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International Socialist Review, Winter 1964


Evelyn Sell

The Flivver King: A Centennial Appraisal


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.1, Winter 1964, pp.17-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This year marks the one-hundreth anniversary of the birth of Henry Ford, the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Ford Motor Company and the fiftieth anniversary of the moving assembly line introduced to the world at the Ford Highland Park plant. Throughout this past year newspaper articles have been glorifying the accomplishments of Henry Ford. Here is a view of Henry Ford and the empire he founded from the other side of the class fence.

* * *

THE Emancipation Proclamation was seven months old when Henry Ford was born on a farm near Dearborn, Michigan. Four months before his second birthday, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomatox. Ford’s boyhood years were set against a background of tremendous industrial expansion. The years after the Civil War marked a new stage in the development of this country. A new industrial revolution swept over America. The development of the western lands, long delayed by the conflicts between the North and South, now proceeded rapidly. During Ford’s young manhood the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans laid down the foundations of their great wealth and power.

The American economy was on the boom; there were no limits! The American Way was an example to the whole world. Here were all the answers to mankind’s dreams! Free Enterprise! High Standard of Living! Class peace and Class Co-operation!

Henry Ford became the personification of the American Dream. If Ford could do it, why not you or I? His life was a shining example of how “a poor boy could succeed to fame and riches in America.” His father was an Irish immigrant, driven from his country by the devastating Potato Famine of 1846. Henry was born July 30, 1863, on the family farm near Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. At that time the average income of workers in the area was $330 a year. Detroit had a population of 50,000, and its principal industry was the grinding of corn and wheat.

Big City Life

Henry was trained to follow in his father’s foosteps, but he hated farming. In his autobiography Ford explained,

“It was life on the farm that drove me into devising ways and means to better transportation ... There was too much hard hand labour on our own and all other farms of the time. Even when very young I suspected that much might somehow be done in a better way. That is what took me into mechanics ...”

So, at the age of seventeen, Henry left the farm and went to the Big City. By then, Detroit’s population had grown to almost 117,000, and the city was a busy manufacturing center, with iron foundries, machine shops, wagon and carriage works, flour mills and breweries.

The young boy started working at the Michigan Car Company for $1.10 a day. This was the largest railroad car producer in the country at that time and boasted a work force of 1,900 men, a crude assembly line and a production record of almost ten railroad cars a day. From there, Ford went on to jobs as a machine-shop apprentice, a traveling repair man for a farm machinery firm and finally as the chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company. He worked days around electricity, and he worked nights and Sundays on a gasoline engine.

The horseless carriage was on the minds of many men at that time. The first internal combustion engine had already been created through the work of Nicolaus Otto. In 1886, Gottlieb Daimler drove an automobile through the streets of Paris. European production of motor cars led the field for the first couple of decades of auto manufacture, but soon the Americans were getting into the act. In the Scientific American of May 21, 1892 Ransom E. Olds boasted about his steam carriage, “It never kicks or bites, never tires on long runs, and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable and only eats while on the road.”

On March 6, 1896 auto pioneer Charles B. King drove the first horseless carriage seen on the streets of Detroit. Later that year Henry Ford drove his first car. His success encouraged him to devote himself to the automobile industry. After two rather unsuccessful essays into manufacturing autos, Ford organized the Ford Motor Company in 1903. He was then forty years old – and in his case, life really did begin at forty! Within four years the company, which had started off with a total cash investment of only $28,000, was able to show a net return of 310 percent on its original investment. (Imagine starting an auto company today with only $28,000 or even one-hundred times that amount!)

IN THE first five years of its existence the Ford Motor Company experimented with eight different models of cars, varying in price from $850 to $2,000. As a result of these experiences, Ford discovered a great truth: “Every time I reduce the charge for our car by one dollar, I get a thousand new buyers.” In 1908, therefore, he stated that his company “would limit its efforts to the production of a single, standardized, relatively inexpensive car.”

Ford was at the brink of the greatest period of his life. In the next dozen years he would make his greatest contribution to the industrial development of mankind. He would revolutionize the social and work life of the American people, and he would accumulate the greatest personal fortune in the country.

