to crack. The bitter and violent resistance of Harry Bennett’s Service Department and internal UAW factionalism undermined the Ford organizational campaign. At the River Rouge complex, the savage beating administered to Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, and other UAW organizers at the “Battle of the Overpass” revealed how bitterly Ford resisted unionization. This stalled the Ford organizational campaign and ultimately sapped the new union’s capacity to continue with its forward march.

Nonetheless, a few years later, on the eve of World War II, the UAW finally succeeded in bringing the UAW to Ford. A new unionization effort began in the huge River Rouge plant in 1940. A complex social mix of auto workers—unionists and anti-unionists, militants and conservatives, different ethnic and racial groups—all complicated the difficult campaign. After the dismissal of several organizers and workers in the spring of 1941, a spontaneous walkout occurred in the foundry and eventually spread to the entire plant. After another bitter struggle, the UAW finally prevailed due to its successful organization within Detroit’s African-American community. Ford finally agreed to a National Labor Relations Board election. The UAW received over 70% of the vote, won recognition in all Ford plants, and obtained a favorable collective bargaining contract. Once in the UAW, workers negotiated contracts that set limits on many of the more abusive management practices. They established grievance procedures to process complaints and created shop steward systems to patrol the shop floor and settle disputes between workers and shop supervisors.

During the Second World War, the UAW along with the other industrial unions consolidated their membership base through dues check-off systems and maintenance of membership contract provisions. An important technological issue involved the wartime conversion to military production and the later postwar reconversion to civilian production. Moreover, the social composition of the auto workforce dramatically changed as more and more women and African Americans moved into machine and assembly operations to overcome wartime labor shortages and to meet the pressing needs of increased wartime production. In the earlier period, machine work was clearly defined as men’s work and especially as white men’s work. Speaking about work at machines, a black Flint auto worker related: “They assumed that since it ran by a motor it was clean, it was a white man’s job.” To be sure, mechanization and work simplification began to allow some women to perform light machine work, but white worker and management traditions and policies allocated African Americans the hardest and dirtiest production jobs in the paint shops and the foundries. The wartime labor shortages prompted the upgrading of black workers to machine operators and assembly line workers. The U.S. government’s wartime labor policies, especially dues check-off and maintenance of membership, strengthened the UAW’s presence in American automobile firms and protected auto workers from the abuses of the pre-union era.

For auto workers, the major technological issue was the conversion to and the reconversion from defense production and the introduction of new workers to the advanced production methods. Always problematic for workers, the shift in production, in this instance from the civilian production of automobiles to military production of war materials and back again, created problems in unlearning and relearning day-to-day work tasks and routines. The severe labor shortages often resulted in the “hoarding” of labor, especially skilled labor, in the new defense plants. With “cost-plus” government contracts, manufacturers often hired extra and sometimes unneeded workers simply to hold them on their payrolls. The increased numbers of women spawned new and different problems for supervisors and managers in the densely masculine shop culture. They often confronted the intractable issues of sexuality, sexism, and sexual harassment at the workplace. The appearance of black men in positions perceived to be “white” ones raised shop floor tensions that sometimes resulted in vicious hate strikes against the recently upgraded African-American workers. Ironically, after World War II ended, gender solidarity prevailed over racial solidarity when managers and white workers accepted black men and purged white women from American auto plants.

Labor and the Post-War Automation Movement

During the Second World War, automobile manufacturers engaged in extensive experimentation with new industrial techniques, notably in the area of automated production, often government financed. This initial experimentation later led to the next major technical breakthrough in automobile production—the rise of automated production in the late 1940s and 1950s. Until the post-World War II years, American automobile manufacturers initiated few major technological innovations on the shop floor. To be sure, from the 1920s through the Great Depression, industrial engineers had tinkered and experimented with new methods, new technologies, and new machine designs that would foreshadow the next round of technical change—automation. In the late 1920s, the A. O. Smith Corporation constructed and operated a fully automated auto frame manufacturing plant. Through the 1930s, industrial engineers produced increasingly sophisticated automatic machines. In the war years, the U.S. government funded the experiments for the automated production of artillery shells at the Rockford Arsenal. Automation devices moved the heavy artillery shells from machine to machine, allowing the employment of women in the Rockford Arsenal.

