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This Day in Labor History: March 5, 1972

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On March 5, 1972, the workers at General Motors’ plant in Lordstown, Ohio went on strike after authorizing it two days prior. They were angry about sped-up work at their factory, but ultimately this was a young and diverse workforce angry at the degrading and mind-numbing nature of industrial work. The 3-week strike received national attention as much for the generational rebellion it summed up as the labor strife itself. Employers and union leaders both feared the “Lordstown Syndrome” that seemed to be taking over American workplaces as young workers wanted more for their lives than a lifetime on the assembly line.

By 1972, the United Auto Workers was in transition after the death of its titanic president Walter Reuther in a 1970 plane crash. The UAW was about as left-leaning as any of the major internationals during the last years of the 60s. Although Reuther’s record on dealing with racism in UAW plants was mixed, he pushed for civil rights and personally opposed both the Vietnam War and the AFL-CIO’s support of it. Finally, in 1968, he pulled the UAW out of the federation, complaining of the Meany doing nothing, refusing to organize, and undermining labor’s future. Reuther planned to take his union on strike against GM in 1970 hoping for a revival of the old-school social movement unionism. He died but the plan continued after his death under the leadership of Leonard Woodcock. However, it wasn’t much of a win and nearly bankrupted the UAW. Despite the social movement talk, the strike operated within the traditional structure of postwar collective bargaining. Moreover, the new contract allowed the company to automate the line, combine two divisions in the plant, and eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, GM and other American car companies were beginning to face competition from low-price, high-mileage Japanese models. In response, GM created the Chevy Vega and chose to manufacture it in its new Lordstown, Ohio factory, just northwest of Youngstown. This new factory was engineered to do most of the work for the workers. Claimed a GM official, “The concept is based on making it easier for the guy on the line. We feel by giving him less to do he will do it better.”

Workers in Local 1172 hated it. By “giving him less to do,” GM really meant speeding up the line and laying workers off. The factory had previously made the Impala at a rate of 60 an hour. The Vega sped off the line at 100 an hour. This gave workers 36 seconds to a complete their task rather than 60. Workers resisted in a number of ways. The worked to rule, refusing to do anything outside of what was specifically stated in the contract. They smoked marijuana and drank on the job. The let cars go by without finishing them. They took days off or quit. They grieved everything. By January 1972, 5000 grievances clogged up the system, workers demanded the rehiring of laid off workers and slowed down production. This was a very young workforce, averaging only 24 years of age. These were young people imbued with the anger and rebellion of their generation. Some had fought in Vietnam. The plant was also highly integrated and with the overwhelming youth culture, the workers at least claimed that racial solidarity was more frequent than racial tension. Local 1172 president Gary Bryner, age 29, said, “The young black and white workers dig each other. There’s an understanding. The guy with the Afro, the guy with the beads, the guy with the goatee, he doesn’t care if he’s black, white, green, or yellow…..They just wanted to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

97% of the Lordstown workers voted to go on strike and it lasted 18 days. UAW leadership was distinctly uncomfortable with local uprisings. They took over the negiotiations and eliminated the empowerment of workers and shopfloor democracy that workers really wanted and brought it back to traditional collective bargaining. Both GM and UAW wanted this to end fast. So GM agreed to restore almost all the jobs eliminated in the 1970 contract and dropped 1400 disciplinary layoffs against current workers. So the workers won on one level, but not on another. Nothing really changed for workers. They still weren’t allowed to question production decisions or workplace culture. They weren’t allowed to play a role in the life of the factory like European auto plant workers, to which they compared their own lack of empowerment. They were still frustrated. Said a union official, “If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?”

UAW cartoon during Lordstown strike

Activists around the country saw what they wanted to in Lordstown. Ralph Nader thought this would do for workers “what the Berkeley situation of 1964 did for student awareness,” while New Left publications believed it was “a trial run of the class struggle of the 70s.” What was happening however was a general dissatisfaction of the American working class with industrial production labor. The mind-numbing pace, the lack of ability to shape one’s own future, this would lead to a number of interesting moments of working-class rebellion throughout the 70s. J.D. Smith, treasurer of the Lordstown UAW local, said “They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They’re not afraid of management. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.” The blue-collar rebellion became a fairly major media and political phenomenon of the period, with newspaper articles, TV reports, Senate hearings, and a presidential commission to study the issue.

