Jan 21, 2014
Marking the 100th anniversary of Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line in 1913 and his institution of the $5 day in 1914, the Ford Motor Company praised Ford as the genius who opened the door to a wide consumer market and the so-called “middle class” standard of living. The media joined in, noting also that Ford, a few years later, began to bring significant numbers of black workers into his factories, at a time when no other auto company and few other industries did, paying them essentially the same wage as the rest of the workforce.
These three things taken together created Ford’s reputation, making him, in the words of one of his biographers, “an American hero”; for another, “the people’s tycoon.” Ford himself certainly devoted a lot of time to creating a populist image for himself, an image the Ford Motor Company tried to burnish when it quoted Ford from 1917: “I do not believe that we should make such an awful profit on our cars. A reasonable profit is right, but not too much. So it has been my policy to force the price of the car down as fast as production would permit, and give the benefits to the users and the laborers.”
Many of the tributes to Ford’s accomplishments acknowledged there was a “darker” side to the man. After all, it was widely known that, among other things, he resorted to violent gangsters, the dregs of capitalist society to keep his workforce at the Rouge in line. He helped maintain “lily-white” one of the most racist towns in the country, Dearborn Michigan. He pushed a vile anti-Jewish campaign through a newspaper he owned in Dearborn, a campaign that endeared him to the Nazis who awarded him the “Grand Cross of the German Eagle” in 1938.
Without going much into details, the tributes often explained away this “darker side” by calling Ford a “complex individual,” referring to a supposed growing senility in his later years, which brought him to depend on Harry Bennett, the head of Ford’s Service Department – as though Bennett were a kind of “evil puppeteer” yanking on Ford’s strings.
He obviously was a complex individual, a farm boy who became a mechanic who eventually created one of the major corporations of the modern world, a company that very rapidly became a global empire. Populist language notwithstanding, Ford amassed so much profit even in those first years that he was able to establish the company whose benefits still nourish the bank accounts of almost 100 Ford heirs, whose main claim to Ford Motor Company profits was the fact that they were born into one of the families of the new industrial oligarchy.
Certainly, Ford was always fascinated by the possibility of reducing the amount of human labor required to produce the necessities of life – and that truly could have been used to rapidly and systematically increase the standard of living, while cutting back the hours devoted to work. Instead he employed his “discovery” to create factories known as “man killers.”
So, from the viewpoint of the working class, we want to evaluate who this “American hero” was and what he did.
Ford was not the first to try to rationalize production. As early as the late 1880s, Frederick Taylor had begun making time and motion studies in a machine shop, seeking to eliminate unnecessary motion employed by skilled mechanics, defining a coherent, disciplined sequence of the work.
Nor was the assembly line an idea sprung out of Ford’s genius, as today’s Ford Motor Company would have it. It was the fruition of a whole series of industrial improvements going back to the 1880s at least. More sophisticated refining of metals and the production of alloys allowed for easier shaping of parts and for casting of much larger pieces. Mechanical presses were appearing that could produce cookie-cutter versions of parts, making parts essentially interchangeable, requiring much less skilled handiwork to assemble them. Ford’s assembly line rested on the development of the power-driven conveyor belt, already being used in meatpacking and industrial production of food. Finally, the discovery of cheap and enormously plentiful Texas oil and natural gas gave American industrialists an enormous advantage over their counterparts in Europe, where the motor car was first really developed.
Nonetheless, what Ford did in devising the assembly line marked an enormous step forward in the productivity of human labor and therefore – potentially – in the development of human society.
The first auto assembly line was developed in Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park Michigan factory. In earlier factories, dozens or even hundreds of very large pillars and dividing walls were required to support a building, cutting off different parts of a factory from each other – effectively making a continuous assembly line impossible. Ford’s two Highland Park buildings, designed by Albert Kahn to use reinforced concrete, were without dividing walls or pillars. The reinforced concrete, which was a relatively new development, also produced a building that could tolerate the vibrations coming from bigger and bigger presses – enabling much more of the work involved in the production of an automobile to be carried out inside a single factory building. Ford took advantage of that to cut out a number of companies that had produced different segments of the Model T, moving production of those segments into the Highland Park plant.
When Highland Park first opened in 1910, Ford set up production on what was then called a “process line.” In other companies, the whole engine, for example, was still crafted by one or two workers working individually to build up the engine at a bench. But on Highland Park’s process line, the engine was progressively built up by teams of less skilled workers. Resting on a movable “cradle,” the engine was transported manually to the next station as each section of the work was finished. To work on other parts of the car that had to remain stationery, teams of workers themselves moved, coming to the chassis, for example, carrying out a certain number of tasks and then moving on to the next stationery chassis, other teams following behind them. Eventually, the engine was transported by hand, bringing it to a position to drop into the chassis, to which were then added the other components that had been assembled by a similar process. This already was a big break from the near skilled craftsmanship used by most companies to produce a car.
But the real break came with experiments on the flywheel/magneto. In the first years of Model T production, each magneto was completely assembled at a bench by one skilled worker, taking roughly 15 minutes for each magneto. Trying to adapt that to the process line, Ford and several of his mechanics broke down the work into 29 component operations, each one performed by a different, less skilled worker. That cut almost three minutes off the time needed to produce each magneto. But the big reduction in time came when the workers, instead of pushing the magneto on to the next station, remained stationary in front of a motorized conveyor belt. It was somewhat primitive by contrast to later developments, but total labor time was soon cut to seven minutes, then down to five minutes.
“The man who places a part does not fasten it. The man who puts in a bolt does not put on the nut, the man who puts on the nut does not tighten it.” This may have been Henry Ford’s exaggeration for visiting engineers, but it reflected the fact that the work was being broken down into simple, basic tasks, eliminating the need for much of the skills required to assemble the magneto at the bench, for example.
