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

by Stephen Meyer

Work under “Lean” Production

The two oil crises of the 1970s dramatically transformed and reshaped the American automobile industry, both in terms of the need for a more fuel-efficient product and the necessity for a different manufacturing system for that product. If the production paradigm of the 1910s to the 1970s might be labeled Fordism, some have argued that the post 1970s one might be considered “Post Fordist.” A major consequence of the energy crisis involved the creation and adaptation of the production systems associated with global competitors who made the fuel-efficient vehicles. The Fordist paradigm seemed to no longer work in the new competitive global economy.

Since the 1970s, the main feature of the “Post Fordist” age has been designated Lean Production, which might best be termed Neo Taylorism, for it still rested on both Taylorist and Fordist labor management premises. A lean automobile plant operates on the foundation of a perpetual cycle of the reduction of manufacturing resources followed by a collective resolution of the emerging production problems through worker participation in quality teams. Within the context of reduced resources, the work teams continuously redefine the job content and continuously add fragments of additional work to fully utilize every moment of a worker’s time on the shop floor. Two critics of lean production appropriately described it as “management by stress.” Under lean production, management follows the Taylorist precept of gathering the workers’ traditional shop knowledge, but the workers themselves through quality teams, rather than managers and engineers, are the source of that knowledge. Lean production systems also turn the work group into the supervisor and disciplinarian of the underperforming worker, a feature reminiscent of the notorious group piecework systems of the 1920s.

Moreover, despite the rhetoric of worker empowerment and skill enhancement, another critic argues that “lean production, rather than marking the end of Fordism, . . . extends it by modifying certain features and retaining the essential elements of the Fordist regime.” These included the minute division and subdivision of labor, the regimented work at the assembly line, high volume mass production, and managerial control of production. Despite almost a century of continuous changes in a dynamic industry, the fundamental premise was the degradation of work. For American auto workers, who perpetually labored on the line or at machines in regimented and monotonous tasks over which they exerted little control, Fordist principles reigned over their everyday factory lives.


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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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