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

by Stephen Meyer

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.


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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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