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

by Stephen Meyer

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.


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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

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