The commission issued a report titled “Work in America,” that began the quality of work life movement,” that sought to make industrial labor more satisfactory and less mind-numbing. Perhaps these and other 70s working class rebellions could have led to concrete gains had industry not also engaged in widespread capital mobility, leading to the elimination of nearly all industrial jobs over the next twenty years, destabilizing the American working class, and destroying the cities of the industrial north. Government moves to bust unions certainly has blame too. In the PATCO strike, Reagan came down hard against air traffic controllers who had overthrown their previous union leadership to take a more militant stance.

Over the years, the radicalism of Local 1112 wore down. In the 1980s, workers picked their own union hall against concessions forced upon them by UAW leadership. Today, they talk the same management partnership language as the rest of the union. Surprisingly, the plant is still open and has made the Chevrolet Cruze since 2010.

Much of this was borrowed from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which I strongly recommend.

This is the 97th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    Leonard Woodstock. Leonard Woodcock, I believe. Woodstock was something else . . .

  • The Vega was, to put it mildly, junk.

    If a Vega didn’t have rust, that meant it was still on the assembly line.

    • I know you aren’t saying this, but so many people do so let me reiterate a point that really bothers me about these crappy 70s American cars. It wasn’t the workers’ or the union’ fault that the cars were bad, unless GM and Chrysler and Ford secretly became the only companies in America to allow workers to participate in design and engineering of the product.

      • postmodulator

        Yeah, that’s a neat propaganda trick someone pulled. There’s a lot of people in this country with the vague impression that GM cars in the 70s sucked because fat, lazy American workers weren’t putting enough bolts on or something.

        • ThrottleJockey

          I can’t say I’ve ever heard folks blame ’70s cars on the UAW–planned obsolescence and out-of-touch CEOs, sure, but not the workers. But that was before I read about people getting high & drunk on the job. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that high/drunk workers aren’t entirely unrelated to crappy cars.

          • DrDick

            I have.

          • mud man

            I think the point here is that high/drunk workers aren’t entirely unrelated to disempowerment and crappy working conditions

          • Linnaeus

            I can’t say I’ve ever heard folks blame ’70s cars on the UAW

            I have, especially in places where the UAW doesn’t have a strong presence. And sometimes even where it does.

          • DrDick

            To the extent that these stories are even true, that is also the fault of management. Union contracts clearly allow people to be fired for such behavior on the job. If they were not fired, it is because management either did not care or was too lazy to go through the process of firing them.

            • Another Holocene Human

              Actually, the testing culture happened during the Just Say No 80s. During the 70s a lot of blue collar workplaces had a drinking culture.

              Imo, when we’re talking about the production line that got replaced with robots it’s not clear to me that weed and drink weren’t just the real world version of Soma.

              During the 18th and 19th century some employers paid manual laborers partially in alcohol wages, as a deliberate gambit to keep the workforce down.

              GM also didn’t have the technology of Toyota, nor the culture of collaboration between white collar and blue collar. It was more ‘never the twain shall meet’. (This trickles down into cars that are hard to service as well.) The entire history of GM is a history of punished employees for stopping the line and speed-ups, all the way back to those bloody sit-down strikes. GM DIDN’T FUCKING CARE THAT THEY WERE CHURNING OUT SHIT. So who gives a fuck if employees took a liquid lunch? It probably numbed the pain of turning out parts you could see on the fucking line were bad!

          • Another Holocene Human

            My parents told me back in the 1980s that during the 70s (their formative years as young people) a bigshot auto exec had scoffed at building cars for young people and opined that they could just buy used cars.

            My mom was obsessed with safety, my dad with price, and both with fuel efficiency. They have bought nothing but foreign cars–and nothing but Japanese since I was born. They own two Honda Fits right now.

            They are midwesterners. I never once heard them suggest that auto workers had anything to do with cars sucking. All the things they cared about like headrests, seat belts, fuel efficiency, affordability, they placed squarely on management.

            • Linnaeus

              It isn’t always an either/or argument. A not uncommon narrative is that both managment and workers were to blame for the domestic automakers’ problems.

