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

by Stephen Meyer

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.

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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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