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Jim P. was the hardest working man I have ever known and the UAW made sure he paid a price for it. Jim was not an educated man. In fact, he only made it to 7th grade. Then he had to drop out of school to work the coal mines in Kentucky to help support his family. When he came north to Cincinnati and got a job at the Sharonville Transmission Plant he thought he had died and went to heaven.

At Ford Jim made three times as much as he had ever made in his life. He wanted to give his family things he had never had. Like nice clothes, a television, a nice house to live in, and a good education. So he worked as much overtime as he could get. The trouble was, what “work” meant  to Jim was not what “work” meant to the UAW.

“Work” to Jim meant you bust your hump until the quitting bell rings. But that was not how the UAW jobs were designed. The jobs had an eight hour standard. Most of them were machine paced. You would work, and then wait, and then work, and then wait. Sometimes you waited more than you worked. If the machine ran well, you might make your 8 hour standard in 6 hours. Then you did not have to do anything for two hours, because you had made your work standard. You got paid, even though you were not working. This was a concept that Jim could not grasp. His thinking was “if Ford is paying me, I should be working.”

Jim was a repair welder on the toque converter line. When the automatic welder failed to weld properly, the torque converters were shunted to Jim’s repair booth, and he manually welded them. But there were times when no converters were shunted to Jim for, sometimes, three hours. The other repair welders slept, read magazines, or sat with their feet propped up. This did not seem natural to Jim. He was a worker. He was getting paid very well. Yet for hours each day he had no work to do.  I was Jim’s boss . He came to me and asked for additonal work to do when no torque converters were being shunted to his repair booth.

I provided Jim with plenty of work, and he seemed happy. But his co workers were not happy at all. Their thinking was if Jim works when there are no shunts, then the boss will want us to work. They had a friendly chat with Jim. But Jim was not convinced that he should not be working if he was getting paid and there was work to do. So he continued on with the extra work I had provided.

The next chat his co workers had with him was not so friendly. If fact, there was shouting, gesturing, name calling, and veiled threats. Jim continued to do the extra work. That was when two UAW committeemen showed up to explain the facts of life to Jim. He was not to work unless he had converters that needed manual repair shunted to his repair booth. Jim came to me and asked who was his boss, me, or the UAW. I told Jim that I was his boss. He went back to work on the additional work that I had given him.

At the end of the shift Jim went to the parking lot and found all four of his tires flattened and his radio aerial broken. The next day he said his wife had gotten threatening phone calls at home, telling her that her kids and home “may not be safe” if her husband continued to be a “scab” at work. When he opened his lunch box he found that someone had deficated on top of his lunch.

After that Jim only repaired the converters that were shunted to him. He did no extra work the many hours when he had no converters to repair. Jim had learned his lesson. He was not very happy, but the UAW was happy, and Jim’s co workers were happy. He had learned that “work” means different things to different people, and that the work ethic that he had learned from a hard life in rural Kentucky was not valuable at all in an auto plant.

Ever wonder how health care costs got so high in the auto industry? Take a look at how the UAW mined the Medical Mothelode at Ford in the 70s. Back then we worked seven days a week, many of them 12 hour days. It was forced overtime. Not like you had a choice. We worked Easter Sunday, July 4th, Thanksgiving. Christmas was just another working day where we got paid a lot of money instead of regular pay.

But one out was the “doctor’s slip” strategy. If you were off work all you had to do was get a doctor’s slip. Ford could not argue with a doctor’s slip. Which gave birth to a whole new revenue stream for doctors located near auto plants. True, most doctor’s had the integrity to give you a slip to excuse you from work only if you were legitimately ill. But at least three doctor’s had a doctor slip mill going. You would make an appointement, tell the doctor that you needed to be off work and for $25 he would write you a slip with explicit instructions “this patient cannot return to work until….” and you told him how long you needed to be off.

At Sharonville we had virtual epidemics during deer season. It was simply amazing how many strong, healthy men developed illnesses. It got to the point that Ford said it would not recognize slips from certain doctors, and if you were ill you had to go to a doctor approved by Ford. This went over like a lead baloon. Men went to their attorneys. Letters were written to Ford, threatening lawsuits. The whole thing about only accepting slips from “Ford Approved” doctors was dropped, and everything returned to normal.  