In the postwar years, many manufacturers—Ford, General Motors, Dodge and a host of smaller firms—continued to experiment with automation. Nonetheless, the Ford Motor Company was once again in the forefront of the technical innovation of automotive production methods. The investment in automation occurred for varied reasons that ranged from the high cost of unionized labor, the unique Ford union problems arising from the brutal labor relations regime of Harry Bennett, the appearance of aggressive and militant industrial unionism in the huge River Rouge plant, and the fears of a severe labor shortage as a consequence of the Depression-era’s “baby bust” generation. All prompted Ford officials to consider the tantalizing prospect of a considerable reduction of the workforce through automated production.

The militant River Rouge UAW local loomed in the background of eventual Ford decisions to decentralize its operations away from Detroit and to engage in an expensive automation program. This testing of union shop-floor power mainly involved workplace disputes over production standards, shop floor disputes often caused by the introduction of new technologies, machines, or methods. In these production standards conflicts, workers and their supervisors often disagreed about the nature of work, the speed, and the effort required for specific job assignments. In the late 1940s, Ford officials finally insisted on their unilateral right to set production standards. In 1949, the 62,000 River Rouge workers, who then constituted 58% of the Ford workforce, exploded with the twenty-five day speed-up strike. At the time, Robert Asher observed, “Ford tried to force the UAW to accept a virtual ‘unconditional surrender’ of the rights of workers to bargain with management on production standards. It was a major offensive. The UAW counterattacked. Ford lost the battle.”

While Ford officials embarked on their initial exploration of the automation program prior to the speed-up strike, the bitter work standards dispute surely influenced their decision to move forward with the construction of the Buffalo automated stamping plant and later the Cleveland Brook Park engine plants and foundry. Constructed between 1951 and 1953, the Ford Brook Park facility consisted of three separate buildings—two engine plants and a foundry for the manufacture of Ford, and later Mercury, engines. The new Ford facilities, Ford officials reported, “will constitute a highly integrated production operation, with complete interdependence in both scheduling and production.”

Until the Cleveland plant, workers were essential to the actual productive operations in the automotive machine shops. Even in the most technically advanced plants, they were required to move the work from machine to machine. Since operators continued to handle the work, they also managed to control and to pace manufacturing operations. “Despite metalworking’s progress in building and using the high-speed machine and the transfer machine,” the associate editor of American Machinist wrote, “operators still generally handle loading, cycle starting, and unloading. The operator paces output.” In the Brook Park plant, he continued, Ford engineers overcame “the failure to realize the true potential of modern machine tools and metal-removal rates.” In other words, modern machine tools could cut metal faster than workers could load and unload the machines. Consequently, the use of automated methods offered “[i]mportant gains . . . in respect to the number of pieces that can be produced hourly and in savings of direct labor.”

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s as the new automated facilities appeared, an “automation hysteria” gripped the nation and generated fears of mass unemployment. Yet despite such widespread fears and anxieties, these were boom years for the American automobile industry, and production soared to record levels. Moreover, the new production technology fell far short of its promised gains for productivity. Much like the original Ford technical revolution, it proved a bit too rigid and inflexible when it came to design changes for new models. And, flesh and blood humans proved more adaptable than iron and steel machines. Ultimately, after the computer revolution, the most automated production jobs were the dirty and dangerous ones of spray painting and spot welding. In the end, the automobile industry required the unique flexibility of the human mind and human hand, and the legacy of Fordism and degraded work persisted through most of the auto industrial age.

