The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

110 Years Ago:
Ford Motor Began
– Profits and Exploitation

Jul 22, 2013

On June 13, 1903, Henry Ford created the Ford Motor Company. The grandson of Irish emigrants who left during the potato famine of 1846-47, the son of farmers, Ford was a 40-year-old mechanic in 1903. He had worked as a steam machine repairman for Westinghouse and then as an engineer for Thomas Edison’s electric company in Detroit.

He wanted to create automobiles, horseless cars that would run on gasoline. He worked on a number of projects, including race cars. In 1903, he finished designing a model for the public. He filed the patents and raised money to create his auto company in Detroit. By 1906, he took full control, becoming the company head. The Ford Motor Company quickly began to sell automobiles throughout the world and became one of the most profitable corporations in the world.

In 1908, with the Model T, Henry Ford established the production system and work relationships that would bear his name: Fordism. Along with the division of labor and division of jobs, following the methods of Frederick Taylor, he introduced the standardization of parts and the conveyor belt. He had seen the conveyor belt in the Chicago meat packing houses. It was the beginning of assembly line work, with all that meant in terms of repetitive motion and exhausting speed. The time it took to build one Model T went down from six hours of labor to an hour and a half. Productivity certainly grew, but workers fled from this hard labor. In 1913, labor turnover was 400% a year, meaning every three months Ford had to replace his entire assembly line work force.

When workers tried to organize in his factories, Ford came up with a new pay system. Some people claimed his system made him a “social” boss. He offered five dollars a day, double the average pay before, and he established company-built houses for “loyal” workers. Their regular attendance and discipline allowed him to increase productivity. Since these workers had higher than average pay, Ford bragged that his workers soon would become buyers of the cars they produced. In theory, such sales would avoid the never-ending capitalist risk of overproduction. In reality, Henry Ford was as dependent as any other company on the market. This problem became clearer when the Depression broke out in 1929. Ford carried out mass layoffs of the workers he claimed he was so proud of.

Not only was Ford a boss eager for gain and hostile to unions, he was also a militant anti-Semite. In his books and articles, Ford denounced the “international Jewish conspiracy,” giving Hitler ammunition for his anti-Semitic theories. And Ford consciously set black workers and white workers to compete against each other.

This violent boss established a massive permanent security force, both inside and outside his factories. His spies checked to see if the workers spent their wages on alcohol or gambling. When unemployed workers marched in 1932 demanding jobs and winter relief payments, Ford’s goons used flame throwers and sub-machine guns. Five protesters were killed and 20 wounded. In 1937, organizers for the new auto workers union were beaten by Ford’s goons for trying to distribute leaflets on the bridge going to the Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. The union may have gotten the approval of the mayor of Dearborn for this distribution. But it won no approval from Henry Ford, the true master of the city.

Ford dug in his heels in the face of the great wave of struggles and sit down strikes in the factories during 1936 and 1937. It took a massive strike of ten days in 1941 at the Ford Rouge complex to force Ford finally to accept the existence of the union in his shops. This was on the eve of the entry of the U.S. into World War II.

Thanks to the war, full employment returned, but wages weren’t any higher at Ford than elsewhere. Ford made a complete about-turn, only hiring unionized workers. Thanks to that maneuver, he grabbed enormous government war orders. Ford’s real “social” policy was making profits. And he quickly established a “partnership” with the then nascent union bureaucracy that has continued to this day.