In 1903 Henry Ford formed his motor company. He produced 1708 cars in the first year. 10 years later annual production reached 200,000 and by 1923 it had reached 2 million. Ford had made it! By 1916 his assets stood at a staggering $300 million.
Henry Ford quite simply was the company. He was addicted to the search for larger profits and had no desire to see other people grow wealthy from his business. Ford soon developed his assembly line technique and it was greeted with acclaim that verged on adulation. Ford was acclaimed as the messiah of mass production.
However, the assembly line was greeted with contempt by the workforce. The
'track' moved the cars monotonously along from worker to worker. It never stops
and few men ever see a completed car leaving. As one worker said;
"To stand and look at the endless, perpetual, tedium of it all is to be threatened by the overwhelming insanity of it. The sheer audacious madness of a system based upon men like those wishing their lives away".
Fordism was created.
Fordism resulted in massive profits and unmatchable production but it had its blacker side. "When I'm here my minds a blank, I make it go blank", sums up the view of one particular 'line' worker. The line bred boredom and ill feeling amongst the workers. But labour was easily obtainable in the early part of the century and the production line only required a very low degree of skill.
Owners of car plants such as Ford wanted more and more workers which led to anti-union, open shop policies. Labour turnover rates were extremely high during this period. In 1913; 13000 and 14000 workers were need to run Fords plants at any one time and in that year over 50,000 quit. It was a hire and fire industry.
Ford did not agree with F W Taylor in his piece rate scheme for payment of employees. He was afraid that it would result in 'botched parts'. This view has followed the progression of the production line through the latter part of the century and even today managers prefer to adopt a 'Ford' style of bonus payments rather than piece rates. Ford set up a $5 a day bonus scheme which was a significant amount and resulted in reduced absenteeism, lateness and laziness. It resulted in bigger output and subsequently larger profits.
Ford had two main philosophies. Too much good fellowship results in covering up faults, i.e. play and work do not mix. Also he thought charity did nothing more to abolish poverty than work.
Ford did not have everything his own way. During the 1920's and 30's he waged a running battle with the trade unions who were springing to prominence. In the depression work was speeded up and wages cut. In 1931 only 500,000 cars were produced. Workers were becoming increasingly unhappy and rumbles could be heard. Ford hated unions and he thought the questioning of his prerogatives by the 'ordinary man' was outrageous.
Ford stuck to his guns and waged war on the unions at his River Rouge plant. He hired a man by the name of Bennet to maintain discipline, protect his property and prevent unionisation. Bennet trained 3,500 private police, employed by Ford who policed the gates, infiltrated unions and posed as workers on the line.
The workers on the line became terrified and it became that they were afraid to talk to anyone. Ford's 'Gestapo' were settled. Under this tyranny the Ford worker had no security and no rights. Talking and smoking were not allowed on the line and Fords 'police' watched every move. One man referred to it as a "Penal Colony".
During the 1930's a concerted effort was made by automobile workers and UAW(United Automobile Workers) activists to unionise car plants. Riots broke out as unionists met the 'police' while campaigning. So began the first real Union v Industry battle. The first battle in a war which would engulf the large part of the twentieth century until the present day. In fact as recently as 1988, the Ford car workers of Britain went out on strike against unfair dismissal. A phrase common to a lot of past and present Ford employees.
The crunch for Ford came in 1941. Men in the River Rouge plant had been joining the union. A Ballot was held and only 34 of the 78,000 workers wanted no union. Strikes and union pressure seeped into all the Ford plants and all other major manufacturing industries in the following years.