The “Blue Collar Blues” of the 1970s

From the late 1940s through the 1970s, the American automotive automobile industry mainly rested on the technological premises and imperatives of Fordism, and significant changes in automobile factories reflected the larger social and economic trends of American society. Socially, it continued to reflect the diversification of the nation’s workforce, taking in new waves of migrants from the South and immigrants from other nations, more and more women, and more and more young workers. In industrial centers, such as Detroit, the movement to the suburbs resulted in the abandonment of city centers and sometimes industrial firms to mainly African American and newer immigrant workers. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the rise of the civil rights and black consciousness movements brought angry and militant explosions to urban automobile plants where white supervisors and skilled workers shared the shop floor with African Americans who held mainly unskilled jobs. At the same time, as the social attitudes of women and youth transformed the larger American culture, the presence of women in a male workplace raised concerns about gender discrimination and sexual harassment, while youthful protest provoked the shop floor rebellions against mind-numbing work on speeded-up assembly lines.

Economically, the decentralization of automobile plants to rural America, the oil crises of the 1970s, and the transnational relocation of plants beyond American borders reshaped the economic, social, and technical character of America’s “industry of industries” and ultimately contributed to the deindustrialization of urban America. After World War II, plant decentralization, or the construction of smaller facilities outside of traditional urban industrial centers, was the initial step in a process of urban deindustrialization and began the process of industrial relocation to suburban and rural communities. This process continued from the 1950s through the 1980s. The two oil crises in the early and late 1970s transformed consumer tastes in automobiles toward more fuel efficient foreign models and forced a technical retooling of the industrial machinery and labor processes. The automobile industry became truly globalized with American, European, and Asian firms producing cars for American and world markets. Ever seeking less expensive labor, American firms relocated many elements of automobile manufacturing beyond American borders. The vacant factories and homes of the deindustrialized rust belt became domestic symbols of the new globalized auto industrial age.

Many of these factors, and the worker discontent that accompanied them, were on display at General Motors’ infamous Lordstown, Ohio, plant. A modern automated plant, Lordstown was designed by automotive engineers in the late 1960s for the efficient production of a small and inexpensive car. General Motors wanted something to compete with the small foreign automobiles that began to eat their way into the American automobile market. The Lordstown plant soon manufactured that possible competitor, the Chevrolet Vega. Lordstown’s line speed greatly exceeded that of older plants, and eventually Lordstown came to symbolize the worker discontent and worker alienation of the auto-industrial age—the “Blue Collar Blues.” It also epitomized the heady and rebellious youthful working-class militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A Youngstown State University oral history project captured the recollections of some of the Lordstown auto workers. Jim Graham, a Greek-born union activist, expressed the familiar refrain that auto workers no longer needed brains for their work. When questioned about the early 1970s wildcat strikes, Graham replied that management “came in and said look, when you come in the plant leave your brain at the door, just bring your body in here, because we don’t need any other part. Leave your brain at the door, we’ll tell you what to do, how to do it, when to eat, when to drink coffee.” Tony D’Errico, an Italian-born assembly line worker, echoed Graham: “It felt like I was losing my mind.” He later added: “It might have been the repetition. It’s kind of hard to do your job and nothing else. It took me a long, long time. But I got used to it.” Another worker, one of the first hires into the Lordstown plant, recalled that a group of 150 potential workers were hired the same morning as he was, but “by lunchtime there was about fifty left. The rest of the hundred had quit, because it was a job that was more stressful than most jobs in the area.” Similarly, a young worker from West Virginia facetiously said:

There’s a lot of variety in the paint shop. . . . You clip on the color hose, bleed out the old color, and squirt. Clip, bleed, squirt, think; clip, bleed, squirt, yawn; clip, bleed, squirt, scratch your nose. Only now the Gee-Mads [the General Motors Assembly Division industrial engineers] have taken away the time to scratch your nose.

