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Julius Falk

Henry Ford: Apostle of the Assembly Line
and Speed-Up

(28 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 17, 28 April 1947, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Part inventive genius and industrial innovator; part dictator, semiliterate Babbitt, underhanded maneuverer and exploiter, combined with a ruthless persistency – that was Henry Ford. All these characteristics rolled up into one man living at a time and in a social order where such talents could best blossom made Henry Ford. They made the Ford family and made the Ford empire. An empire with its heart in Detroit and arteries which encompassed the globe: Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, Mexico, the British Isles, the Far East, the jungles of South America ... An empire in auto cutting across many industries; within its domain are mines and ships, lumber mills and railroads. An empire that long ago passed the billion-dollar mark.


Any appraisal of Ford must abstract his industrial genius from his reactionary bigoted views in order better to gauge the more lasting importance he has had in shaping America’s economic patterns.

Ford’s most significant contribution to industrial life was not so much his mechanical skill as his innovations in production techniques. Autos had been invented in Europe while he was still toying with the idea and an American auto had made its appearance as early as 1879 – years before Ford’s first model.

Up until the early 1900’s the auto industry was for craftsmen only. The cost of production was high, the number of cars produced was few, the selling price exorbitant. The auto industry could not compete with the bicycle or horse and buggy, not to mention the products of the European automotive industry. Only the rich could afford a car.

In the early 1900’s, Ford struck out for himself. He broke away from his former partners, who were contented to keep the power-driven vehicle an exclusive, luxury commodity. Ford wanted to bring the auto into the average American home. There was real profit in that.

His plan was to produce cheaply and in quantity. A small profit per item perhaps but a greater market and a greater total profit.

Developing auto manufacture into a mass production industry was Ford’s goal, and its attainment was his significant industrial contribution. The cheap car influenced every aspect of American life, and more important, the method Ford employed in producing the cheap car set a telling example for all of industry to follow.

Ford’s mass production methods were not so novel as they were extreme. The belt system and interchangeable parts preceded Ford. But it was he who gave an unprecedented impetus to specialization of labor and breaking down the productive process to an infinite number of routine movements on a mass scale. Time was saved, the role of skills diminished, with the individual worker becoming a more productive automaton. Standardization reached a new level; a standard item could be replaced, saving time and money. Also in the Ford plants the assembly line was more extensively and more efficiently used than in any other industry.

Ford proved to the more complacent capitalist that a product with as many as 5,000 parts could be produced in large quantity and inexpensively.


Ford liked to think of himself as a humanitarian. He hired stooges and biographers to build up a Ford myth. They pointed to the high wage rates in Ford factories, to his “pacifist” views, and his kind disposition toward his workers and humanity in general.

Wages at Ford, higher than other industries at first, were dictated by necessity, not charity. The physical demands of Ford’s speed-up, mass production methods were backbreaking, and the tedium almost unbearable. To insure an adequate and more permanent working force, Ford had to attract workers with a scale above that of most other industries. Ford was paying his help a five-dollar-per-day minimum in 1914 and seven dollars and sixty cents a day by 1930. But that was poor compensation for the mental and physical exhaustion, almost without a contemporary parallel, suffered by the Ford workers, turning the same bolt or tightening the same screw, day after day, and week after week. Nor was the relatively high rate of $7.60 a day compensation for the employees’ idleness half the year. The Ford worker averaged $959 in 1930 – barely $4.00 a day when computed on an annual basis.

Not all could stand the pace at Ford. The labor turnover was tremendous. It was necessary for Ford to have an abundant labor market, a reservoir of unemployed men within reach from where he could draw reserves to fill the gaps in the assembly line left by overworked men, broken on Ford’s assembly racks. To insure a labor market he would send out calls for workers from distant points. Jobs with good pay were promised. Thousands would respond. Many of them with their families. They converged on Detroit from all sections of the country. But where thousands answered the call, only hundreds were hired. The rest were to be Ford’s reserve of hungry, unemployed men. When they protested this inhuman trick on a bitter cold January day in 1914, Ford’s kindly response was a high-pressured cold-water hose.