              • Another Holocene Human

                If the workers are ‘partially to blame’ I guess it’s because they didn’t have the foresight to institute reconfigurable machine tools like Toyota or create production line/engineer sit-downs like at NUMMI? NUMMI’s like a business management case study standard. As I recall, the workers completely agreed with this scheme. How far is a union supposed to go in terms of wildcat strikes because the company’s corporate vision and decisions are shit? Is that an Unfair Labor Practice? I mean, you expect workers to take illegal actions to correct crap management decisions? Should they march engineers onto the shop floor at gunpoint? Just not grokking the logic here.

                • Linnaeus

                  With respect to the workers, it usually goes something like this: union power made it too difficult to fire workers who did the job poorly and the wages and benefits unions negotiated were so high such that the competitiveness of the automakers was reduced, they couldn’t make the changes necessary to be more competitive, etc.

                • DrDick

                  Linnaeus – It is still a stupid argument, for the reasons I have specified. Management agreed to those conditions and there were provisions to allow employees to be fired for misbehavior, such as intoxication. Management either did not care enough or was too lazy to go through the process they agreed to to do it.

                • Linnaeus

                  Oh, trust me, I’m not agreeing with the argument. I’m just describing the argument as I’ve read it or as I’ve heard it.

                • DrDick

                  Yeah, that is the most common version I have heard (and I have been hearing it at least since the 1980s).

          • postmodulator

            I don’t mean this in a combative way, but have you ever worked on an assembly line? I have, and am absolutely confident that I could do the work required either drunk or stoned. (For the record, I never tried.)

            • BobS

              I have worked on an assembly line, albeit for a short time, and it is in fact possible to safely do an adequate job stoned. Drunk, I don’t know- I’d never have tried, although alcohol was the favorite drug of guys I worked with, and my wife’s dad was an alcoholic for virtually all the years he worked as a tradesman at a Ford plant.

              • Linnaeus

                My paternal grandfather was a die maker and was an alcoholic for a long time (though I don’t know if he drank on the job) and my father, also a die maker, was a heavy drinker himself (again, not sure if he did so while working).

      • BigHank53

        I don’t know if you’ve read Brock Yates’ The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. It’s meant for a general audience, so it’s more anecdote than data, but it’s got some useful insight. He talks about how the Big Three’s top executives would wake up in Grosse Pointe, walk out to their garage, get in their employer-provided car, and drive twelve miles to corporate headquarters where they’d park in the executive parking garage. While they were working, the staff in the garage would top up the fuel tank and perform periodic maintenance. And every six months they’d get a fresh car. They never had to deal with any quality issues, so they didn’t exist. Why were all these customers buying dinky little Hondas and Toyotas?

        • Haven’t read that, but it sounds like I should.

        • The insularity of the entire industry to their decline was striking to me.

          When I moved from California to Michigan in 1985, imports already had about half the market in California.

          If you exclude fleet sales – low margin sales to rental car companies and the balance to lots of companies that bought American because they wanted to do business with the auto companies – and employee sales, it’s amazing how long ago the US companies/management essentially lost the US retail market. Really poor, deluded, out of touch, arrogant people who never understood one single thing about competing in a competitive market.

          Reuther’s comment on machines not buying cars was not only insightful, but prophetic, as US unit sales to their captive market declined right along with their total employment.

          • DrDick

            I watched the long slow decline of the US auto industry from the early 1970s (which is when the quality started degrading) through the 1990s. They started to turn things around somewhat in the late 90s and early 00s, but still lag far behind the Japanese. The level of denialism in Detroit is absolutely mind boggling.

            • DrS

              The level of denialism in Detroit is absolutely mind boggling.

              Their spreadsheets are still calculating executive paychecks.

              • DrDick

                And those checks keep getting bigger, no matter how badly the fuck up the companies they run.

                • DrS

                  Well, of course! You don’t expect the guys who enacted a 40% increase in productivity to not get a stack of cash.

                  Otherwise, they’ll just take their expertise somewhere else, like university management or something.

        • DrS

          Pretending to eat your own dogfood but subbing in the finest pate.

        • JustRuss

          Besides the coddled executive cars, there was the issue of ringers, specially tuned and prepped cars that would be rolled out to introduce the top brass to a new model. So the execs thought they were building these awesome cars, while they were actually driving custom one-offs.