Speaking about his work, Robert Ozenghar noted that the only break from the repetition and stress occurred when the line stopped. And as he got acclimated to a particular set of tasks, he believed that “[o]ver a period of time, more work [was] added to the job.”

General Motors workers complained about a line speed of 40 or 45 cars an hour in the 1940s and 1950s, but it became an incredible 100 or 105 cars an hour at Lordstown. Richard Zampini, an engine assembler who was hired in 1970, stated that “I never had to work anything like that, the repetition. . . . And I think the car line was running 100 units an hour, our engine line was running 105 an hour. We only had however many seconds.” At Lordstown, the pace and the relentlessness of the assembly lines literally wrecked people who worked at them. Rose Marie Ronci, an Italian-American trim worker, remembered the physical bruises that her work caused. (One consequence of the 1960s women’s movement was the hiring of women into the main assembly plants.) “A lot of jobs,” Ronci remembered, “were very difficult. And a lot of the jobs you had to get into the car, and do your job sitting on raw metal. And I can remember coming home with black and blue marks on the back of my legs. And I would go out to my car and it would hurt so bad that I couldn’t even sit—that’s how bad it hurt.” A co-worker constructed a padded apron to wear backwards so that she would be more comfortable. She added: “the guys suffered with black and blue marks, too. But I kind of think that the guys were too proud to wear the aprons.” Another woman, Bessie Spangel, complained of repetitive motion injuries from her assembly line work: “No one comes out of GM without an injury. It’s the repetition. . . . There were two bolts and you put one then you put in another then you secure the other one. Those come pretty fast, so it’s time after time.” She concluded: “It just wears you down in your bones, so I always have a sore shoulder.”

Bonnie Rich, who entered the Lordstown plant in 1973, believed that the repetitious monotony of over 100 work tasks an hour was a major cause for drinking and drug problems among Lordstown auto workers. “The drug and alcohol problem out there,” she said, “I would attribute it to all the repetition of the job and the monotony of the job and trying to cope with that kind of work.” James Beeman readily agreed, recalling a group of ten guys, out of which “seven . . . had been divorced at least one or two times. Five or six of the ten were alcoholics, two or three of them were drug addicts.” He attributed these problems to the work itself: “it’s because the job is not satisfying. It’s repetitious.” He also added: “I knew a lot of guys they’d never make it home Friday nights from the bars. They’d spend their whole check on the way home, then on Monday morning they didn’t even have coffee money. It was a problem in that, but I don’t blame the people. I blame the type of job.”

Yet Lordstown workers were offering the same kinds of comments and reactions about their monotonous, dehumanized work tasks and routines as earlier generations of machine operators and assemblers in American automobile factories had.

Shortly after Ford introduced mass production and assembly lines at Highland Park in 1914, the president of an early automobile workers union noted:

The skilled mechanics may be in the factories, but they get little or no chance to use their skill. The work in each department is split up into so many operations and instead of carrying a piece of work from start to finish they do only a small part over and over.

He recalled one Ford worker who told him: “If I keep putting on Nut No. 86 for about 86 more days, I will be Nut No. 86 in the Pontiac bughouse.”

In the late 1920s, another automobile worker described the maddening pace of work in the Ford River Rouge facility. “The workers in their blind submission to the Ford machine,” he testified, “drive each other on in a mad inane orgy of production, and the belt drives them all.”

In 1930, a Yale student who worked for the summer at the Ford River Rouge plant, reported: “Within a week, my machine operation became a series of seven physical movements—absolutely automatic in character.” The student worker stated: “I felt that I was on a tread mill—producing—producing—producing—getting nowhere.” As he labored, he was simply an adjunct to his machine, which regulated the pace of his work tasks. He added: “Just a few, petty, automatic movements on my part—machines had done the rest; brainless machines working with super-human speed and precision.” When he considered his contribution to the work and compared it to the machine, “mine was worth nothing.”