They say that behind every great man there stands a woman. Well, behind Henry Ford stood Lizzie – the “Tin Lizzie,” “Model T,” “Mechanical Cockroach,” “the Flivver.” She was born in October 1908, and she died May, 1927, at the ripe old age of eighteen. By the end of her first year she had outsold every other car made. By the time she died 15,000,000 Model T’s had been built. Her price through the years ranged from $900 to $265. Gross sales in her lifetime came to $7 billion. The year she was born there were about 200,000 autos on the roads, and over 200 companies were making cars like the Hup-mobile, Stanley Steamer, Cadillac, Reo, Buick, Maxwell; more than half of the population of the US lived in the country or in very small towns; choice rib roast of beef cost $.10 a pound; the average weekly earnings in manufacturing were $9.84 for a fifty-one-hour week. Automobiles were out of the reach of the ordinary farmer or workingman. That was the world of the Model T – a world she was to help change forever.

Ford had announced:

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Ford couldn’t build that kind of car under the conditions which existed in the automobile industry at that time. In order to create a car “for the great multitude” he had to revolutionize the technique of auto production. That revolution has been conveniently summed up under the term “mass production” – a term that has become synonymous with the name of Ford all across the world.

Birth of Mass Production

The elements of mass production already existed in American industry when Ford ordered his engineers and designers to devise ways and means of bringing about his dream of a car for the great multitude. Eli Whitney had already used a system of interchangeable parts to make rifles back in 1800. (In 1903 auto genius Henry Leland amazed Englishmen when he took three American-made Cadillacs apart, removed ninety-one parts from the heap of materials, substituted ninety-one stock parts, put the cars back together again with screw drivers and wrenches and concluded the demonstration by speeding the reconstructed cars around a race track.)

Moving belts were already in use in sawmills, and overhead conveyors were an integral part of the Chicago meat industry. Quantity production of commodities had gone on for years in the making of bicycles, telephone sets, typewriters, cash registers, clocks, watches and sewing machines.

The Ford personnel drew on these previous developments, refined them, and put them together in an over-all system of production. Mass production depends on the complete synchronization of all its parts: the creation of standardized, interchangeable parts by precision machine tools; simplification of design; very fine division and subdivision of labor; factory lay-out which allows for the steady progress of the materials from one point to the next; continuous motion of all parts, so that the right thing is at the right place at the right time. This system has been adapted by industries and fields outside of the automobile world and is one of the foundations of modern civilization. A car for the masses became a new pattern of living and working and consuming for the masses.

The results of the new system, which developed over the period of five years, 1908 to 1913, were immediate and phenomenal for the Ford Motor Company. Under the old system a car was built pretty much as a house is built today. It was put together at some particular spot on the floor, where the workers would bring parts to the growing car as they were needed. Before the new assembly techniques were fully worked out, each chassis represented twelve-and-a-half hours of labor. A crude assembly line was put into operation, and the time was cut to five hours and fifty minutes. By December 1, 1913 the time was cut to two hours and thirty-eight minutes. In January 1914 the time was cut to one hour thirty-three minutes. The progress of mankind is measured in hours and minutes of labor time saved in the production of man’s material needs and desires.

The name Ford was carried across the world on the radiators of the Tin Lizzie – bringing America and the American Dream to remote corners of the world. Lizzie was no beauty, but she sure got around, and she sure was loved. She helped transform rural American life. That city siren, Lizzie, brought the farmer into the mainstream of modern industrial life. Ford realized his childhood dream of doing something to better farm labor.

Around 1910 farmers began sending photos into the Ford Motor Company showing Lizzie hauling leads, pulling plows and supplying power for threshing machines, water pumps, circular saws and even vacuum cleaners. Ford had called the Model T “the Universal Car” – and so she was for the farmer.

The Tin Lizzie was, also, the Universal Joke, and Ford loved every joke about his creation; they were the best free advertisements in the world. As a matter of fact, when he visited President Wilson in 1915 he told the President his own original Tin Lizzie joke. It seemed he was passing a cemetery one day and noticed a grave-digger excavating an exceptionally large hole. When he asked about the unusual size, he got this answer, “Well, the deceased provided in his will that he must be buried in his Ford because, said he, ‘My Ford has pulled me out of every hole thus far; I’m sure it will pull me out of the last one.’”