Everybody knew who the deer hunters were. The ones that worked for me gave me a little hint. “Yeh, Bob. I got this pain in my back. Believe I’ll have to go see a doctor.” He would walk away with a wry smile. It was his way of telling me that it was deer season, he was outta there, and I had better plan on getting some overtime coverage.

Then there were the drunks. When they came to work too drunk to run their machine I would send them home with a warning. When their addiction became so great that their jobs were jeprodized they would bring in the standard doctor’s slip, go home and dry out for a few days, and then return to begin the cycle all over again.

Abuse of the extremely liberal medical benefits was so common that it was hard for a foreman to distinguish between the game players and employees who had legitimate medical problems. I remember the case of Bill P. Bill was an excellent employee. In fact, he went years without missing a day. Then one day he did not come in. Didn’t come in the next day, either, or the next.

Ford’s policy in cases like this was to send a “Five Day Quit” telegram to the man’s home, advising him that he has been off work for five days, with no doctor’s slip, and if he did not return in five more working days, he would be terminated via a “Ten Day Quit telegram.”

After 10 days Bill did not show up for work, and I was required to send him a 10 day quit telegram.  A few days later his wife called me. Bill had died. She received the 5 day quit when he was on his death bed and the family was gathered. She received the 10 day quit telegram the day Bill was buried. This distressed me greatly, since Bill was one of my best employees. With great sadness I informed my boss that Bill had died. He looked at me like I was wasting his time with information like this and said “So borrow another nig… from the labor pool and  and post the job. Why would I give a damn? People die all the time.” 

Family stress created by the working atmosphere also created a lot of work for doctors, hospitals, family counselors, and addition counselors. Much of the legacy costs of medical benefits that burden the auto industry today originated in the auto plants.

The Big Three whine about foreign competition, and shift blame for their collapse onto the UAW. Yet the Big 3 created both the UAW and the foreign competition. Let us look first at how the Big Three created the UAW.

In the early days of the auto industry, when workers had no representation and no power whatsoever to control their own lives, Henry Ford treated them like slaves. Even though he paid the highest factory wages in history, labor turnover was in the 70% range. A lot of money can compensate for horrible working conditions, but only up to a point. Lets look at some of the working conditions that resulted in the creation of the United Auto Workers.

Ford  hired thugs to “handle employee problems.” Many of them were World War I vets, and some of them were ex-convicts. Henry Ford ran Detroit like Al Capone ran Chicago. Every cop, judge, and government official was in his back pocket. He had an elaborate system of industrial spies, much like the secret police in the old Soviet Union, that reported on the personal lives of employees.  Ford did not approve of alcohol, and employees who drank ended up on a list of undesirables. After the Bolshivik Revolution in Russia, Lenin was so impressed by how Henry Ford controlled employees by shear intimidation that he sent a team of NKVD (secret police) to Detroit to study Ford’s methods, and later incorporated those methods into the communist system of people control. 

Ford was so paranoid about labor unions that if an employee was even suspected of supporting a union, he would be terminated, and lucky if he did not receive a physical beating from Ford’s thugs, which he euphemistically called his “Service Department.” Talking on the job at the Ford plant was forbidden, and employees devised a method of speaking out of the sides of their mouths to workers to their left or right. This became known as “Ford Talk.”

I met a man at the Sharonville Plant who was a kid during the Depression, and his Dad worked at Ford. One of the snitches reported that he had stolen tools. Thugs from the Service Department forced their way into the home one night and demanded to know where the stolen tools were. But of course their were no stolen tools. Snitches often reported misdeeds to strengthen their postion at the Ford plant. Henry Ford rewarded eyes and ears that he felt was on his side.

The thugs beat the man’s father unconscious, in front of him (age 8) and his mother. When his father collapsed in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, the thugs ransacked the house, searching for nonexistent stolen tools. The next day the man was terminated, on the strength of a snitch’s lie, even though no tools were found. The family nearly starved, because when you were fired at Ford, you never got another job anywhere near Detroit. That man carried a hatred of Ford with him for the rest of his life. When I met him he had 28 years at Ford, and told me that every single day he made Ford pay for what they had done to his father. Sabotage, high absenteeism, holding back production, and purposely running defective parts were his weapons of revenge.