In 1949, the sociologist Charles Walker conducted detailed interviews for his study of the man on the assembly line of two General Motors plants. When asked about how much thought he put into his work, Joseph Romalko, a dash board assembler, commented: “Brains, hah! It sure doesn’t take brains out there. They just put you in the line and drive you.” Another General Motors worker, William Bradley, observed: “This place is different from any I’ve worked in every respect. If you work here you gradually become an automaton.” One Framingham plant assembly line worker reported: “Anybody who would want to work on an assembly line is crazy in the head. It’s not just the monotony, but the rush, rush. . . . you get in the hole and have to work like hell to catch up.” A black line worker in the same plant also recalled: “you feel like they enjoy working you by push buttons. They push a button for you to begin, they ring a buzzer when they want you to stop and so on.” Another worker stated: “There’s nothing more discouraging that having a barrel beside you with 10,000 bolts in it and using them all up. Then you get another barrel with 10,000 bolts and you know that every one of those 10,000 bolts has to be picked up and put in exactly the same place as the last 10,000 bolts.” George Kane, who attached front fenders, said: “The worst thing is the pressure. It’s like a dog sled. As soon as the whistle blows, they yell, ‘Mush!’ and away you go producing cars. . . . You know when you’re behind and have to work to catch up. They don’t have to tell you.”

In 1955, auto workers at Ford protested the speed-up and the degraded work conditions in the automated Brook Park plant. Prior to the wildcat strike which involved almost all of the workers in its three facilities, the union president, Alfred Granakis, warned that he, union officials, and Brook Park workers had reached the limits of their patience with the new automated technologies. He wrote to Ford management: “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. . . . 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.”

Like their counterparts in earlier automobile plants, Lordstown workers accepted the familiar auto worker trade-off of good pay for rotten work. When asked about the reason for high auto worker pay, Jim Graham, the local UAW leader, noted that autoworkers performed "very strenuous jobs, not physically, [but] mentally." A welder at Lordstown recalled that his father had labored in auto plants for 35 years but "never talked about the job.” At Lordstown, the young welder discovered why his father was so silent: “What’s there to say? A car comes, I weld it. A car comes, I weld it. A car comes, I weld it. One hundred and one times an hour.”

All of these accounts, from the auto industry’s first years through the 1970s, reveal a remarkable consistency in auto worker ideas and attitudes about their work-lives in American automobile factories. Although the industrial paradigm speaks about “labor-saving machinery,” auto workers experienced being made to work harder and faster. They might raise the question, is their labor being saved, or is the cost of labor being saved for the manufacturer? Despite years in the refinement of work reorganization and the development of new production technologies, automobile workers deeply resented and despised their degraded work tasks and work routines. Though they enjoyed their high wages, especially after unionization in the 1930s, few took pleasure in their daily work activities and work regimen in American auto plant.

Work under “Lean” Production

The two oil crises of the 1970s dramatically transformed and reshaped the American automobile industry, both in terms of the need for a more fuel-efficient product and the necessity for a different manufacturing system for that product. If the production paradigm of the 1910s to the 1970s might be labeled Fordism, some have argued that the post 1970s one might be considered “Post Fordist.” A major consequence of the energy crisis involved the creation and adaptation of the production systems associated with global competitors who made the fuel-efficient vehicles. The Fordist paradigm seemed to no longer work in the new competitive global economy.

Since the 1970s, the main feature of the “Post Fordist” age has been designated Lean Production, which might best be termed Neo Taylorism, for it still rested on both Taylorist and Fordist labor management premises. A lean automobile plant operates on the foundation of a perpetual cycle of the reduction of manufacturing resources followed by a collective resolution of the emerging production problems through worker participation in quality teams. Within the context of reduced resources, the work teams continuously redefine the job content and continuously add fragments of additional work to fully utilize every moment of a worker’s time on the shop floor. Two critics of lean production appropriately described it as “management by stress.” Under lean production, management follows the Taylorist precept of gathering the workers’ traditional shop knowledge, but the workers themselves through quality teams, rather than managers and engineers, are the source of that knowledge. Lean production systems also turn the work group into the supervisor and disciplinarian of the underperforming worker, a feature reminiscent of the notorious group piecework systems of the 1920s.

