Student & Teacher Resources

The Degradation of Work


I. Questions for Reading

1. Prior to the advent of the assembly line and mass production, American factories, including automobile factories, operated on a craft system of production. What were the characteristics of the craft system?

2. Were women to be found in the early automobile factories? Blacks? What does Meyer mean when he says “an ethnic division of labor” existed in these factories?

3. How did skilled workers control the pace of work in the craft system?

4. What was Scientific Management, or Taylorism, and what did it seek to do with the knowledge of skilled craftsmen?

5. Meyer claims that “the Fordist system of mass production . . . gradually reshaped and transformed the shop traditions and work cultures of craftsmen in American shops, plants, and factories.” What were the components of this Fordist system of mass production? How did mass production change the nature of work as well as the shop traditions and work cultures of factories?

6. What does the term “stretch out” refer to?

7. How did the introduction of mass production alter the percentages of skilled and unskilled workers in factories?

8. Meyer writes that “[s]ince 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.” Explain what he means by this. How was work discipline instilled, and how were workers controlled, at Ford’s Highland Park plant? Why was it especially significant that so much of the Ford workforce consisted of immigrants from non-industrialized areas of Europe? What did workers do to resist this discipline and control and to escape the monotony and drudgery of their jobs?

9. What was the Five Dollar Day? Why was it much more than just a wage increase? In what ways was it linked to workers’ lives outside the factory?

10. What was “Sloanism,” and how did its introduction in the 1920s modify the Fordist system of mass production?

11. What factors led to the hiring of more women and younger workers in auto plants in the 1920s and 30s? How did men, especially older men, respond to this?

12. What effects did the Great Depression of the 1930s have on autowork and autoworkers?

13. What factors led to the rise of unionism in the auto industry in the 1930s? What were sit-down strikes and why were they so effective in 1936-37? What was “The Battle of the Overpass” and what role did it play in the unionization of Ford’s workforce?

14. The World War II years saw significant changes in the auto industry production and the composition and unionization of its workforce. Explain.

15. What factors caused Ford to lead the way in the development of automated production in the 1950s? What was the impact of automation on work and workers?

16. Henry Ford constructed the massive River Rouge facility in the 1920s to centralize automobile production. As a result, Ford made almost everything required to build a car there, including steel and glass, and most of the Ford workforce was employed there. What was the unintended consequence of this concentration of workers at a single facility for Ford’s relations with union labor?

17. What were the “blue collar blues,” and what factors contributed to them in the 1970s?

18. What are the features of assembly-line work, and the attitudes towards that work, that Meyer documents as common to auto workers throughout the twentieth century?

19. What is “lean production”? Does Meyer believe that it marks a significant departure from Fordist mass production? Why or why not?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. Should employers have any say over their workers’ private lives? Were Henry Ford’s efforts to insure his workers learned English, lived in single-family homes, didn’t drink or gamble, and adopted American values appropriate or too intrusive?

2. When a company saves money by replacing workers with machines, it has many options for what to do with that money: keep the money as increased profits, pass the savings on to its customers, expand its operations, increase the wages or improve the benefits of the remaining workers, etc. What are the pros and cons of each? What might cause a company to choose one option over another?

3. When workers go on strike, are you inclined to be sympathetic or critical? How powerful are unions today when compared to Meyer’s account of them during the 1950s, 60s, or 70s?

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III. Making Connections

1. According to David Gartman, what effects did mass production have on the “look” of cars, which had previously been objects of beauty and luxury custom-built for the rich?

2. African Americans, as both Meyer and Thomas Sugrue note, saw increased employment in auto plants during World War II, and unlike women, African Americans held on to these jobs after the end of the war. According to Sugrue, however, what were the effects of automation on African Americans during the 1950s and 60s?

3. How does Meyer’s account of women in the auto industry over the course of its history compare to that of Margaret Walsh in “Gender on the Line”?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. The workers Meyer quotes often use vivid, colorful language to describe themselves: they are like dogs pulling a dog sled, for example, or scrap metal tossed away when they become too old to do the work as well as a younger man. Analyze this language, selecting several quotations that you find either representative or particularly striking. What does each reveal about the work, the workers, and management’s attitude towards the workers and vice versa?

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V. Questions for Research

1. Meyer notes that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the sit-down strike in 1938. How did that come about and why? Did that ruling in fact put an end to sit-down strikes? Is workers’ right to strike limited or banned in other ways?

2. Read one of the accounts of life on the assembly line in Meyer’s Bibliography. How does it compare to the accounts and experiences of autoworkers over the years whom Meyer describes and quotes? Alternatively, compare the depiction of factory work in a movie—such as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Ron Howard’s Gung Ho, or Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift—to the accounts and experiences of Meyer’s real-life workers.

3. The Mexican artist Diego Rivera created a group of murals called Detroit Industry for the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932-33. These murals include scenes of the Ford River Rouge Plant. Learn more about Rivera and Detroit Industry, and analyze his depictions of autoworkers, autowork, and machines, focusing in particular on the main panels in the north and south walls. Some questions to consider: Does Rivera depict the workers and their work as “degraded”? What characteristics of the work are portrayed? What are conditions like inside the factory? What seems to be the relationship between the workers and the machines? among the workers themselves? How are bosses, foremen, managers, owners portrayed?  

4. Interview someone who works or has worked in factory. How does the nature of that person’s work tasks and routines, relationships with other workers and with foremen, ways of coping with the work, etc. compare to the experiences of the autoworkers Meyer discusses?

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For other Resources on Labor see:

The Degradation of Work

An Economic 'Frankenstein'



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