In March 1932 the Auto Workers Union and the Detroit unemployed councils called a hunger march on the Ford plant. A demonstration of men and women who had recently come from outlying sections of the country to answer one of Ford’s false alarms were joined by hundreds of militant workers from Ford. The demonstrators were met by the Ford-controlled police department. Tear gas was used in an attempt to break the demonstration. When that failed, machine guns and pistols succeeded. Two boys in their teens and two others in their twenties were murdered. Scores of others suffered from gun wounds, clubbed heads and gassing. This was not the first such incident nor the last.

When the workers in the Ford plants tried to organize into unions they met with savage opposition from Ford. The spy system was made more elaborate. Men who talked union were reported and promptly laid off, others were beaten by Ford thugs. A union organizer took his life in his hands when he distributed leaflets at the Ford gates. But not even the fascistic Black Legion or the terror of gangsters and ex-convicts being “rehabilitated” in Ford’s service department could stymie the union. By 1941 the United Automobile Workers cracked the Ford plants. The workers won their closed shop and many of their economic demands. And this union victory was one of the tragedies of Ford’s life!


Ford was a peace-loving man – so he and all his hirelings shouted to the heavens. He didn’t like wars. That didn’t inhibit him, however, from pocketing 30 million, dollars profit made selling war material to the Army in World War I and a like sum in World War II. Ford was a good business pacifist. In 1915, Ford, together with a number of similar light-minded luminaries, made a quixotic journey to Europe on his yacht to convince the warring powers that fighting was just a lot of tomfoolery. “History is bunk,” Ford once proclaimed – and he was out to prove it.

Instead of peace, Ford returned to the States with the hoary, forged, anti-Semitically inspired Protocols of Zion. He initiated an anti-Jewish crusade in the United States of unheard of proportions. He bought the Dearborn Independent in 1920, wherein his literary dregs vilified the Jewish people issue after issue for years.

In one of the first copies of his paper we read: “The main source of the sickness of the German national body is charged to be the influence of the Jews, and although this was apparent to acute minds years ago, it is now said to have gone so far as to be apparent to the least observing.” Further on: “There are no stronger contrasts in the world than the pure Germanic and the pure Semitic races.”

Small wonder that Adolf Hitler hung a picture of Ford on his walls. Not only did he find a kindred, bigoted spirit in the American industrialist but an excellent man to do business with, and an industrialist whose slave-driving efficiency German capitalists could profitably ape. To show his gratitude to Ford for the kind of man he was and for all the armored equipment the German Ford Werke was producing for the Wehrmacht, Hitler, in 1938, honored Ford with the Grand Cross of the German eagle – the highest award Germany could give a foreigner.

Ford liked to pose as a man who loved children, worshipped the sanctity of the home, donated profusely to charities; a man who never lost the earthly and spiritual qualities of his early boyhood on the farm.

The facts tell a different story.

Ford did nothing on a big scale which did not in one way or another enhance his fortune. He preached the sanctity of the home at the same time that the Black Legion invaded private homes at night to beat up union workers. Even domestic family quarrels were in his province for they affected profits. As Samuel Marquis of the Ford Sociological Department once put it: “Through our investigators, we frequently take a look into the homes of our employees. If conditions are not right in the home, we set ourselves the task of making them right ... Family quarrels have an almost immediate effect on the output of lathes and drills.”

Ford’s stooges often pointed to his personally controlled trade schools as examples of his good character. Not widely publicized, however, was the fact that he used the students in his factories under the pretext of giving them work experience. They did a man-sized job for only a token payment, and were often used to supplant older and better paid men. He hoped that these students would form the solid opposition to unionization.


Ford was a vicious man. Most of his energies were directed toward the accumulation of a vast fortune. Whoever stood in his path was ruthlessly brushed aside. He was anti-labor, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, an apostle of the most reactionary sections of American capitalism, and a devoted friend of men like Coughlin.

The labor movement will not mourn the death of Henry Ford.

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