It was the beginning. Soon conveyor belts were carrying engines, with their crankshafts and pistons built up piece by piece as they moved. Then other parts of the car were put on moving lines. Finally, the chassis was assembled with its engine then put on board.
Within the year, all the major component parts of the car were being assembled on lines each of which fed either directly or indirectly into the final assembly line, much like smaller rivers flow into bigger ones. Every section of the plant was connected in some way or another by moving lines that fed into other lines.
It was the first time anywhere that a whole industrial plant had been completely organized to, in Ford’s words, “take the work to the men, instead of the men to the work.” In six months, from mid-1913 to the beginning of 1914, output per man hour in Ford’s factory more than doubled – even before the assembly line was fully implemented.
“Every piece of work in the shop moves,” explained Ford. “It may move on hooks, on overhead chains. It may travel on a moving platform, or it may go by gravity, but the point is that there is no lifting or trucking. No workman has anything to do with moving or lifting anything.... A cardinal principle of mass production is that hard work, in the old physical sense of laborious burden-bearing is wasteful. Save ten steps a day for each of 12,000 employees, and you will have saved fifty miles of wasted motion and mis-spent energy.”
This is the enormous advantage implicit in the development of the assembly line: it could save much of the motion and energy expended up until then in human labor. It carried with it the possibility of lightening the workload, reducing the hours of work, raising wages and cheapening the products produced by labor. That could have allowed for a rapid improvement in the standard of living not only of auto workers but throughout the economy.
And in fact, the enormous increase in productivity associated with the assembly line did allow Ford rapidly to cut the price of the Model T, which went from $825 in 1908, when it was produced in what was essentially an enlarged machine shop at Piquette Avenue; down to $440 in 1914, when it was produced on the newly developed assembly line at Highland Park; then down to $345 in 1916 after further “rationalization” of the process.
But no matter how fast the price went down in these early years, the amount of profit went up so much faster. Only a relatively very small share of the “wasted motion and mis-spent energy” that was saved was put to the workers’ account.
Ford may have been opposed to wasting “mis-spent” energy, but he was ever ready to use the new techniques associated with the assembly line to extort more energy.
An article about Ford’s new assembly lines that appeared in a technical journal for metal working industries spoke of “the pressure of the rush” that pervaded the factory. Not only did the assembly line help rationalize the process of production, it also effectively determined the speed with which labor worked, the degree of its intensity, and the amount of energy expended, and the discipline to which it subjected the workers. Of course, the line did not have to run so fast. But capital, in the person of Henry Ford, determined the speed of the line.
It should come as no surprise that human beings enmeshed in the discipline of the assembly line would rebel. Charles Madison, one of the many workers who quit after only a week at “Mister Ford’s,” described his brief time at Highland Park this way: “a rancorous memory – a form of hell on earth that turned human beings into driven robots.” But speed was not the only problem. Hours were long, nine and a half hours a day with no breaks; wages low, $2.34 to $2.50 a day; and managers, who themselves were being driven to drive their workers, were often arbitrary.
Most of the workers, confronted by that new assembly line, walked out the door and didn’t come back. The turnover at Highland Park was enormous. By December of 1913, the year the assembly line was fully put into motion, Ford’s Highland Park employment office admitted it had been forced to hire 963 workers for every 100 still working at the end of the year! In December of 1913, only 649 people, out of the 14,000 working at Highland Park had more than three years seniority. And the problem for Ford was not just labor turnover. In 1912, The Employers’ Association of Detroit had already warned auto manufacturers that there is “more restlessness, more aggression among workmen in Detroit than there has been in years.” Starting in March of 1913, the IWW sent organizers to focus on Detroit plants, and specifically on Ford’s Highland Park plant. Later that year, IWW organizers were involved in a week-long strike at Studebaker, pulling out 6,000, mostly unskilled workers, the first time ever for such an auto strike.
Trying to get past the resistance to factory discipline exhibited by rural American workers, Ford had sought to hire not just the foreign born, but newly arrived immigrants. It was the first of his many experiments looking to install a workforce whose precarious situation made them easily managed. By the end of 1913, almost half of his workforce at Highland Park were very recent immigrants coming from 22 different countries. Most spoke little or no English. Ford may have pretended that the workers were just unthinking cogs in a machine, but the lack of a common language told another story. It created problems for directing production. And it also introduced into Ford factories some workers who came with experience in the socialist movements of Europe.
Between the language problems, labor discontent, rapid turnover and high absenteeism, the increases in actual production, while enormous, did not measure up to what Ford’s experiments had predicted. It was in that context and in the midst of a severe depression that had in part or wholly shut down most other manufacturers that Ford, in January 1914, announced the $5 day, more than doubling the wage then paid in his own plants or any other. He called it “the greatest revolution in the matter of rewards for its workers ever known to the industrial world.... We believe in making 20,000 men prosperous and contented rather than follow the plan of making a few slave drivers in our establishment millionaires.”
The New York Times roundly criticized Ford for “utopianism.” The Wall Street Journal was outraged: “Ford has in his social endeavor committed economic blunders, if not crimes that may return to plague him and the industry he represents as well as organized society.” Other automobile manufacturers, who weren’t paying even half of that, jointly declared that “Ford himself will surely find that he cannot afford to pay $5 a day.”
In fact, Ford based on the massive amount of profit his company had earned since the implementation of the assembly line could have afforded to pay twice or even quadruple that – without a problem. In the first three years of paying the $5 wage, Ford’s company made 30 million, 20 million, then 60 million dollars – after taxes – an unheard of amount at the time. (The whole Standard Oil trust, by contrast, was making not much more than that in 1911 when it was broken up.)