          They would pull the same stunt on the press, there’s a good write-up on line about the shenanigans GM pulled when they introduced the X-cars (Chevy Citation, etc). The result was huge first-year sales, which cratered after everyone found out how crappy they were. This still goes on to some extent, but not nearly as bad as the 70s and 80s.

          • BigHank53

            IIHS won’t issue crash test results on anything except a new car they buy off the showroom floor–and they’re very quiet about who and where they buy them from.

      • anon

        Workers should share no responsibility for the quality of the product brought to market, but they should definitely share in the profit thereby generated.

        • sharculese

          Sure. If the product is coming of the assembly line poorly because the worker’s aren’t doing their job, they deserve the blame.

          But blaming them because the design they were given to build from was fucked from the start? That seems like a weird application of cause and effect.

        • Vance Maverick

          Hi, troll. How did these workers cause the quality issues we’re talking about, specifically?

          • DrS

            By being so lazy that they couldn’t work almost twice as fast as before. Duh.

          • Another Holocene Human

            By not stopping the line when they noticed a problem, even though GM put a supervisor on the floor specifically to punish any worker who stops the line for any reason.

      • Of course not. The workers on the line build the car they’re told to build.

        GM has always had very good engineers and designers. Then the corporate bean counters get hold of it and start cutting corners.

        • DrDick

          MBA = Mostly Bullshit Artists.

          • DrS

            Mostly?

            • Helmut Monotreme

              I think Massive Bullshit Artist is a better acronym.

              • DrDick

                I stand corrected.

        • I don’t blame the workers (Germany has unionized workers and builds great cars), but I wouldn’t go that far either. The union slowdowns and demands detailed in the OP certainly can affect quality, and one reason bean counters have to count is labpr costs.

          But the major problem was definitely management. They were not used to real competition and suddenly the Japanese companies were giving it to them.

          • BigHank53

            There were also incredibly stupid management practices in a lot of US plants. Japanese factories tended to rotate workers through various jobs, in order to prevent burnout and also help workers understand(!) product flow through the plant. Yates relates a story of two people assigned to weld the support bracket for the parcel concealer (that windowshade sort of thing) inside the rear hatch of the Firebird/Camaro. If it got welded in wrong it was a horrorshow to fix: the rear seat and trim had to come back out, and stray sparks could easily burn holes in the headliner, costing hundreds of dollars of rework. When these two found out about it, they were horrified. This had been going on for years and nobody from QC or management had said a word.

      • cpinva

        “It wasn’t the workers’ or the union’ fault that the cars were bad, unless GM and Chrysler and Ford secretly became the only companies in America to allow workers to participate in design and engineering of the product.”

        this. the 70’s mgmt’s. idiot descendants, in the mid 80’s through the mid 2,000’s, also gave us crappy American made cars, with the world’s worst gas mileage ratings. to this day, they’re still at a loss to figure out why no one wanted to buy them. I’m 99.9999999% certain the folks on the assembly lines had zero say in the matter.

      • Josh G.

        If anything, the German and Japanese examples show that giving workers more power and autonomy might result in better products. German autoworkers get paid even more than the allegedly overpaid UAW members, and their unions actually have seats on the corporate board – yet despite (or because of!) all that, their output quality never came close to plumbing the depths that the Big Three hit in the 1970s.

        • postmodulator

          Not as bad as the insta-lemons that came out of the States in the 70s, no, but some of the new Volkswagens seem to be real garbage. (Transmissions going out at 55,000 miles. Spontaneous combustion at 60,000. Electrical problems the dealer can’t fix after many attempts. I’ve heard an awful lot of horror stories.)

          • Another Holocene Human

            I’ve always heard that the deal with German cars is that you must perform maintenance. Of course, it’s easy to do with metric tools, but you must do it.

            Americans think capital equipment ought to be maintenance free. If it breaks, replace it. You would never see signs like I saw on German train windows: “Place one drop of oil here once a year”. Helllllll nawww.

          • Linnaeus

            Hm. Wonder which plant(s) those cars are coming out of…

            • postmodulator

              My understanding is that all the entry-level VW stuff is currently made in Mexico. That’s mostly what I have experience with.