For many years the jokes about Lizzie’s lack of speedometers and shock absorbers were affectionately told, but towards the end of her life the jokes had a biting edge to them. In putting America on wheels, Ford had set off a chain of events that eventually doomed the Model T. With more cars on the road, there were successful campaigns to get better highways. Good roads meant that Lizzie’s high clearance and flexible frame were no longer needed. The maturing of the automobile industry meant that cheap second-hand cars were becoming available. Lizzie’s low price had real competition, and installment buying meant that people could afford more expensive cars. Other auto companies, catching up to and even surpassing Ford production techniques, were cutting into the Model T market with disastrous results. Ford had said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it’s black.” Americans had put up with that mandate for many long years, but the new-slung, streamlined, powerful cars, with all kinds of modern improvements, pleased style-conscious customers much more than did Lizzie’s old-fashioned, never-changing style and utilitarian drabness.

MODEL T sales slipped from forty-eight percent of the market in 1924 to forty percent in 1925 to thirty-nine percent in 1926. Never again was Ford to lead the pack. His position in American society, however, had been very firmly established during the great creative days of the Model T. He became the only individual in America to have total control over an organization the size of the Ford Motor Company – not even Rockefeller or Morgan could make such a claim! He was one of the richest, most powerful capitalists of all time, yet he posed as “just plain folks.” He once visited one of the Morgan partners and afterwards remarked to newspapermen, “It’s a great experience to see how the rich live.”

How did Ford himself live? Well, in 1927 the New York Times concluded that Henry and Edsel Ford “were the richest men on earth.” Ford had a $600,000 yacht; he founded his own country club when he briefly became interested in golf; he played host to visiting royalty from Europe, and when he went to England he was received by the King and Queen; he used his own private railroad car when he traveled; the Ford residence, Fairlane, was valued at more than $1 million, and, in addition, he had a winter home on the Gulf of Mexico and a 100,000 acre plantation in Georgia. Of course, even Ford had his limits. He never did own a Cadillac.

You’ve probably heard that tired old argument: the poor are really happier than the rich; the best things in life are free. The writer Upton Sinclair once asked Ford, “Does the possession of great wealth make you happier than you would be without it?”

“Yes, of course,” answered Ford, “because I can do things with it that I could not do otherwise ... In those days [before he was so wealthy] I was struggling to do something. Now I am in a position to do it, and do it exactly as I want to do it.”

The things he did went far beyond the auto empire he built and controlled. What Ford said and what Ford did became important and newsworthy – not because his statements were profound, or original, or his actions were particularly commendable, but because, in a land where money talks, the biggest money talks loudest and is most easily heard.

Ford, the Anti-Capitalist

It’s really surprising to hear and read some of the things Ford said and wrote during his lifetime. He was one of the richest, most powerful capitalists the world had ever seen. He made millions from war contracts. Yet he made these statements: “Do you want to know the cause of war? It is capitalism, greed, the dirty hunger for dollars. Take away the capitalist and you will sweep war from the earth.”

As a result of the contradiction between what Ford really was and what he appeared to be, he earned the admiration and respect of both the rich and the poor. He was admired by the sharp operators and the big money circles because he was their blood brother. The farmers and working people of this country admired and even loved him, mainly because he became inseparably associated with the creation and benefits of mass production. Ford never let anyone else take credit for the achievements of the Ford Motor Company, and since the company bore his name and was owned and controlled by the Ford family, it was easy to personalize every achievement. Every discovery was publicized as due to the “guiding” genius of Mr. Ford, from the development of soy beans to the treatment of physical ailments at the Henry Ford Hospital.

The second reason Ford was liked by millions of Americans was because he seemed to be fighting on the side of the poor and the helpless against Wall Street, the monopolists and the war-makers. At a time when the country was alarmed over the growing power of trusts and monopolies, Ford single-handedly fought against monopoly in the auto industry. Some ninety percent of American auto manufacturers were organized into the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers. The ALAM used the Selden Patent to literally blackmail manufacturers into paying royalties and buying licenses from the association. Ford refused to accept the claims of the Selden Patent and battled it for eight years until the courts ruled in 1911 that the Selden Patent did not cover the type of motor vehicle then commonly produced in the US Ford’s victory was hailed as the conquest of David against Goliath.

The story goes that back in 1923 two Wall Street operators were discussing Ford, and one said, “Ford talks like a socialist.”

“Yes,” responded the other, “but he acts like one of us and he gets away with it.”

How could Ford “get away with it?” A look at what he was doing and saying during the reign of Queen Lizzie explains how he earned the admiration of both the capitalists and the working and farming population.