Ford told one reporter that the $5 day was “a piece of efficiency engineering, too. We expect to get better work, more efficient work, as one result.” In another interview, he declared that he expected in return, “an army of workers, contented, prosperous, and faithful.” He added that the projected pay raise would “increase the greatest assets a factory can have – that of the ability to produce better goods for less cost.”
In fact, the $5 day was not a simple doubling of pay. The basic pay remained at $2.34 a day, with $2.66 a day added as a bonus, immediately paid out on each pay day. BUT, the bonus had to be earned. And it was in the “earning” of the $5 day bonus that workers discovered what Ford meant when he said it was a piece of “efficiency engineering.”
To get that bonus, a worker had to qualify. The worker had to be male, women weren’t eligible. He had to have six months of service – in other words, Ford was looking for a big reduction in labor turnover. The worker had to be at least 22 years old, and in most cases, be married – another calculation aimed at tying his workers to him. Any couple living together was soon called upon to “regularize their situation.” They had to lead “a sober and productive life” – which meant no smoking and no drinking. They had to repair their own houses if they had one, and clean up their yards if they were renters. They should not take in boarders – because boarders “disorganized family life.” They had to maintain themselves in good health, be attentive to hygiene in and around the home, bathe themselves and their children with some frequency. They had to maintain a bank account, and Ford had already established a bank in Highland Park and one in Dearborn for that purpose. They had to buy life insurance – in the event of layoff or an accident or death at work, they weren’t to be a charge on anyone but themselves. And they had to be a member of a church and attend regularly – when they weren’t working!
The preconditions for the $2.66 a day bonus were imposed through regular and unannounced inspections of workers’ homes and their family members. If a Ford worker or his family was found wanting in the inspection, they were given an “opportunity for rehabilitation.” In unusual situations, they might be given two opportunities!
The inspectors came from the company’s “Sociology Department,” the paternalistic division headed by a minister that was set up to administer the $2.66 bonus. There were 50 of Ford’s moral police at the beginning of 1914 when the $5 day went into effect, 200 of them by the end of the year.
Foreign-born workers were required to attend language and “citizenship” classes after work hours, on their own time, to qualify. At the end of these classes, the successful ones were put through a demeaning “graduation ceremony.” Dressed in a “costume” from their old country, they walked onto the stage out of an object representing a ship. Entering an immense cauldron labeled “Ford English School Melting Pot,” they walked out its other side, having shed their old clothes, replacing them with “American-style” garb. The little American flag they were sporting apparently marked their acceptance into the bonus plan.
These requirements for the $2.66 a day bonus may have come right out of “the social gospel,” but they also reflected the views of early 20th century middle-class reformers – and the Puritanism of American society, the moral tradition of middle-class rural America that equated morality with money, and the good life with self-restraint, prudent household management and domesticity.
But they were not just a reflection of Ford’s moral views and rural upbringing. Their aim was to produce a work force completely disciplined, loyal to their employer, effectively tied to him by a tangle of silken cords, trapping them into accepting the speed of the line and the rotating shifts that accompanied the $5 day. It’s true the hours per shift were reduced to eight hours. But instead of the previous two fixed shifts, day and afternoon, the factory began to work three revolving shifts around the clock, squeezing every bit of production possible out of Highland Park, day after day from Monday through Saturday.
If it sounds much like today’s “alternative work schedules,” it’s not just Henry Ford’s ghost haunting the auto industry. Capital has only so many ways to push exploitation of the workers to the extreme. Ford’s real “genius,” from capital’s viewpoint, was his development of extreme exploitation on a massive scale.
In 1915, Highland Park was the world’s largest assembly plant, with production hitting almost 400,000 cars. Its 13,000 workers turned out almost 45% of all cars produced in the U.S. that year. The other 299 American auto companies, with 66,000 workers, turned out the remaining 55%. But with orders still running far ahead of production facilities, Ford was planning not only to expand production in Highland Park, but to develop a new site, creating a kind of “superplant,” the Rouge, a whole complex of plants where he could consolidate a much greater share of the production that goes into a car. Not only did he aim to bring in the iron ore from which he would produce steel, the wood needed for the framing and inside trim of the car, the coal needed in steel and electrical production, and the lead for his batteries. He also wanted to produce the parts, many of which Ford had been forced to buy from suppliers for Highland Park’s production – he wasn’t interested in sharing his profits with anyone. And he was already envisioning facilities to make use of the by-products of production: for example, coke ovens, which broke down coal ore into high-temperature-burning coke for the foundries, could divert the coke gas to the power plant for the production of electricity; their ammonium sulfate waste could be turned into fertilizer. By the time the Rouge would be fully functional in 1929, erected on 2000 acres of reclaimed swamp land, it would include 23 main buildings and 70 subsidiary buildings, and a deep channel that allowed mammoth Great Lakes freighters to bring in raw materials and ship out finished cars, and it would have its own railroad and its own fleet of freighters. What had been accomplished at Highland Park with the assembly line was put on a whole different level at the Rouge, with the synchronized flow of production from one interlocking plant to the next, from beginning to end. David Halberstam, in a book comparing the later Japanese auto industry to the American industry, called the Rouge, “the most awesomely integrated plant in industrial history.” A business historian, John DeVenter, gave the accounting verdict: “Here is the conversion of raw materials to cash in approximately 33 hours.”
But in 1915, when Ford began to work on his new complex, the Rouge site was little more than a few buildings and large tracts of swampy land that Ford had been buying up since 1912. To develop the complex he envisioned would require vast amounts of capital. In 1916, Ford moved to suppress the payout of profits from Highland Park, pouring them into the construction of the Rouge.
