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

by Stephen Meyer

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.

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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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