Ford, the Philanthropist

In 1914 Ford electrified the nation with the announcement that he would pay “even the lowliest laborer and the man who merely sweeps the floor” $5 a day, and he would reduce the work day down to eight hours. Ford was then paying his workers the prevailing rate in the area, $2.34 a day. His labor policies had never been radically different from other employers in the industry. Detroit was a notorious open-shop city, and the Employers’ Association of Detroit ruled supreme. This group included about sixty-seven firms, representing a wide cross-section of industries. Its labor bureau screened out workers with pro-union sentiments, and the laborers referred to it bitterly as “The Union Wreckers’ Association.” The Ford Motor Company had become active in this group in 1910.

Now, Ford suddenly more than doubled the basic wage at his plant. Five dollars a day! Workers by the thousands flocked to Detroit from all corners of the nation. The millennium had come for sure. At first his fellow-capitalists called Ford a traitor to his class. The editors of the Wall Street Journal called his plan an “economic crime.” Ford called it “profit-sharing.”

The first to learn the bitter lesson of the five-dollar day were the thousands who crowded in front of the Ford employment office. The second week after the announcement there were still several thousand hopefuls waiting in the slush of a miserable January day. When the day shift workers tried to push a path through the crowd in order to enter the plant, fights broke out. A full-scale street riot resulted. Police finally ended the fracas by turning fire hoses on the unemployed men. The water instantly froze on them.

The workers inside the plant found the five-dollar day to be only a sugar-coated bitter pill. Like American Motor’s profit-sharing in 1962, Ford’s 1914 version was based on speed-up. The end result of Ford’s plan was that the over-all wage of Ford workers remained about the same as in other plants in the area. Even two-and-a-half years after profit-sharing was announced, thirty precent of the Ford workers were still earning less than $5 a day

The great profit-sharing plan turned out to be full of tricky gimmicks. In the first place, the $5 didn’t apply to women workers, unmarried men under 22, married men who were not supporting a family, or to any person who was “living unworthily as a profit-sharer.” How did Ford decide who was unworthy? He created the Ford Sociological Department, which started out with thirty investigators and rose to a peak of 150 by 1919. This “peace corps” visited workers’ homes in order to encourage savings acounts, budgeting of incomes and Americanization for the foreign-born. They gave lessons in hygiene and home management to the wives, forbade the use of liquor and frowned upon divorces.

Then they made sure their moral lessons were being taken to heart. Wives were called on to inform on husbands; children were asked about parents, neighbors about neighbors. If a worker was not living up to Ford ideals he was suspended from the profit-sharing plan. His pay was cut in half. Each month he was a black sheep meant that much less pay when he was finally reinstated. After five months probation, the most he could hope for was a twenty-five percent bonus or $3.01 a day. If he didn’t straighten up and fly right within six months, he was discharged.

FORD immediately winnowed the profit out of profit-sharing while the workers had to wait quite a while to do the sharing. The work was speeded up, and the fear of losing what little benefits there were drove the workers to conform to the Ford conditions. Meanwhile Ford basked in the limelight and modestly disclaimed any credit for his revolutionary departure from accepted wage scales. It was just good business to share the wealth with his workers. “If the floor-sweeper’s heart is in his job he can save us five dollars a day by picking up small tools instead of sweeping them out.” In years to come he would announce the six-dollar day (1919), the five-day-week (1926) and the seven-dollar-day (1929). He was proclaimed a great public benefactor each time, but his brother capitalists and the workers on the line knew what he meant when he said, “The payment of the five dollars a day for an eight hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made, and the six dollar day was cheaper than the five.” Two months after the announcement of the five-day-week he announced, “We are today producing the same number of cars with the same number of men as we formerly produced in the six-day-week.” Ford really meant it when he said, “I give nothing for which I do not receive compensation.”

He shared his profits with his customers, too – and received compensation. In the summer of 1914 he announced that every buyer of a Ford would receive a $50 refund if 300,000 cars were sold within the next twelve months. He paid out $15½ million in rebates the following summer. How could anyone question his right to rake in the extra profits resulting from such phenomenal sales or his concern for the little people of this world, especially after his other spectacular activity of 1915: the Ford Peace Ship?

Ford, the Pacifist

Ford had been concerned over American involvement in the European war, and a newspaper reporter quoted him as saying, “I will do everything in my power to prevent murderous, wasteful war in America and in the whole world.” Besieged by anti-war groups and letters, Ford chose to support a plan to establish the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation which would attempt to bring the belligerent nations into peace negotiations. In November, 1915, he told the press, “We’re going to try to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas. I’ve chartered a ship and some of us are going to Europe.” On December 4, the Oscar II sailed for Scandinavia. The press called it a “loon ship” full of “rainbow-chasers” and “crack-brained dreamers.” Ford left the peace delegates and returned to America after the Oscar II reached Europe, but he continued to support the group until February 1917 when President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany.