But there, he ran into a roadblock. His seven partners, who effectively had supplied the original capital for the Ford Motor Company, and who together owned 41.5% of the company, weren’t interested in “contributing” their profits to his project. When Ford, who owned the remaining shares, started pouring Highland Park’s profit into the Rouge, it created a vicious rift between Ford and his partners. The partners went to court, demanding that Ford be ordered to pay up, and that he be restrained from investing any of the company’s profits in the Rouge. That began a poisonous battle that would last three years, involving all the bluffs, feints, threats, backstabbing and extortion that the capitalists have always been ready to turn on each other when money and power is at stake.
In 1917, Ford was reinforced when the federal government, having entered World War I, contracted with Ford to produce “eagle boats” on the Rouge site. And Ford, who had carried out a campaign against U.S. entry into the war, was ready on Day One to turn his facilities over to war production. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the Rouge River and drained the swamp surrounding the site. That gave Ford the land he needed for his plants and a shipping channel that eventually would allow him to ship in and out of the Rouge from as far away as the Mississippi River basin and through most of the Great Lakes. The plant the government paid to build to produce boats was turned toward the production of tractors right after the end of the war. Based on tractor production, Ford began to put up steel mills and related plants.
When the court ruled against Ford in 1919, Ford announced he was leaving the company to devote all his time to a new company and a new car. It was a barely disguised maneuver to drive his partners to sell him their shares in the original company – which they rapidly did. They got almost 106 million dollars – estimated to be less than a quarter of what their share was worth. They had little reason to complain, however. In return for their original total investment of $41,000, they had already collected 39 million dollars out of past profits, plus the 106 million Ford paid to get rid of them. It was proportionately the largest return on capital investment in recorded business history.
But it paled in comparison to what Henry Ford had gained for himself and his heirs over those 16 years. First of all, he was able to buy out his partners in his own name and that of his son, Edsel Ford. The next year, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated in Delaware, with Henry holding 55% of the stock, Edsel holding 42%, and Henry’s wife Clara Ford holding 3%. It was the beginning of family control over the Ford Motor Company, a control which extends up to this date, under one form or another.
Beyond buying out his partners, Ford was able to pour over 60 million dollars into developing the Rouge. He also was able to buy iron and copper mines in northern Michigan and Minnesota, coal mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, a lead mine in Idaho, dolomite and limestone reserves in Michigan. He put his hands on vast tracts of lumber-producing land in northern Michigan, setting up saw mills and kilns. Ford put together a fleet of vessels for Great Lakes and ocean shipping to bring in his iron ore, coal and lumber, and to ship out finished cars. In 1920, when the Rouge began to produce steel, he bought the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad, using it to bring in coal from his Southern mines. And he had a million dollars spare change with which to construct his own estate, Fairlane. With one exception, he did not go to the banks to cover any of that.
Ford was so awash in profit that he looked overseas for investment opportunities. By 1919, when Henry bought out his partners, the company had built or was preparing to build assembly plants at Manchester England, Cork Ireland, and Copenhagen Denmark – as well as a facility in Bordeaux France for reassembling disassembled parts produced in England. He had earlier gone into a partnership with a Canadian firm in 1906 to produce Model T’s in Canada.
He had already been selling overseas. In 1903, the sixth car Ford produced was shipped to Canada to be sold by a distributor there; shortly thereafter, a similar arrangement was made with a distributor for Ireland and England. Because of Canada’s relationship to the British Empire, Ford cars produced in Canada could be marketed under lower tariffs in the rest of the British dominions. By 1913, Ford had opened overseas sales branches for the Model T in Paris, London, most other important western European cities, plus cities in Russia, China, Indonesia, Siam, Dutch East Indies, Japan, India, Malaya, South Africa, Burma, Ceylon, New Zealand, Australia, Philippines, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil – among other places. Ford Motor Company rapidly became the world’s predominant auto company. By the end of World War I, half the cars on earth were Model T’s.
Almost from the beginning, Ford Motor Company was not only incredibly profitable but also one of the major corporations of the imperialist world. Ford’s ability to so rapidly expand in these first years came from the wealth extorted from labor on the assembly line in essentially one Ford plant, Highland Park.
By 1919, the situation in his plants was changing. The war, with its increased production, had led to higher labor turnover and skyrocketing prices on the materials Ford needed for his Highland Park plant. A massive strike wave repeatedly shut down his suppliers after the end of the war. Echoes of the Russian Revolution were in the air in Detroit. Even in his own plants, IWW militants and union organizers were getting a hearing. Ford’s wages were no longer higher than others, as they had been with the $5 day. Ford’s ability in 1914 to pay double what his competitors paid, while undercutting them on price and still turning a much greater profit, had been based on the fact that Ford was the only automaker to have an assembly line. By 1919, others were catching up.
When Ford sought a loan from the large banks to speed up construction of the Rouge, he discovered that every banker wanted a part of his project as the price for extending the loan – a price he was unwilling to pay. It was in that situation that Ford bought the Dearborn Independent, a weekly newspaper, and set out to publish it himself, pretending to align himself with all those hard-working Americans beaten down by the banks. Calling it A Seeker after Neglected Truth, Ford turned it into a broadsheet in which he pretended to speak for “the common man.” Early issues in January 1919 castigated big business for neglecting the needs of their employees. Another issue excoriated the bankers:“Financial interests played a deep and sinister part in creating the conditions which finally exploded in a state of war. No one needs to be warned today about the danger to international peace which comes from the insistence of the owners of gold that will be out everywhere earning interest.”
