Thursday, May 16, 2013


I had long assumed Henry Ford started paying his workers reasonably well so they could consume the cars they were making. (And the UAW played it’s part.) But seemingly this was not so….

“To build cars cheaply enough for the average person to buy, Henry Ford had to redesign the assembly line according to the dictates of Frederick Taylor, breaking down each task into its simplest components so that each worker was responsible for a single task that could be repeated all day with a minimum of wasted motion and time. This proved so dehumanizing that turnover skyrocketed to 350 percent. To counteract this, Ford doubled his wages. This paradox of rote work and high wages ushered in the beginnings of the great American urban middle class:
"Ford's assembly line and his production techniques in general were exemplars of 'scientific management,' a phrase and approach made popular by Philadelphia engineer and businessman Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor was one of the nation's first specialists in shop-floor management, and his short book The Principles of Scientific Management was the best-selling business book of the first half of the twentieth century. Taylor believed that workplaces could be made more efficient by training, inducing, and compelling workers to labor more steadily and intensively. He conducted time and motion studies to analyze the tasks workers were expected to perform and then encouraged employers to reorganize the work process to minimize wasted motion and time. He also favored piece-rate payment schemes to compel employees, many of whom he described as 'stupid,' to work more quickly. 'Faster work can be assured,' wrote Taylor, 'only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements ... and enforced cooperation.'
"Not surprisingly, most industrial workers resisted such schemes. One worker at the Ford Motor Company complained that 'when the whistle blows he starts to jerk and when the whistle blows again he stops jerking.' At Ford and elsewhere, a common response to the brutal intensification of work was absenteeism and high quit rates: in 1913, Ford's daily absentee rate was 10 percent, while annual turnover exceeded 350 percent. To reduce turnover, which was costly to the company, Ford doubled the daily wages of his most valued employees, to five dollars a day. This strategy was successful in stabilizing the labor force and reducing operating costs." Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar, and Daniel J. Kevles – Inventing Americ  (Norton)

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1 comment:

Karlos Fandango said...

I recall reading a book about Ford - how he introduced company spies ("goon squad") to stop union activity in the plant. One retired worker who was interviewed about his experiences still habitually spoke out of the corner of his mouth as a result - the need for discreet communication manifesting as a nervous tick... :(