              I know a lot of people who bought Volkswagens — the brand was heavily and cleverly marketed directly at my demographic. I know one person who doesn’t curse violently at the memory of the Volkswagen he or she bought.

              • Linnaeus

                I ask because I’d heard that there were quality issues with the vehicles coming out of Chattanooga as well. But that could be faulty memory on my part.

                I’d never buy a Volkswagen (if I had the money to buy a new car); I’ve long thought that you never really get what you pay for with them.

                • postmodulator

                  I’m clinically paranoid about lemon stories and squirrel them away. I’ve been ruined financially by cars many, many times.

    • ThrottleJockey

      What’s interesting is that when I think of the Vega I also think of the AMC Gremlin and the Ford Pinto–you know the really bad cars that defined ’70s Detroit. OTOH my parents drove a ’75 Pontiac Astre–a re-badged Vega–for many years. Sure it had lots of rust on it & was a complete hoopty when it was finally totaled 13yrs later, but in the meantime it survived quite a few accidents–including getting T-boned once. In fact after it was T-boned the other driver drove off. My father spun the car around and gave chase. We eventually caught her. Unfortunately she didn’t have insurance. God, I hated that woman for a long, long time. We had to drive that ugly POS for another 5 yrs. OTOH, I used to use it for hurdle practice. That was fun.

      • I was a passenger (right rear seat) in a Vega that got T-boned by a Buick while crossing an intersection.

        The Buick hit the Vega squarely on the right front fender. The Vega was a total loss.

        Based on the damage to that part of the car, if it had hit 5 feet further back, myself and the front passenger probably would have been killed or crippled.

        • ThrottleJockey

          We might have been lucky with our car. Sounds like you definitely were in that accident!

    • The problem with the small cars Detroit was trying to build in the 70s is that they were scaled down versions of the larger cars they were used to building.

      That technology just didn’t scale down very well. The transmission and driveshaft tunnel took up a lot of the interior space.

      When space is at a premium it’s better to go with a front-wheel-drive configuration and preferably mount the engine sideways instead of front-to-back.

  • postmodulator

    “…They want more than just a job for 30 years.”

    Oh, God, is that an unfortunate statement in retrospect.

    • But it’s sad though, right. Ideally, you’d want workers who think they can demand a full and complete life and a good job. But even 3 years later, these kinds of claims would be hard. Capital mobility was just getting underway in its modern super-aggressive form. Take that and combine with the economic shocks beginning in 1973 that would hammer the working class and it creates a different world almost overnight.

      • ThrottleJockey

        While it certainly wasn’t the primary driver, I’m guessing the getting drunk/high on the top job wasn’t entirely unrelated to the capital mobility issue.

        • Vance Maverick

          In Erik’s summary, getting drunk and high on the job is listed as a mode of resistance, like work to rule. In your view, did other modes of resistance, like going on strike, also cause badly designed cars and capital flight?

          • ThrottleJockey

            The strike was over a 40% increase in productivity. So, if this post accurately describes the UAW’s general reluctance to productivity improvements–as opposed to one local–then, yeah, it could be a significant (though not primary) driver of capital flight. For most plants a 40% swing in productivity is the difference between in the black and in the red. For many plants its the difference between extremely profitable and extremely unprofitable. For most plants yield is the #1 most important factor and small changes have large impacts.

            • Vance Maverick

              I guess what I’m after is a general understanding of the tradeoff from the other side — what should a worker have to do to earn a decent living? (Including money and more.) What are the worker’s obligations? (Considering both everyday duties and exceptional events like strikes.)

              Intentionally or not, your comments have a “conservative” tendency, frowning on worker misbehavior and considering matters from the employer’s side. This is not wrong, but it emphasizes the point of view of, well, the 1%.

            • postmodulator

              Again, I have to ask if you’ve worked one of these sorts of jobs before. Your boss coming around and saying “Hey, we just decided you can work twice as fast as you have been” royally sucks.

          • There was a lot of bullshit about drugs at that point in time. A lot of stoners pretended there was some larger meaning to something they did because it was fun.

            • postmodulator

              I’d strongly push back on this assertion. There are times and places throughout history when hedonism is, in fact, a political statement. (I don’t happen to believe we’re living in one right now, mind you.)