Moreover, despite the rhetoric of worker empowerment and skill enhancement, another critic argues that “lean production, rather than marking the end of Fordism, . . . extends it by modifying certain features and retaining the essential elements of the Fordist regime.” These included the minute division and subdivision of labor, the regimented work at the assembly line, high volume mass production, and managerial control of production. Despite almost a century of continuous changes in a dynamic industry, the fundamental premise was the degradation of work. For American auto workers, who perpetually labored on the line or at machines in regimented and monotonous tasks over which they exerted little control, Fordist principles reigned over their everyday factory lives.

Annotated Bibliography

Since a vast and extensive literature on the American automobile industry exists, this bibliographic essay will provide a brief overview of the important books on the history of auto workers, their work, and their unions. The list includes important works on the origins of the industry and its workforce, the relations between auto workers and manufacturers, the racial and gender dynamics in the industry, some essential monographs and essay collections on auto workers, first-hand accounts of those who worked at the machines and on the lines, and studies on the auto industry's decline.

For the early years, David A. Hounshell's From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984) contains several important chapters on the origins of automobile mass production technology and its social and cultural significance. Two chapters – "The Ford Motor Company and the Rise of Mass Production" and "Cul-de-sac: The Limits of Fordism and the Coming of 'Flexible Mass Production’" – are probably the best and most comprehensive essays on the creation of automotive production technology. Hounshell ' s final essay "The Ethos of Mass Production and Its Critics" is a major essay on the "machine civilization" debate that mass production fomented in the post-Fordist American cultural landscape. In Auto Slavery: The Labor Process in the American Automobile Industry, 1897-1950, David Gartman offers a thorough exploration of the impact of mass production, machine tool, and assembly line technologies on how automobile workers performed their jobs.

Two other works enrich our understanding of the initial decades of the auto industry and its workers. Stephen Meyer's The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) details the evolution of mass production, its impact on skills and work, the transformed social composition of the workforce, and the establishment of the famous Ford Five Dollar Day and the Ford Sociological Department to provide an economic incentive for the adaptation of a new immigrant workforce to the new Fordist work regime. Joyce Shaw Peterson's American Automobile Workers, 1900-1930 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) offers a detailed history of automobile workers through its first three decades and focuses on the social composition of the workforce, technology and work conditions, living conditions, early auto worker unions, and the coming of the Great Depression.

Two edited collections bring together the essays of prominent scholars on the automobile industry and its workforce. In On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), in addition to their own work, Nelson Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer assemble the essays of Wayne Lewchuk, Thomas Klug, Steve Jefferys, Ruth Milkman, Stephen Amberg, and Steven Tolliday and Jonathan Zeitlin. The subjects include comparisons of American and British production technology, automobile employers’ labor strategies, technology and work, the unionization process at the Dodge Main plant in Detroit, the post-World War II purge of women from the automotive shop floor, automobile foremen, the collapse of Studebaker-Packard, and shop-floor bargaining and job control. Robert Asher and Ronald Edsforth, in Autowork (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), have also compiled a collection of their own and other essays that cover auto workers from the auto industry's origins through its reconfiguration as a result of the energy crisis in the 1970s. In addition to the co-editors, the other authors include Lindy Biggs, Kevin Boyle, Heather Anne Thompson, Craig A. Zabala, and Steve Babson. The various topics comprise factory design, the speed-up and worker grievances, patriotism and autoworker wartime protest, the Ford speed-up strike and the postwar social compact, automation, autoworker dissent in Detroit and Lordstown, Ohio, shopfloor sabotage, and the contemporary restructuring of work and the workplace.