Many American corporations treated their employees badly during those turbulent decades when a working man was looked at as stupid and controllable. All of these kinds of companies eventually unionized. They did so as a self preservation mechanism, and to be treated with human dignity. They needed an organization with enough power to counter balance corporate tyranny.  Yet many companies never did face an organized labor revolt. These were the companies that treated employees with dignity and respect, and listened to them. Employees that felt their employers would listen to their complaints seldom felt the need to unionize. But the coal, steel, railroad, and auto industries created the unions which they would later blame for their demise.

Now lets look at how the Big 3 created the competition that beat them at their own game on their own turf. In the late 1960s and early 70s Toyota was a weak, undercapitalized, inexperienced company that few had even heard of. Everything coming out of Japan was considered junk, as in junk ashtrays and knicknacks sold in gaudy souvenir shops on Times Square. It would still be that way today if Detroit had not literally opened the doors and invited Toyota and others onto the American playing field.

Someone in Detroit came up with a brilliant idea called “planned obselescence.” It involved engineering cars to last shorter periods of time. Parts that would fail first were embedded deep in the engines, transmissions, and electrical systems. The parts that failed were not that expensive. But the entire car had to be ripped apart to replace the failed parts. The rationale was that people would tire of spending so much on repairs, dump the cars, and buy new ones. That would increase sales without the need to increase the number of people buying cars.

But the low quality produced by Detroit in the 70s was only partially rooted in planned obselescence.  Larger parts were played by pushing vendors to cut costs, and running machines until they literally fell apart. At the Sharonville Plant incoming components from vendors deteriorated so badly in quality that additonal people had to be assigned to cull out the junk before it got into the transmission. Machines were never repaired properly. Makeshift repairs were made to get the machine back on line, whether the parts it made were good or bad. I was so shocked by the quality standards that I started a collection of defective parts that were routinely assembled into Ford transmissions, and put them in boxes in my garage, along with the specification sheets for those parts, so they could be checked with a micrometer and compared to the spec sheets. By 1979 I had eight large cardboard boxes of defective parts sitting in my garage. At the Sharonville Plant one of the machines in my department would wobble so badly that the operator had to put the back of a pack of paper matches between the slides to make the machine run “acceptable” parts. Another operator brought in a large rubber band everyday to loop around the arm of a machine, or it would not run. Ford’s answer: keep a supply of large rubber bands at the foreman’s desk and keep running the machine.

While all of this was going on, and while Ford was building transmissions that would result in the largest recall in automotive history, and building Pintos that burned people alive, Toyota was quietly increasing market share by building high quality, reliable cars that eventually drove demand through the roof. By 1979 Ford dealer’s lots were packed full of cars that no one was buying. But at Toyota there was a two month waiting list, and they had no cars on their lots. All of them had been sold. Chrysler paid $50 to anyone who would test drive a Chrysler and bought a new car, no matter which brand. People test drove Chryslers, bought Toyotas, and applied for a $50 Chrysler rebate. The auto industries response to the explosion of demand for better quality foreign cars, and the abandonment of cars made by the Big 3 was a series of “Import bashings.”  Auto workers would smash Toyotas and Hondas with sledge hammers in front of TV cameras, while a large picture of the attack on Pearl Harbor was shone in the backgound.

So the U.S. auto industry created the UAW, and then blamed the UAW for its failure. It created immense demand for foreign made cars by producing junk for 20 years, and then whined that the “foreign devils” were responsible for the collapse of Detroit. Sounds more like a spoiled child than the largest industry in the United States.

A lot of guys that I worked with at Ford’s Sharonville Transmission Plant have bought my book, read it, and then came back and wanted to know why didn’t I tell this or that. So I decided to do a blog on some of these experiences, since they shed further light on how Ford operated in the 1970s when they made, very possibly, the worst vehicles ever produced in America.

Lets start with Fords 75th anniversary celebration. Sharonville had an open house, as did all the Ford plants. We were going to give a souvenir to every one who attended. That souvenir was an ashtray that was stamped with “Ford Motor Company 75th Anniversary.” We got the die for the press room and started to run the ash trays. Then a rumor spread through the plant like a viral epidemic.