              • I am not saying hedonism can never be a political statement.

                I am saying the 60’s and 70’s were full of people who enjoyed getting stoned and were bullshitting about it’s larger meaning.

                • I don’t think that’s really what was happening here. These GM workers weren’t Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey.

                • Linnaeus

                  I can only go on the observations of my own family and the people we knew, but any drinking or getting high wasn’t connected to any higher purpose.

                • They were young, college age or just a bit older. Some of them were Vietnam Vets. There were no workplace drug tests. I’m sure plenty of them were pot smokers. This was a nice excuse / ex post facto justification, but come on.

                • BobS

                  I don’t remember it being that way, but then again I was stoned a lot of the time

        • Completely unrelated. What is stopping Mexican or Tennesseean workers from doing the same thing?

      • cpinva

        a huge part of those “economic shocks” were the results of two arab oil embargoes, which I remember all too well. by themselves, they had a catastrophic effect on inflation, severely impacting the buying power of the lower through middle-classes.

        • ThrottleJockey

          And overnight made Japanese cars extremely competitive. Talk about opportune timing. The Japanese manufacturers may as well have been struck by lightning.

          • postmodulator

            Yes, this is a pretty good point. I remember reading that the first iterations of the Corolla more or less shook themselves to pieces above 60 mph. Wasn’t there massive investment by the Japanese government to get them past these growing pains? So by the time people were desperate for smaller cars, Corollas and Civics actually worked.

            Less relevant but funnier is the story about the Cadillac dealership in the 70s that resorted to offering a free Corolla with purchase.

      • Sev

        There was a PBS (I think) documentary made about this time; I recall one worker saying that they just dropped a car occasionally out of boredom.
        It has always seemed to me that the US management of these rust belt companies had a very classist two-sides of the tracks mentality, amazing contempt for their workers, that this is the major cause of these industries’ decline. The mentality that Erik highlights very effectively in many of these posts.

    • Rob in CT

      I had the same thought. Ugh.

    • ThrottleJockey

      This post gives me really mixed feelings. The union struck over an increase in productivity of 40% (=24/60). On top of that they smoked & got high on the job. So maybe the net change in productivity was negative 45%. That means that instead of producing, say, 100 cars a day they produced 55. That’s a HUGE difference & by itself could justify capital flight. Throw in all the other factors afflicting 1970s Detroit and no wonder the Big 3 cratered.

      When unions strike over pay, or over worker safety I get it. But I don’t see how reducing productivity or insisting on cumbersome work rules actually helps them. In this case it looks to me as if it hurt.

      • Linnaeus

        But I don’t see how reducing productivity or insisting on cumbersome work rules actually helps them. In this case it looks to me as if it hurt.

        Consider the nature of the job. If increasing productivity means speeding things up, for example, that can take a real toll on your workers. They can’t scale up their efforts indefinitely. Not to mention that at some point, you’ll get quality problems just as a consequence of that.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Yeah, but by saying yes to the productivity increase the resultant quality declines becomes the fault of management. Do as mgmt says and the UAW can say, ‘I told you so’. Refuse, or undermine the efforts then the UAW becomes the scapegoat.

          The Japanese were increasing productivity at ~4% per year in the ’70s while the US was down ~1.6%. Over 10yrs that amounts to a 31% difference! With a 31% productivity advantage you could crush anyone!!

          • Hogan

            Not all productivity increases are created equal, and I don’t think you can infer a generalized hostility to increased productivity from resistance to a 40% speed-up on an assembly line with no other changes in work processes. It’s simply an unreasonable thing to ask for.

            • ThrottleJockey

              A 40% increase sounds implausible to me too, but I’m taking the post as is. They did say it was re-engineered to be more productive.

              For instance, poultry workers are fighting the USDA on regulations that would allow Tyson among others to similarly increase productivity by double-digits. They make their claims based on #s on worker and food safety. That’s a very strong case. This is all centered around ‘quality of life’ and boredom, so–to my mind–a much weaker case.

              • Another Holocene Human

                The Japanese achieved that through smart investments in technology and better business methods. They didn’t just crank up the line.

                As for boredom, funny stuff happens when people get bored.