When America entered World War I, Ford urged the nation to “back our Uncle Samuel with a shotgun loaded to the muzzle with buckshot.” He declared that all of his war profits would be turned over to the government. His avowed disdain for war profiteering made great publicity, but an inquiring reporter, checking up on Ford’s statement, received this letter in 1928 from Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury: “The Treasury records do not show the receipt of any such donation.”

Ford’s reputation on both sides of the class fence brought him into politics twice. In 1918 Ford’s candidacy for US Senator from Michigan was urged by President Wilson. Ford supported Wilson’s plans for a League of Nations, and he had contributed heavily to a political campaign that won California for Wilson in 1916. Ford said, “I have been commanded to run for Senator. Now, we shall see whether I can build anything but automobiles, tractors and ships.” The New York Times observed that Ford’s entrance into politics “would create a vacancy both in the Senate and in the automobile business.” In the election Ford carried his own community by 2 to 1, but lost the state by about 7,500 votes. He explained that he had been defeated by “Wall Street” and an “influential gang of Jews.”

Ford the Anti-Semite

Ford’s campaign against the Jews was a long and vicious one. It was carried out mainly in the pages of the Dearborn Independent. When Ford bought this paper in 1919 it was a sleepy rural weekly with a small circulation limited to the village of Dearborn. Under Ford it reached a peak circulation of 700,000 readers. The paper railed against sinful sex, rum, Hollywood orgies, wild Parisians, jazz and the “speculative capitalist” of Wall Street. At the same time, it supported the striking steel workers in 1919 and the striking coal miners in 1922.

On May 22, 1920, Ford opened fire on the Jews with a front page editorial entitled, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” This was the first in a series that ran for ninety-one consecutive issues. It was later reprinted in book form, translated into many foreign languages and was a stock text in the bookshelves of the American fascists of the thirties. The Jews were presented as destroyers of the American Way of Life. They were “vile,” “lewd,” “erotic,” “criminal”; they were responsible for the “skunk-cabbage of American Jazz,” crime waves and the corruption of American sports. Queen Isabella, who financed Columbus, was really a “Jewish front.” Benedict Arnold was a “Jewish front.”

Ford’s second venture into politics came in the middle of this anti-Semitic campaign. In the summer of 1922 Ford-For-President circulars were being distributed. The Dearborn Independent printed statements like: “The next President of the United States will be a man who can read a blueprint and who understands the problems of production and how to keep men employed.” The August 8, 1923 issue of Collier’s magazine carried a Ford-authorized article, If I Were President. Public-opinion polls that year showed that he had a great deal of popular support. When Hitler heard about Ford-for-President he told a Chicago Tribune reporter, “I wish that I could send some of my shock troops to Chicago and other big American cities to help in the elections ... We look to Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascist movement in America.”

The campaign for the White House took a back-seat, however, to Ford’s campaign to buy the government-developed power sites at Muscle Shoals. Ford was invited to the White House for a personal conference with Calvin Coolidge. Several days later Coolidge recommended to Congress that Muscle Shoals be sold to private interests. Three weeks later Ford announced, “Mr. Coolidge means to do right. I would never for a moment think of running against Calvin Coolidge for President on any ticket whatever.” Ford, of course, never got Muscle Shoals. Instead, a 1933 act of Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Ford had lost that rich plum, and soon he was to eat humble pie. In 1927, attorney Aaron Sapiro sued Ford for $1 million damages. An article in the Dearborn Independent had accused Sapiro of fleecing his clients. Ford’s whole anti-Semitic campaign was put on trial when the case came to court. W.J. Cameron, the editor of the Dearborn Independent, helped Ford save face by taking full responsibility for everything printed in the paper. The case was finally settled out of court. Ford personally apologized to Sapiro, and a full retraction of the smear articles was printed.