But Ford’s denunciations of international bankers were tangled up with his denunciation of the Jews and of the Bolsheviks. Each issue featured “Mr. Ford’s Own Page,” a column more or less dictated by Ford. An early issue carried this racist spiel on “Mr. Ford’s Own Page”: “The problem is not with the [melting] pot, but with the base garbage” – that is, the Jews. “Some metals cannot be assimilated, refuse to mix with the molten mass of the citizenship, but remain ugly, indissoluble lumps. How did this base metal get in? ....What about those aliens who have given us so much trouble, these Bolsheviki messing up our industries and disturbing our civil life?”
The Dearborn Independent soon became a soapbox for a Russian emigre committee that was busy denouncing Lenin, Trotsky, Jews and the “tyrannic, unhuman, and illiterate role of international mobs.” Ford himself called the Jews “an insidious conspiracy group of war mongers and mongrels who foment all wars, labor unions and strikes.” By 1920, an English translation of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion had been produced. The Protocols, a violently anti-Jewish tract, was an obvious forgery created by the Czarist secret police in the late 1890s, in part as a weapon against the workers’ movement. The version that made its way into Ford’s hands was redone after the 1917 Russian revolution, updated to include denunciation of that event. It purported to be notes of a meeting of a Jewish hierarchy, plotting the takeover of the world and the destruction of Christendom. Turned down for publication by a number of other papers, it found its way into the Dearborn Independent, which published, over the course of three months, very large excerpts of the “Protocols.”
The Dearborn Independent also called for an extension of the Palmer raids of 1920 and the utilization of the 1918 Espionage and Alien Acts against union militants, communists, socialists and IWW militants – all of whom were, in Ford’s own peculiar world part of an “international Jewish banking conspiracy.”
At the time of the $5 day, Ford expounded to a journalist, “Men work for two reasons: one is for wages, one is for fear of losing their jobs.” By the time Ford had the Rouge going, the idea behind the $5 day – that is, a higher wage than paid by his competitors – was gone. At the Rouge, what was left was fear.
In 1919, Ford set up the Rouge Service Department, which eventually was to carry out some of the most vicious attacks ever seen in an American factory. Harry Bennett who styled himself as a tough guy, keeping lions and tigers around him to nourish the image, was put in charge of the Service Department. His public image was that of a sailor, but he was the son of a University of Michigan professor. Originally hired as an artist into Ford’s photo department, he went out of his way to establish a reputation for meanness. By the time production on the Model A was going well, he had put together a whole network of spies, reporting on the sentiments and activities of Ford workers – on the job, but also in the bars, the barbershops, on the streets. The Sociology Department of 1914, with its home inspections, looked positively benign, by comparison. The spies were reinforced by bands of toughs who circulated throughout the Rouge, menacing workers who might not work fast enough, sometimes throwing them out after administering a vicious beating. Many of those toughs were University of Michigan football players kept in school by Bennett, to be called out when needed. The regular combat groups – for that’s what they were – were composed of thugs from Detroit and downriver gangs, along with old football players, professional boxers and murderers pardoned from prison into Bennett’s charge. They were used to break up any hint of organizing or even just dissatisfaction among the workers. The New York Times in the 1930s called it “the largest private quasi-military organization in existence.”
By 1932, Bennett’s Security Department had become such an accepted part of Ford’s Dearborn that it faced no consequences when it opened fire on unarmed demonstrators killing five, injuring 60 more. That incident may have been more well known than what happened inside the plant because there were photographers, as well as a number of legal observers. But it gave only a hint of what was going on inside.
Bennett enlisted the help of the FBI in his search to root out dissidents. And he joined forces with a local fascist leader, Gerald L. K. Smith, who specialized in keeping track of local area leftists. Part of this whole cabal was Father Coughlin, the so-called “fascist radio priest” based in the Catholic National Shrine of the Little Flower in a suburb north of Detroit, someone Ford welcomed to his home.
Today’s Ford Motor Company pretends that what happened at the Rouge was essentially the work of Bennett. Bennett, tough guy though he tried to be, was Ford’s creation. The tougher Bennett got on the workforce, the more authority Ford gave him.
Interviewed at the Rouge, Ford told another journalist: “I have a thousand men, who if I say, ‘Be at the northeast corner of the building at four a.m., will be there at four a.m. That’s what we want, obedience.” What Ford used Bennett to establish at the Rouge was a regime that brutally imposed obedience in order to, in the words of one of the union organizers, “get out of a man everything he had, even if it meant driving him beyond human endurance.”
Ford had long sought to take advantage of capitalist society’s outcasts – the ones no one else would hire, workers who would appreciate his help. From 1914 to 1919, Ford targeted people with physical disabilities, many of them very severe. By 1919, almost 20% of the work force at Highland Park was disabled. During the same period, he went out of his way, working with parole officers, to bring ex-convicts and prostitutes who had been arrested into his plants, with the parole officer serving much the same role as the Sociology Department had served. Those on parole met the terms of their parole – so long as they met the terms that Ford set in the plant.
This same search for people whose disadvantage he could turn to his own advantage may well have been part of his motivation for establishing what he called the “village industries.” From 1919 to 1925, Ford set up very small factories – mostly just small workshops – along rivers in Michigan, Ohio and later New York State. Often they were installed in old mills along streams. All these “village industries” were driven by hydroelectric power. According to Ford, water as a source of energy could “free industry from the grip of the energy trusts.” During the period the “village industries” ran, Ford hired local farmers for production of small parts such as valves, lamps, generator cutouts, taps, tools used on the lines, gauges, even such things as screws. They worked during the winter months, the parts accumulating, then worked on their farms during the growing season. Those village industries, as such, were not profitable in the long run, but they gave Ford another way to cut out many of the small manufacturers he had been forced to buy from before. They also gave him another disadvantaged workforce, in this case, small farmers grateful for the income that allowed them to continue farming in a period when large scale agriculture was pushing them aside.