Another edited collection, Haruhito Shiomi and Kazuo Wada's Fordism Transformed: The Development of Production Methods in the Automobile Industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), affords a global perspective on Fordist production techniques and contains two important essays on the American experience. David Hounshell's "Planning and Executing 'Automation' at Ford Motor Company" describes the coming of automated manufacture in the Ford Cleveland engine plant and Wayne A. Lewchuk's "Men and Mass Production" offers a gendered analysis of management strategies in the British and American factories. For a labor perspective on lean production, see the various essays in Steve Babson’s edited collection, Lean Work: Empowerment and Exploitation in the Global Auto Industry (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995).

For African-American auto workers, two important books are August Meier and Elliott Rudwick's Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), which explores the role of black workers in the formation of the UAW, and Heather Thompson's Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), which examines Detroit's African-American workforce in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

Three influential works explore different aspects of the lives of female auto workers. Although she writes about both women auto and electrical workers, Ruth Milkman's Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987) is a major work which details precisely why and how "women's work" became women's work. Both Nancy Gabin, in Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women Workers and the United Auto Workers, 1935-1975 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), and Pamela Sugiman, in Labour's Dilemma: The Gender Politics of Auto Workers in Canada, 1937-1979 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), explore the institutional barriers faced by women workers in the American and Canadian United Automobile Workers Union.

A number of works analyze various facets of the social, economic, and political history of automobile workers. In Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), Nelson Lichtenstein uses the influential UAW leader's life as the biographical window into the social history of American automobile workers. Sidney Fine's Sit-down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969) explores the Flint strike so central to the formation of the UAW and the transformation of American industrial relations. Henry Irving Bernstein’s Turbulent Years: The History of the American Worker, 1933-41 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971) also chronicles the years of the sit-down strikes. Steve Jefferys ' Management and the Managed: Fifty Years of Crisis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986) investigates the contentious relationship in the Chrysler Corporation from the 1930s to the 1980s. In The Communist Party and the Auto Workers' Unions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), Roger Keeran examines the role of the left in early automobile worker unions and later in the UAW. William Serrin, in The Company and the Union: The " Civilized Relationship" of the General Motors Corporation and the United Automobile Workers (New York: Knopf, 1973), recounts the difficult establishment of a congenial system of industrial relations in General Motors that set the collective bargaining pattern for the American automobile industry. And, Kevin Boyle investigates the UAW's role in American politics in The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

Several first-hand accounts of union activists and auto workers provide descriptions of their work at the machines and assembly lines and as auto worker unionists. Clayton W. Fountain, a former communist and later a Reuther supporter, offers his shop experiences and union perspectives in Union Guy (New York, Viking Press, 1949). A number of leftist UAW dissidents – Wyndham Mortimer, Organize! My Life as a Union Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), Frank Marquart, An Auto Worker's Journal: The UAW from Crusade to One-Party Union (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), and Charles Denby, Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal (Boston: South End Press, 1978) – depict their factory lives and union activities from the 1910s through the 1960s. Two more recent accounts reveal the first-hand assembly-line experiences in the 1980s and 1990s. Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line (New York: Warner Books, 1991) provides an irreverent and masculine account of shop-floor hijinks in the Flint General Motors plant in the 1980s. In Life on the Line: One Woman's Tale of Work, Sweat, and Survival, the journalist Solange De Santis offers a female position as she recalls her stint in an Ontario General Motors plant in the 1990s.

In recent years, a considerable literature has appeared on the critical challenges of the energy crisis, foreign competition, and deindustrialization to the American automobile industry. Emma Rothschild's Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto Industrial Age (New York, 1974) is an important early work written at the time of the first oil crisis. Ruth Milkman's Farewell to the Factory: Auto Workers in the Late Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) provides a sociological examination of General Motors workers in Linden, New Jersey, in the recent era of downsizing and deindustrialization.