It was thought by many in the Ford organization that his campaign against the Jews had cost him considerable car sales. The Model T could hardly stand any cuts in sales during those years. Sales kept going down, down, down. In May, 1927, Ford abruptly discontinued the Model T. Ford plants were shut down for a complete re-rtooling job. The long shut-down affected 60,000 workers in the Detroit area alone and some 500,000 throughout the country. Workers, parts manufacturers, auto dealers, suppliers, merchants throughout the nation suffered. By the time Ford was back to full production on the new car, the Model A, the workers had no choice but to accept demotions, wage-cuts, speed-up and added job insecurity.

Ford spiced up the long payless months with remarks like:

“If there is any unemployment it is simply because the unemployed do not want work.”

“I know it’s done them a lot of good – everybody gets extravagant – to let them know that things are not going along too even always.”

Ford, the Philosopher

When the Great Depression paralyzed the country two years later, Ford had some more gems to offer:

“... the very poor are recruited almost solely from the people who refuse to think and therefore refuse to work diligently.”

“It’s a good thing the recovery is prolonged. Otherwise people wouldn’t profit by the illness.”

“The average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it.”

“I think that the depression really taught a lot of people how to love their fellow men ... we did find a blessing in economic misfortune ...”

(Just to show that Ford’s ideas weren’t really old-fashioned compare his remarks with Harry Truman’s statement in 1950: “A certain amount of unemployment, say from three million to five million, is supportable. It is a good thing that job seeking should go on at all times. This is healthy for the economic body.”)

Mr. Ford had his own ideas on how to cope with the depression. One of his pet schemes centered around the village of Inkster. This was a jerry-built community of five-hundred families, most of whom were Negro. Ford decided to make a shining example of Inkster. He set up a public commissary, saw to it that the families were decently housed and clothed, paid up their back bills. Ford hired every adult male in the village and put them to work at the Ford Motor Company at $4 a day. One dollar of that wage was given to the worker and carefully budgeted for him so that the vital requirements of the family were covered. The other three dollars were retained by the company in order to pay back the costs of rehabilitating Inkster. This check-off was continued even after the plan was officially ended in 1933. In 1934 Inkster men complained that they had been fired for “insubordination” because they demanded an accounting of their past debts and the payment of their full wages.

Ford, the Killer

This was gentle treatment, however, compared with Ford’s reaction to other victims of the depression. In March, 1932 the unemployed in the Detroit area decided to organize a hunger march on the Rouge plant. They wanted to present their demands for jobs or adequate relief. Their march through Detroit was authorized by the mayor, but when they reached the city limits of Dearborn, they were stopped by the Dearborn police. The Dearborn city administration functioned as a political department of the Ford Motor Company. In this case they served as an addition to the regular Ford plant protection department. Armed with tear gas bombs, th,ey insisted that the hunger-marchers stop at the Dearborn city line. The Rouge plant lay one mile beyond. The three-hundred hunger-marchers kept on marching, and the police tried to stop them with force and violence. A running free-for-all resulted. The battles finally ended up at Gate Three of the Rouge. Two high-pressure fire hoses were run out from the plant and used on the unemployed. Then the Dearborn police and Ford’s private police opened fire on the crowd. Four of the hunger-marchers were shot dead, and a couple of dozen were wounded. While the bodies of these dead men were being publicly mourned in Detroit, Ford was busy preparing for an expected “Red Invasion.” Armed guards patrolled the Rouge; floodlights lit up the gates at night; tear gas supplies were readied and machine guns were set up.

Five years passed before Ford staged a repeat performance. During those five intervening years, the sit-down strikes had shaken the thrones of American big business; the General Motors and Chrysler workers had won the right to organize and bargain collectively. On May 26, 1937 a group of fifty or sixty unionists, led by Walter Reu-ther and Richard Frankensteen, attempted to distribute handbills to the Rouge workers. When the unionists stepped onto the Miller Road overpass they were attacked by the waiting goons. Ford “servicemen” viciously beat and kicked men and women distributors, under the eyes of shocked observers and newspaper reporters. Newspapermen were threatened, and their films and notes were grabbed away. The story of the “Battle of the Overpass” became a nationwide sensation.

This was only one of many gory stories that make up the history of unionization at Ford’s. Ford had declared: “We will never recognize the United Auto Workers Union or any other union. Labor union organizations are the worst thing that ever struck the earth, because they take away a man’s independence.” (This from a man who pried into every intimate, personal habit of his employees’ lives!) Ford’s right-hand man, Harry Bennett, echoed his master’s views. He called unions “irresponsible, un-American, and no Goddamn good.”