World War I, then the 1920 and 1924 immigration laws shut down the steady flow of newly arrived immigrants that Ford had once counted on. That created a problem for Ford as he moved production into the Rouge. It’s in that situation that he began to hire notable numbers of black workers, hoping to find in them a force grateful for the opportunity he gave them.
In 1917, there were only 200 black workers in all of Ford’s plants, all in menial or janitorial positions. By 1919, he had installed black workers in most positions, including salaried and supervisory positions, paying them essentially the same wages as white workers. By 1922, they made up 26% of the total workforce at the Rouge. By 1926, Ford workers and their families made up one quarter of the whole black community in and around Detroit. That had an enormous impact on the community, and especially on all those little businesses and professional men, whose own prosperity depended on the money spent by Ford workers. By 1940, one half of Detroit’s black workers were employed at Ford, most at the Rouge.
By all accounts, conditions were notably worse at the Rouge than they had been at Highland Park, as bad as they had been there. The Rouge was called the “house of murder” in the black community. The speed of the line was increased a little bit, week after every week. Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion who also worked at Ford, said he’d never had that hard a job: “If an employee is on the payroll at Fords, he works. The foreman, the straw boss, the machine see to that.” William Klann, a particularly hard foreman, wrote in his memoirs that Ford was “one of the worst shops for driving the men.” One of the early organizers at Ford said that the city of Detroit “was full of cripples who had stamped on their backs: ‘Made by Ford.’”
But in a time when few jobs were open to the black community, jobs at Ford seemed to, and in fact did, break down barriers in this severely racist society. Before Ford began to hire, no auto company put black workers into any but the most menial or dirtiest of jobs, and few did even that. As low as auto wages might have been, they were higher than most of the rest of industry, and certainly higher than almost anything else that a relatively unskilled laborer could find.
That often meant that black workers were ready to make the extra effort to meet the ever increasing speed demanded at the Rouge – in any case, Ford kept only those who would make that effort.
Ford consciously set black and white workers in competition with each other. A Ford foreman recounted to a journalist in 1929 that Ford “worked white men alongside the Negroes, for a certain competition would be set up inducing them both to make greater efforts and thus securing greater output from both.” Bill McKie, a Communist Party militant and one of the organizers of the great 1941 strike at Ford, described a white foreman yelling at a white worker, “Get a move on. Are you going to let this nigger get ahead of you?” As for the black worker, the foreman advised, “If you don’t keep up with this white guy, you’re going out on your neck!”
The black workers hired by Ford came through a special hiring process that Ford instituted with some of the black churches. He used ministers and a few other “responsible” black leaders to recommend only what he called “very high type fellows” – recalling the requirements he set for the $5 day. He made it clear he wanted a large and stable workforce of young, healthy, married black men. And he wanted them to be church-going men. He counted on the ministers to keep their parishioners in line.
Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, and a Ford worker for a short period before he was fired as an organizer, told of them being called “Ford mules” in the black community.
Ford’s miserable paternalism rose to new cynical heights with his hiring of black workers. He had the same high-flown rhetoric about what he was doing as he had had with the $5 day: “The Negro is a human being, an American citizen, and as a human being he is entitled to opportunities to develop and enjoy his natural human rights. ... When there are enough jobs to go around, when every man shall have opportunity to go forth in the morning to perform the work he is best fitted to do and when he shall receive a wage which means a secure family life, there will be no race problem.”
But practically in the same breath, Ford could say: “Race lines are fixed. Nature punishes transgression with destruction.... Racial differentiation makes the assimilation involved in social ‘equality’ as impossible for the African as for the Asiatic elements of the population.” What Ford envisioned was “the colored man at one end of the log and the white man at the other,” Ford’s version of the segregationists’ old lie, “separate but equal.”
It was not only a figure of speech. Ford moved to keep each at their own “end of the log” by the policies he crafted toward Dearborn and Inkster. Using property acquisition and political maneuvering, Ford pushed to have Inkster established as a city in 1926, and Dearborn expanded to nearly its current lines in 1928, with what was then a little unincorporated piece of territory between them, keeping them apart. Dearborn, under Ford’s influence and with his cousin as its first mayor, was established as a white enclave. Inkster became the dumping ground where Ford sent many of his black workers. When it was set up as a city, it still was an unimproved area. Pretending to develop Inkster himself out of humanitarian motives, Ford paid to create sewers, water lines, electrical lines – and then he put a “tax” on the wages of black Inkster workers at the Rouge to pay him back, taking up to 80% off the top of their pay, depending on the size of the family. To make up for that severe reduction, he set up a commissary where they could buy food and necessities at cheaper prices, and he provided them with seeds so they could raise their own food. Finally, much of the work to put in the improvements in Inkster was done by Ford workers – in their spare time or when they were on layoff. It was little more than a Northern version of share-cropping.
The black community was not blind to what Ford was. But neither did the black population have much reason to trust anything else in that racist society, including what was primarily a white union movement, which was hostile to black workers. With a few exceptions, the AFL unions flatly denied membership to black workers, and in many cases, that fact denied them work. It did little to oppose the growth of the Klan in the north, when unions themselves weren’t directly implicated in the Klan’s growth – even though the Klan often was used against attempts to organize. Labor animosity against blacks in East St. Louis, Illinois, had played a big role in the 1917 riot, and white unionists were part of the mobs hunting down blacks like animals and burning down their neighborhoods. When the attacks carried out by whites were over, between 100 and 200 black people were dead – no one knows for sure because the coroner recorded very few of the black deaths. Another 6,000 black people were left homeless. Nine whites were killed. East St. Louis may have been far from Detroit, but the atrocity was known and remembered by black people everywhere.