                Is the point to ramp up production, or to produce a better product? GM liked the former, Toyota the latter, and customers voted with their feet.

          • Linnaeus

            Yeah, but by saying yes to the productivity increase the resultant quality declines becomes the fault of management. Do as mgmt says and the UAW can say, ‘I told you so’. Refuse, or undermine the efforts then the UAW becomes the scapegoat.

            Eh, I’d say the UAW becomes the scapegoat either way. If quality suffers because the productivity changes are undermining it, management simply says that it’s the workers’ problem, or there’s some troublesome rule getting in the way, etc. Plus, the membership might see it as driving themselves harder just to make a point and hence won’t want to wait 3 years for the next round of contract negotiations to change that.

            • ThrottleJockey

              You got me there. Mgmt does like to blame unions…But, unless worker safety is compromised, I think its unwise to turn down productivity improvements. Its like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

              • BigHank53

                There’s a huge difference between the ultimatum “Build more cars or else!” and things like the Taurus replacing the Maverick. The Maverick needed 40 man-hours on the assembly line while the Taurus only needed 24. There’s your 40%. But most of that was due to the redesign; there’s no way on Earth a production line could have done a Maverick in 24 hours.

          • DrS

            The Japanese were increasing productivity at ~4% per year in the ’70s while the US was down ~1.6%. Over 10yrs that amounts to a 31% difference! With a 31% productivity advantage you could crush anyone!!

            Hold the phone…are you really comparing percentage changes without taking into account baseline?

            • ThrottleJockey

              Nah, I’m looking at the change in competitiveness. A 31% change in productivity is going to re-stack the deck no matter status quo ante positioning.

              • DrS

                A 31% change in productivity is going to re-stack the deck no matter status quo ante positioning.

                Heh, well that’s obvious innumerate bullshit.

      • Baby Needs-A-Nym

        I think you misunderstand the numbers. Based on what I know about GM’s management and production style, “100 cars a day” was what GM told the factory it had to produce, not some sort of natural level of production. In point of fact, management’s attempts to speed up the line in the 1970s and 1980s were a complete disaster. The prescribed rates were simply higher than the workers could reasonably comply with, leading to serious problems at the tail end of the process–large numbers of cars were being rushed through essentially unfinished. The Japanese manufacturers adopted much looser production schedules and saw much greater productivity. The most amazing thing about this is that GM could see that this was happening in Japan and rightly inferred the causes, even going so far as to run a test Japanese-style facility in the US, but ultimately rejected the model because they preferred greater control over labor to increased productivity. There is a really great episode of This American Life devoted to the rise and fall of GM’s Japanese-style plant; transcript here.

        • Whatever

          “The Japanese manufacturers adopted much looser production schedules and saw much greater productivity.”

          Yeah, there’s quite a contrast between the ’70’s Big Three approach to “productivity”, and Toyota’s policy that any worker could shut down the production line if that worker saw a quality problem.

          The Big Three had huge rework areas, where they tried to fix the errors made on the assembly line before they shipped the cars.

        • witless chum

          My wife’s dad worked for GM. He remembers sometime in the early to mid 80s suggesting a fix through the plant’s employee suggestion system to some process that would have made things easier on the workers and cheaper for the company, he says. First, he got a bunch of shit from the plant managers for suggesting something that they didn’t like, then they implemented his idea, then they gave him what he thought was an insultingly tiny bonus for it. That made him mad and disrespected, so he never suggested anything again, to hear him tell it. Yes, he’s kind of a shithead, but managing people who are kind of shitheads but have good or valuable ideas is part of what good management has to entail.

          • ThrottleJockey

            I’ve never accused the Big 3 of being good managers.

      • DrS

        When unions strike over pay, or over worker safety I get it. But I don’t see how reducing productivity or insisting on cumbersome work rules actually helps them. In this case it looks to me as if it hurt.

        Do what ever it is you do, but starting Monday complete 40% more of it.

        • PDXTyler

          Without higher compensation.

          • DrS

            Hey, be glad we aren’t cutting it!

  • Rigby Reardon

    I’ve said it before, but great series, Erik. Thanks for these posts.

    • randomworker

      Agree.

      • MPAVictoria

        Ditto

    • Aimai

      Yup. Wonderful.