That rumor was that the ashtrays would become valuable collectables, and we were scheduled to run a limited number of them. After about four hours the foreman checked the count on ashtrays. There should have been about 2,000. The counter, in fact, said 1873. But the bin into which the ash trays were dropping out of the press was nearly empty. The foreman wanted to know where all the ash trays were.

The press operator shook his head and said “everybody and his brother is coming over, grabbing a handful of ashtrays and running like hell. I ain’t no policeman. I’m a press operator.” This information was immediately passed on to the Zone 3 superintendent, who instructed the foreman to stand by that press and “write up any son of a b#$%*& that even looks like he is going to steal an ashtray.” He then called in foremen from the next shift, on overtime, to stand guard over the ash trays. The ash trays were to be guarded, by foremen, 24 hours a day until the open house.

When I was called in early to stand guard, I got my cup of coffee, sat on a chair, and guarded the ash trays like a marine guard on the president’s helicopter. I did notice that periodically the press operator would pick up a couple ash trays, “check them for quality” and then stick them into his lunch pail. I said nothing, because I intended to check some of those ashtrays my self and just to be sure they were good, stick them in my lunch pail. That was when the superintendent showed up on his orange golf cart.

On the back of the cart he had a cardboard box. He nodded approvingly at the ash tray count, and the fact that I was vigilent in my guard responsibities. Then he scooped up enough ash trays to fill the cardboard box, mumbled something about doing quality checks, and sped off toward the parking lot. I abandoned my post, stalking him through the plant. I watched him carry the box of ashtrays to the trunk of his car.

Then there was the General Foreman who, in a burst of anger, punched a foreman. It was not much of a punch. More like a slap. The foreman fell to the floor, moaned, yelled “my back, my back, I can’t move. Oh my God, who turned out the lights? I can’t see. I can’t hear.” He was taken to the emergency room, where doctors could find nothing wrong with him. Nevertheless he insisted he was in agonizing pain, could not see, and could not hear. Four months later he was still on medical leave, drawing full salary. Then Ford made an undisclosed, but allegedly large, cash settlement, and the foreman “resigned.” A couple days later I saw him at the YMCA playing basketball.

Of course I will never forget the guy who tried to stab me. We had worked for 5 weeks without a day off. Everyone was totally stressed out and exhausted. Thanksgiving was coming up, and everyone knew we would be scheduled to work. But the day before the holiday my General Foreman informed me that we would be off for Thanksgiving. I cheerfully told each man in Department 258, and morale improved immensely. This would be the first holiday we had not been scheduled to work during 1977.

But then a half hour before the shift ended, my boss came out and said “Schedule your people to work Thanksgiving. Livonia can’t make the transmissions they were supposed to make, so we have to make them.” I went to each man and gave him the unwecome news. Some cursed. Some shook their heads. One man was eating an apple. he had a pen knife and was cutting slices off and eating each slice. When I told him he was scheduled to work on Thanksgiving the blood drained out of his face. His lips started to quiver. Then he said “You lousy, no good, scum sucking son of a b^&(%$ and lunged at me with the knife. I sidestepped it and he went right past me. It only took security a few minutes to show up and escort him off Ford property.

He was terminated by Ford. Then the UAW grievance process kicked in. I was taken to the personnel office and grilled by the UAW and by Ford. How long was the knife? Did he actually stab you, or just threaten you? How do you know he was trying to stab you? How do you know he didn’t just slip on the floor and fall toward you? How much fat do you have on your belly? Isn’t it true that if he had stabbed you the knife was not long enough to penetrate the fat? Why are you lying? Who else can verify that he actually tried to stab you? Isn’t it true that you are just trying to get a feather in your cap by getting a man fired?

After more than three months the UAW succeeded in getting the man reinstated, and the disciplinary form pulled from his files. Then I was called into the office. My boss handed me a check. It was for the man who tried to stab me. It was full pay for all the time he was off, plus the estimated overtime that he would have worked had he not been fired. Since I was the man’s foreman, I was instructed to hand him the check. The man man laughed hysterically when I handed him the check, and thanked me for four months off with full pay. He said he had spent it in Florida, fishing. Now he was refreshed and ready to go back to work.

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Author of A Savage Factory, Robert Dewar

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