In 1937, facing the workers’ growing mobilization, GM and Chrysler stepped back, granting recognition to the union. Ford’s actions became more vicious inside the plant, and Ford overtly worked to set white against black. In the depths of the Depression, with the push for unionization taking hold in auto, Ford added nearly 7,500 black workers at the Rouge, while cutting 15,000 whites. Over 4,000 workers, black and white, were fired in a matter of months, suspected of union activities. At the height of this campaign, the hunt for union sympathizers became so intense that a CP militant reported that in the plant no one dared talk to the person working next to him, for fear he might be reported on or even lied about, making him the next to go. At that point, according to Bennett himself, nearly 10% of the people on Ford’s payroll were enlisted as spies. It was thus that Ford kept control over “his” factory, imposing “obedience.”
There may have been “obedience” on the surface, but the magma of discontent was bubbling underground, preparing to erupt. The Communist Party, which had a network of militants inside the Rouge, black and white, was able to expand its influence and to bring together small groups of workers who wanted to build a union. Black organizations like the NAACP, as well as a few of the black churches, began to oppose Ford’s influence inside the black community, denouncing his paternalism as the racist mentality of the slaveowner.
When the volcano finally exploded at Ford on April 2, 1941, all the filthy tricks, all the viciousness with which Ford had maintained “obedience” counted for nothing. Workers came out from one department, walked to the next building, pulling others out with them. “Men left half-eaten sandwiches, cups of coffee, pies, burning cigarettes behind. Working clothes were lying in heaps where they fell from freed bodies, and over the walls appeared the slogans in white chalk: ‘Everybody Out! This Is It! How Do You Like It, Mr. Bennett?’” (This description came from Phillip Bonosky’s book about Bill McKie.)
This massively organized and synchronized complex, which had long seemed impervious to what its 80,000 workers might do, suddenly was paralyzed. Ford had lost control over the Rouge. The workers were on the outside, ringing the whole Rouge with a roving “picket line” of cars. Inside, everything was still. Raw materials no longer came in one end of the Rouge, and cash no longer rolled out the other.
All told several thousand black workers either stayed inside or went back inside. Service Department thugs told the black workers in the foundry – which by that time was an almost totally black department – that whites were waiting outside with clubs to kill them. NAACP activists, among others, approached the plant, attempting to reach the black workers still left inside. One of Bennett’s Service squads pushed the black workers from inside to attack the picket lines. When they retreated back into the plant, he hired other blacks, trying to use them as strikebreakers to attack picket lines around the plant. Whites on the picket line attacked some blacks driving by in a car. Ford may not have been directly responsible for the bitter race riot that racked Detroit a year and a half later, but what he did during these years, trying to set white against black, certainly added to the bitter animosities that broke out then.
In any case, Ford’s wedge was not enough to destroy the strike. If most of the black workers were not solidly in favor of the strike, neither were they supportive of Ford. And almost all finally came out.
Having tried to batter down any attempt by his workers to challenge his authority in the plant with a union, having done as much as any individual did to foment a race riot, Ford, with Bennett at his side, shifted gears. A deal was cut between the union and Ford, effectively bypassing the workers. Ford proposed to enroll every worker in the Rouge into the union and to impose a tax on every worker’s paycheck in the form of union dues, which Ford collected and delivered to the union – giving the union an existence, independent of the workers, but dependent on Ford. It was the first time that the company served as the union’s guarantor. In exchange, the union signed the forerunner of what would become in 1946 the full-blown “management rights” security clause. The union pledged that “disturbances of the type then prevalent in other plants would be avoided,” implicitly agreeing that it would discipline workers who took part in “unauthorized” strikes. This contract was another invention of Henry Ford, a piece of “human engineering” that served the Ford Motor Company well over the years – and not only Ford, but all the other companies that followed suit.
Certainly those words on a piece of paper, all by themselves, did not put an end to the workers’ mobilization just like that, nor did they always prevent the workers from taking things into their own hands. But what the 1941 agreement did do was establish the framework within which the union and company would co-operate for their mutual benefit, to the exclusion of the workers’ participation and interests. That relationship has endured to this day. Henry Ford may not have been able to keep a “loyal,” subservient set of workers for any long period – but he was able to set up a system that effectively kept the workers in check, loyal or not.
After the union campaign was successful in 1941, Ford put a dead stop to the hiring of black workers, openly expressing anger that “his” black workers had not been “loyal.” So much for his benevolence. If the UAW was not quite so overt, the fact is, it did not take seriously its promise to make sure black workers were treated equally within the framework of the union – as testified by the long-standing activity of black workers inside the UAW to gain more of a voice.
Before his death in 1947, Henry Ford had set up the framework under which the Ford family has kept its control up to this day.
In 1936, shortly after the institution of the graduated income tax, Henry Ford and his son Edsel had established the Ford Foundation, funneling Ford Motor Company profits into the “non-profit” foundation, allowing him, his wife and his son to avoid paying taxes on the massive profits that the Ford Motor Company continued to make all through the Depression and into World War II. Ultimately he gave 95% ownership of the company to the Foundation, keeping only 5% for the family. BUT, the family’s 5% ownership share entitled it to 100% of the voting rights in all company affairs, including financial ones.
He used the company’s income, which was pouring into the Foundation, to pay for a number of his projects that the company itself had been paying for before. The Foundation funded Ford Hospital, for example, which was set up as a hospital that specialized in traumatic injuries – the kind produced in industrial plants – a hospital that Ford attempted to make more efficient by breaking down the hold of doctors and large medical companies over the hospital. His experiments in soybeans, sunflowers and corn – seeking to find ways to use crops to replace minerals and petroleum, even milk – were paid for by the Foundation. Henry Ford Museum, in which he attempted to trace the development of technology in agriculture, industry and domestic work, was paid for by the Foundation – as was Greenfield Village, his distorted picture of American history. Springwells Park, built at the east end of Dearborn, was established by the Foundation as housing for Ford salaried people – set up with restrictions that de facto long prevented people with lesser income from moving into the area, but also in a way that blocked Detroit, which was expanding, from encroaching on Dearborn.