BETWEEN them, Ford and Bennett created the largest semi-military organization in existence – a private police force to keep the Ford worker in his place and Henry Ford in his. The Service Department ruled over the Ford workers for some twenty years. Most of the members were ex-convicts, but many were ex-boxers, wrestlers and sports figures. Known gangsters were part of the department. They terrorized the workers by beatings (many right in the aisles of the plant), destruction of tools, threats, loss of jobs. From 1937 to 1939 there was one “serviceman” for every thirty production workers at the Rouge. At the Kansas City assembly plant the ratio was one to fourteen.

The Service Department was an economic necessity for Henry Ford. The really revolutionary days of the Ford technology were over by 1921. Increased production was possible only by speeding-up the work and forcing the men to snap-to-it! Ford workers were forbidden to talk, whistle, or sing on the job – or even during their fifteen-minute lunch periods. As Ford said, “There is not much personal contact – the men do their work and go home – a factory is not a drawing room.” It was forbidden to sit down or to lean against a post. No assembly line in the field drained the life out of the men or aged them more quickly than Ford’s. Ford’s solution for the strains and pressures of the assembly line was to advise, “Anyone who does not like to work in our way may always leave.”

Henry Ford, who proclaimed himself for “a man’s independence,” thought smoking was bad, so his workers were forbidden to smoke. He issued a pamphlet called The Case Against the Little White Slaver. In the introduction, written by Ford, it was pointed cut: “If you will study the history of almost any criminal, you will find that he is an inveterate cigarette smoker. Boys, through cigarettes, train with bad company. They go with other smokers to the pool-rooms and saloons. The cigarette drags them down.” Funny? Quaint? Yes, but the writer was the owner of huge factories where his word was law. He had the power to force his workers to bow to his whims, no matter how stupid or laughable.

Ford Local #600 recently commemorated the twenty-second anniversary of the first strike at the Rouge plant. The April 4 Detroit Labor News quoted Ken Bannon, now head of the UAW Ford Department:

“There are over 100,000 other people who are working for Ford’s today that don’t know what it was like back in the days before the union when our hands were bloody all day from Monday morning to Friday night because we weren’t permitted to wear safety gloves.”

Ford, the Union Buster

Ford and Bennett pulled every trick in the book to keep the union out of the Ford plants. Suspected and known union sympathizers were fired, beaten up, intimidated. Workers were spied on inside the plant, where their lunch buckets and overcoat pockets were searched, and outside the plant, where their conversations in bars, stores and restaurants were taken down and duly reported. Phony company unions were formed. Attempts were made to bribe and corrupt union officials. At one point, Hary Bennett boasted that half of his men were undercover spies within the union itself.

The Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board backed up the Ford workers and the union organizers. Their records were full of bloody tales from the Ford plants. No other employer in the country had as bad a record with the NLRB as did Henry Ford. From 1939 through 1941 the Board found Ford guilty of unfair labor practices in nine separate rulings. In February, 1941 the Supreme Court forced Ford to put up compliance notices in the Rouge plant stating that the workers could organize a union without interference from the company. Thousands of Ford workers showed up for work wearing the long-forbidden union button. Pro-union signs mysteriously appeared all over the plant. Shop stewards began demanding that management settle grievances that had been piling up for forty years. An NLRB election was set up so that the workers could vote on the kind of union representation they wanted.

Court rulings and laws could only go so far, however. Local 600 still had to be organized through the direct action of the workers themselves. Ford and Bennett didn’t care about the law – they were the law in their kingdom. In spite of all the rulings, they continued to fight against the union. Just before the NLRB election Bennett finally set off a mass strike. In April 1941 he fired the eight unionists who made up the over-all grievance committee. For the first time in its history, the mammoth Rouge plant was shut down by the workers.

Henry Ford had said, “Anyone who does not like to work in our way may always leave.” Well, one line April day Ford suddenly found himself with the largest auto plant in the world but with no workers. The workers proved that in their solidarity there was a much greater power than in all of Ford’s millions.

The governor of Michigan finally arranged a meeting between the company and the union representatives. On May 21, 1941, 83,000 Ford workers at three Detroit area plants voted on their choice of three kinds of union representation. Less than three percent voted for “no union at all.” A little more than twenty-five percent voted AFL and seventy percent (58,000) voted for the CIO. The contract, drawn up on June 21, included all the union demands plus two surprise additions from Ford. Ford declared that anyone wishing to work in his plants must join the union, and he volunteered to collect union dues from employee pay checks and turn them over to the union. No other auto company at that time had granted the closed shop or the dues check-off.

