The auto industry took the most productive worker in the world and turned him into a bundle of resentment, seething with rage, and doing as little work as possible. Absenteeism became a problem, as did drug addiction, divorce, and family breakdown. Sabotage was common in the auto plants.These problems were rare in the American work force before the dawn of the auto industry.
I grew up in the coal region, and remember well my father, uncles, neighbors, who trekked to the mines day after day, year in and year out, and worked under conditions that people today could not even visualise. Yet these men did not hate the companies that employed them. Divorce was unheard of, alcoholism was rare, although most of the miners did drink. But they were not bubbling with resentment against the coal companies, and they did not do as little as possible as a silent protest. In fact, these were the hardest working men I have ever known.
It took the dehumaniztion of auto plants to destroy the work ethic that built America. What happened? Mostly, Henry Ford happened, and everybody copied. Henry Ford was not the industrial icon that you learned about in school. He did not invent the automobile. What he did invent was a method to dehumanize men and make them respond like machines rather than like human beings.
Ford was famous for its five dollar a day wages, which was the highest wages paid to factory workers anywhere in the world. Thousands of men quit good jobs and headed for Detroit to get on at Ford. They had no idea what they were in for.
Labor turnover in the Ford plant was 70% per year, despite the high wages. Ford hired excons and thugs to “manage” his plant. Suspicion that you were in favor of a union could get you beat up by Ford’s thugs. On the line men were treated as machines. They were not allowed to speak while working, and developed a method of communication, called “Ford Talk” where they spoke out of the sides of their mouths, at a whisper, to the worker next to them. Joseph Stahlin once sent a delegation to study Henry Ford’s method of controlling people, and Ford was the only American publically admired by Adolph Hitler.
What doe all this have to do with today? After all, that was almost a hundred years ago. Yes it was. But Ford’s methods of “managing” people changed very little in that hundred years. When I interviewed for a foreman’s job at the Sharonville Transmission Plant, I was shocked by the zone superintendent who described the kind of person he was looking for.
He began the interview with a sneer and said “I see you have two college degrees. Well, I don’t need a foreman with a lot of brains. I need a foreman with a lot of balls. Out on that floor we have the lowest scum in the Cincinnati area. We have drunks. We have dope heads. We have the laziest bastards north of the Mason-Dixon line. There is only one way you can deal with people like that. They have to be afraid of you. They have to say ‘if I f$#% with this guy, he will rack my ass’ You can’t treat these people like you treat normal people. If they think you aren’t tough, they will chew your ass up and spit you out. I need a foreman who has an invisible sign on his back that everybody can see. The sign says f*&+ with me and you will pay a price, because I am the meanest p$@*& east of the Mississippi. These scumbags don’t know respect. All they know is fear.”
I thought that the superintendent had exaggerated. Later, as I took over a department, I learned that, if anything, he had understated the atmosphere in Ford plants. Foremen and General Foremen were used much as Henry Ford used his hired thugs 75 years prior. The work atmosphere was similar to gang warfare. The Bloods and the Crypts. Management took action. The hourly retaliated. Management took more severe action, and the retaliation escalated. The mentality in the plant was like a prison camp.
I wondered how quality automobiles could possibly be built in an atmosphere like this. Of course the answer was they could not. The quality of the American car became an international joke, as better managed foreign companies moved in and took over our car market with better built, more reliable cars.
I knew people who worked at both Toyota and Nissan. Both men had been at Ford. Both men told me that the work atmosphere at Toyota and Nissan was so different from Ford that there was no comparison. The one who went to Nissan said he would never again, if he lived to be 100, work for an American company. The Japanese know how to manage, he said, while the Americans only know how to intimidate.
How did Ford workers fight back? They did as little as they could get by with. They used active and passive sabotage. Bad quality and low production was viewed as a blow against an oppressor. Were these bad people?
No, they were not. They are your neighbors. They sit in church next to you. Their kids go to school with your kids. But when they are treated like prisinors of war, they will fight back. We lost the global auto war in the auto factories. Don’t let anyone tell you that it was because of poor design or poor fuel economy. It was because of incredibly poor management that was a holdover from the days of Henry Ford.