It’s obvious that Henry Ford always considered the Ford Motor Company, his company. Significantly, in the Detroit area, it was long called Ford’s, and often even just “Fords,” signaling that it belonged part and parcel to “Mr. Ford.”
Before Ford died, he had prepared a will that established an absolute control over the company by his heirs, even while preventing them from selling it off for their own personal gain. The family was given only the 5% ownership stake in “Fords,” while the Ford Foundation continued with the other 95%. This meant that hardly any inheritance taxes were owed on this incredibly wealthy industrial property. But the family’s control was preserved, since its 5% ownership share was the only part that had voting rights.
So, the family – by 1947 into the third and fourth generations – controlled an incredibly valuable property, one with the capacity to produce enormous wealth. BUT, the third and fourth generations couldn’t actually benefit that much from their control, not in the way that a true bourgeois family might have. When dividends were paid out, 95% of the proceeds went to the Foundation.
In much the same way, large tracts of land in the middle of Dearborn were made untouchable, fenced-off by a trust set up in “Mr. Ford’s” will. Potentially valuable land was to be devoted permanently to research in soybeans, sunflowers, corn and other agricultural products. That trust endured for decades, despite attempts of the family or of the Ford Motor Company to break the will’s provision. The company spent many years and much money in judicial proceedings, in order to gain control of bits of Mr. Ford’s sunflower and soybean land – for the expansion of its headquarters, the development of shopping centers and a hotel, the investment in expensive housing.
The myth of Henry Ford’s “senility” began to be bandied around during these proceedings – after all, could he really have wanted to keep his family “impoverished”? And then it became a convenient excuse for papering over his actions at the Rouge, his anti-Semitism, etc.
In any case, it didn’t take long after Henry the First died for dissatisfaction to erupt in the family. Control wasn’t enough. They wanted their hands on the money NOW. A bevy of lawyers working for the third generation of Fords and for Goldman Sachs figured out a complicated deal that gave the family the means to tap into the wealth buried in the Ford Motor Company. They took the company “public” in 1955 – that is, they sold stock in it on the New York stock exchange. It was practically the last major family-owned company to do so. The family would increase its ownership share of the company to 12.5%, thus increasing the dividends it would receive in the future; in exchange it gave up part of the vote in company affairs – conserving 40%, which was more than enough to control any company. And the family received a significant immediate payout from proceeds of the stock offering.
In the attempt to squeeze more money out of the company for the “family,” management – whether under Henry Ford II, or under “outsiders” – has almost always sought to maximize dividends at the expense of productive activity. The Rouge was neglected, its once advanced technology bypassed. Profits that might have been put into new technology were instead paid out for the benefit of stockholders – including the family.
And, with the memory still fresh of what it meant to have so many workers concentrated in one complex – who were able when they exploded to shut down the whole money-making machinery – management began to move plants out, starting in the 1950s. At the beginning they were put nearby. But later, as other cities and states offered “incentives,” the plants were pushed further away, to different corners of the United States. The highly integrated and incredibly efficient production system that Henry Ford had built was transformed into a completely irrational collection of far-flung plants, requiring much greater time, much greater storage facilities, much greater inventory, much more transportation between plants – as well as a much heavier impact on the environment.
What had once been a model of the most highly developed technology in the industrial world and the most integrated production system became a shell of what it had been. The Rouge, the model of total synchronization, was picked apart to pay for the lavish life style of Fords of the third generation, fourth generation, fifth and sixth.
Six decades after the Rouge went into production, executives of Toyota were asked about the “secret” to the much higher Japanese productivity and efficiency, and specifically to the “just-in-time” inventory system the Japanese had “invented,” Eiji Toyoda replied, “There is no secret to how we learned to do what we do.... We learned it at the Rouge.”
What Ford did demonstrated that planning and centralized organization of production – even just at the level of Highland Park or at the Rouge – could produce enormous development in a few short years. He demonstrated that large-scale production could cut labor time enormously. And, it’s obvious by his agricultural experiments and by what he tried to trace out at Henry Ford Museum, that his interest in the efficient use of labor energy was not concentrated only on his profit-producing factories.
But what he did also demonstrated that under capitalism the results of that development could only be perverted, most of its proceeds diverted into the hands of a tiny minority – in the case of the Rouge, into the grasping hands of one family whose greed for a bigger share practically destroyed the production facilities that Ford himself had built.
In 1914, at the same time that Ford was developing the assembly line, Lenin was writing the following about the Taylor system, equally appropriate for what Ford did.
“Large scale production, machinery, railways, telephones all provide thousands of opportunities to cut by three-fourths the working time of the organized workers and make them four times better off than they are today.... [But] capital organizes and rationalizes labor within the factory for the purpose of increasing the exploitation of the workers and increasing profit. In social production as a whole, chaos continues to reign and grow, leading to crises when the accumulated wealth cannot find purchasers, and millions of workers starve because they are unable to find employment.”
He went on to say: “The Taylor system – without its imitators knowing or wishing it – is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalizing all social labor.”
What Ford developed and then used against the workers, what the Ford Motor Company, still controlled by the Ford family, did and continues to do – this all demonstrates the necessity for the proletariat to take control out of the hands of this tiny minority, so that the proceeds of social labor can be distributed in a truly rational way, so that the productivity that mass production enables can be used socially.