The story is told that a few months after the contract was signed Reuther met Ford while on an inspection trip through the Willow Run bomber plant. Ford told the union leader:

“You know, Mr. Reuther, it was one of the most sensible things Harry Bennett ever did when he got the UAW into this plant ... you’ve been fighting General Motors and the Wall Street crowd. Now you’re in here and we’ve given you a union shop and more than you got out of them. That puts you on our side, doesn’t it? We can fight General Motors and Wall Street together, eh?”

The statement that Bennett “got the UAW” into Ford plants was pure gall, but the idea that the Ford workers were on the side of the Ford management in their common fight against Wall Street and the competition was pure Henry Fordism.

ALL through his writings and statements there runs the idea that the worker and the capitalist are partners in the individual enterprise and in the economy as a whole. Ford called wages “partnership distributions.” What was good for the capitalist was good for the worker, and what was good for the worker was good for the capitalist.

“If you cut wages,” he wrote, “you just cut the number of your own customers. If an employer does not share prosperity with those who make him prosperous, then pretty soon there will be no prosperity to share. That is why we think it is good business always to raise wages and never to lower them. We like to have plenty of customers.”

Prohibition, for example, was considered good because it helped this partnership relationship between the bosses and the bossed.

“The coming of prohibition has put more of the workman’s money into savings banks and into his wife’s pocketbook ... Workmen go out of doors, go on picnics, have time to see their children and play with them – and, incidentally, they buy more. This stimulates business and increases prosperity, and in the general economic circle the money passes through industry again and back into the workman’s pocket. It is a truism that what benefits one is bound to benefit all, and labor is coming to see the truth of this more every day.”

The labor leaders of today have embraced this Fordism; they have swallowed this phony partnership theory, hook, line and sinker. Reuther was brutally beaten by his “partners” in 1941, but, as they say, time heals all wounds. Reuther today talks and acts like a partner of the industrialists; he is now a “labor statesman.” It’s not so easy, however, for the rank-and-file workers to forget the years of terror, speedup, wage cuts, and dictatorship over their most intimate personal habits. They are constantly reminded by the daily problems they still face in the plant today. Job security, decent working conditions and personal freedoms were not won through “partnership” with Ford but only through struggle against Ford. The Apostle of Class Harmony and Class Co-operation provided the American workers with some of the most bitter lessons of the reality of class struggle and class antagonism in American labor history.

Who Creates Class Struggle?

Some people have the mistaken idea that Marx and the communists create class struggle. The plain truth of the matter is that capitalists create the class struggle in today’s world. Capitalism not only created modern industry but the modern working class as well. In creating his gigantic industrial empire, Ford produced more than automobiles – he produced the Ford worker. Thousands upon thousands were taken from the farms, forests and small towns and brought into modern industrial urban life. Ford promised them a better life – and they insisted on getting that better life. He broke their backs on the assembly line, but at the same time he unified them in terms of their common physical surroundings, their common problems and their common aims. They didn’t dare talk together in the plant, but they thought together, and once outside the plant they met together and planned together. Ford imported Negroes from the South and tried to use them as strikebreakers, instead creating a new source of strength and militancy for Local 600. Ford used government bodies and the courts in order to maintain his rule, and he forced the workers to learn the truth about capitalist politics and capitalist justice. Ford himself forced his workers to develop class consciousness, class organization and militant methods of class struggle.

When Dean Marquis was head of the Ford Sociology Department, he told the National Educational Association:

“The impression has somehow got around that Henry Ford is in the automobile business. It isn’t true. Mr. Ford shoots about fifteen hundred cars out the back door of his factory every day just to get rid of them. They are but the by-product of his real business, which is the making of men.”

The end product of the Ford assembly line was not the Ford car but the Ford worker and Ford Local #600. The two greatest achievements of Henry Ford can be summed up in those two marvels of twentieth century capitalism: the fabulous Rouge plant and the men working inside it.

In 1945 the creator of those wonders of the modern age suffered the first sharp mental and physical decline of his life. His grandson, Henry II, became president. Ford died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 7, 1947. He was not quite eighty-four years old. They say that as the pallbearers were carrying his casket, a light tapping was heard from inside the coffin, and the old familiar voice commanded, “Put this thing on wheels and lay off six men.”

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Last updated on 2 June 2009