Henry Ford had a mythical reputation as a “people’s capitalist”, a man who was smart enough to design a car that ordinary workers could afford, and a boss who paid his workers enough to buy Ford cars. Nothing could be further from the truth! The great lesson of labour relations at Ford’s from its beginning is that every improvement for the workers was gained through bitter and unremitting struggle.
Henry Ford was one of the first to apply modern mass production techniques to cars. In other words, he introduced the misery of working “on the line” to hundreds of thousands of workers.
By 1913 conditions were so grim at Detroit that his factory had a labour turnover of 400% a year, despite the never-ending flood of naïve European immigrants fresh from the farms and desperate for a job.
So as well as “Model Ts” Henry Ford decided to mass-produce “model working”. He doubled wages to $5 a day, but acted as though he had bought the workforce body and soul for that price.
Actually the rise, which gained Henry Ford his liberal reputation, was one of the first productivity deals. To get the $5, which was continually dangled like a carrot in front of the men’s noses, you had to be the perfect worker.
Productivity shot up. But wages lagged behind for thirty years afterwards. Ford boasted over and over again that the $5 a day was “the best investment he'd ever made.”
Every worker, moreover, was plagued by an army of snoopers checking out his private life to see if he was really capable of handling all that $5 wisely. This put them at the mercy of Ford’s own idiosyncratic beliefs.
For instance, workers who wanted the $5 were ill advised to smoke, even at home, let alone in the factory. “If you study the history of almost any criminal, you will find that he is an inveterate cigarette smoker. The cigarette drags them down,” read the thoughts of all-knowing Chairman Henry Ford. Needless to say, drinking, gambling and pool were also strictly verboten.
Through the wage rise Ford got all the men he needed to expand production. As ten thousand unemployed stood freezing in the snow outside the gates begging for a job our “friend of the working man” ordered the fire hoses to be used on the destitute starvelings.
Worse was in store, however. By 1927, Ford decided the “Model T” had had its day. He just closed down the Dearborn plant and left 60,000 workers to starve. He reopened a new plant for a new car at River Rouge—with fewer workers of course.
In 1932, 3,000 unemployed men marched to the new factory demanding work. Henry Ford paid them off in bullets. Police and company goons opened fire with machine guns. Four men were killed and twenty more injured.
As the depression bit deep, Henry Ford took the opportunity to speed up the line to an unbearable pace. Workers were desperate to keep a job down. “Forditis” almost became a recognised industrial disease. Men got ulcers and the shakes. They were said to be old men after five years at Ford’s. Then they were out on their ears.
On top of the killing pace, Henry Ford publicly let it be known that he ruled by fear. He believed that “a majority of the people in the world are not mentally – even if they are physically – capable of making a good living.” He did his best to make sure that his assurances came true.
In his opinion, “labour union organisations are the worst thing that ever struck the earth.” He employed 3,500 heavies to keep the union out. According to the Mayor of Detroit, “Henry Ford employs some of the worst gangsters in our city.”
In 1937 Walter Reuther, future President of the United Auto Workers, got the hiding of his life at River Rouge, for the “crime” of handing out union leaflets. He had cleared it with City Hall but not with Henry Ford – the real power in Detroit.
Day in, day out, the “Dearborn Independent” thundered out pro-Nazi ravings from Henry Ford’s own pen to a captive readership. In 1938 he got his reward – Hitler presented him with the Nazis’ German Eagle.
Not for nothing did Ford’s politics sound like Hitler’s. Using the slump, he was able to establish conditions in his factory very similar to those which existed throughout Germany after 1933.
Even errand boys were timed to make sure they hadn’t dropped off to get a bar of chocolate. Nobody talked on the line. The way to spot a management spy was to risk your job and ask him a question.
If a look of terror crossed his face he was OK. If he answered back, he must be a stool pigeon. Even in the canteen, workers would sit on their own staring fixedly at their sandwiches.
Sacked for smiling
Top executives were not immune from the terror, either. One came in one morning to find his desk split in two by an axe! Henry Ford obviously didn’t think he was good enough at his job! Men were even sacked for smiling.
Workers got round all this as best they could. They talked like convicts out of the side of their mouths. It could become incurable. One man made himself a laughing stock among his friends by talking this way even to his wife at home!
Finally, with the United States’ entry into World War II, Ford’s reign of terror was swept away by the return of full employment.
Wages at Ford’s were now a good deal lower than in other car plants and the union still hadn’t got a look in. But more and more men began to feel confident enough openly to sport their union badges as they went through the gates. Ford lashed out viciously with the usual beatings and by firing known or suspected activists left, right and centre.
The last straw came, however, in April 1941. Eight workers were sacked in the rolling mill section. This was the real “punishment block” of the entire plant, where the pace was so intense that only the men right next to the water fountains could even get a drink in the stifling heat.
The men marched from department to department, defying the thugs and singing “Solidarity Forever”. In one section after another the switches were thrown. The whole factory was paralysed.
How to stop scabs getting in? The workers still had to face the combined might of the cops and Ford’s private army. Within a few hours the whole area around River Rouge was choked as far as the eye could see by trade unionists’ cars – mainly Fords! Not a soul could get in. This still left a few scabs inside the factory. But now they had to try and break out. Thirty-six men were injured in the battles of the next few days, but the issue was never in serious doubt.
The UAW was actually policing the entire area of ten square miles. Ford had to come to terms with the union. He did more than that. Ford’s became the first closed shop in the car industry. Was Henry Ford mellowing in his old age? On the contrary, the concession was turned into another “smart investment”.
Roosevelt was trying to drag the American working class into the war. To get the trade union leaders to act as recruiting sergeants, he agreed to give military contracts to union firms only. At a stroke, Ford cut himself into contracts worth thousands of millions of dollars. These lucrative deals actually kept the firm afloat for the next four years.
Henry Ford said: “History is bunk.” No wonder! History shows Ford never gave the workers anything unless they stuck up for themselves. And history shows that almighty Ford’s can be beaten!
First published in November 1978