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

by Stephen Meyer

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.


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Labor in the Craft System

Labor under Mass Production: Ford and the Five Dollar Day

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

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

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

Labor and the Post-War Automation Movement

The “Blue Collar Blues” of the 1970s

Work under “Lean” Production

Annotated Bibliography

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