    • toberdog

      Me three, or five. I’ve learned a lot reading these, Professor!*

      *No sarcasm.

    • DrDick

      Yep.

    • BigHank53

      Also thanks.

  • Thom

    For an inside version of those days on an auto assembly line, see Ben Hamper, Rivethead.

    • That’s an excellent book.

      • Linnaeus

        Loved it. My family almost never talked about the things he did when it came to the job.

        • Linnaeus

          I should say that they did talk about those things, but it usually required a little prompting.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      Michael Moore’s gift to literature, in a way

  • Also on this day in labor history (Eurasian Division), noted party animal Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin pegged out at his dacha — a modest piece of real estate by Yanukovychian standards — on March 5, 1953, to the unspeakable relief of almost all his close associates.

    • postmodulator

      Also, like, all other humans.

      • Apart from millions of Soviet citizens who were left fearful and bereft at his passing (I rely here on the book-length account of the event, The Death of Stalin, by Georges Bortoli, 1975). Stalin was an appalling character, and I don’t doubt that many in the USSR were secretly gladdened by his passing, but he was sincerely mourned by many an Ivan Sixpack.

        • postmodulator

          Really? I suppose if I’d thought about it I would have expected that Soviet citizens would mostly be worried that the next guy would be even worse. Learn something new every day.

    • Whatever

      Leaving the death of Sergei Prokofiev the same day almost unnoticed.

      From wikipedia:

      “The leading Soviet musical periodical reported Prokofiev’s death as a brief item on page 116. The first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin.”

      • Yeah, it’s like Elvis and Groucho Marx died the same day, but Elvis was younger and therefore his death was totally unexpected.

      • cpinva

        “Leaving the death of Sergei Prokofiev the same day almost unnoticed.”

        in fairness (and to his credit), maestro prokofiev wasn’t personally responsible for the deaths of millions, so you can see why they might have made a bigger deal out of reporting stalin’s death. probably more to prove it to themselves, that it was true.

        • postmodulator

          Ah, like the old joke about Buddy Rich.

  • toberdog

    Also on this day in history, Patsy Cline and John Belushi left this mortal coil.

  • Ronan

    This also reminds me of that film Blue Collar with Richard Pryor which seemed to be capturing this time, afaict (which I remember liking, though it was quite hostile to the Union brass as well as management)

    • TribalistMeathead

      This also reminds me of that film Gung Ho, which was racist as fuck.

      • Ronan

        was blue collar racist as fuck ?

        • Ronan

          ah okay, sorry. I googled gung ho (havent seen it) i see you might mean the post reminds you off it (i thought you meant the comment about blue collar reminds you of this *other* racist film..) Blue collar might well be racist of course (among other things, such as anti union)its been a while sionce i saw it and dont know the politics behind it (i personally dont mind the politics of a film too much, if its not laid on too thick, but thatas a different story)

          • Ronan

            im bad on my to’s and too’s

        • TribalistMeathead

          No, I was just thinking of what’s probably the only other movie I’ve seen that’s somehow related to an auto plant.

      • postmodulator

        Gung Ho was also pretty into that idea of the fat, lazy American worker I mentioned above. Doesn’t it have George Wendt in it as some giant loser?

        • Linnaeus

          Gung Ho was also pretty into that idea of the fat, lazy American worker I mentioned above. Doesn’t it have George Wendt in it as some giant loser?

          Yes on both counts.

          • cpinva

            Gung Ho was made when the “modern” Japanese business model was all the rage, before it crashed and burned.

            • Linnaeus

              I remember. TQM and all that.

              • Another Holocene Human

                Really? I heard they’re using those methods right now in American appliance assembly plants. Need is the mother of invention, or at least of reusing a method that’s worked before, but PHB’s got too lazy to use.

                • Linnaeus

                  I remember my dad coming home with literature passed out at his plant that described the new management & production model that management was considering putting in the plant. Don’t think they ever did. When I learned about things like TQM later, they sounded a lot like what was described in the plant literature.

            • It never crashed and burned with car manufacturing though.

        • TribalistMeathead

          I remembered it more as being really into that idea that the rest of the world would be a lot happier if they were more like Americans, but I was forgetting the scene at the end where the American workers agree to wear company coveralls and do morning calisthenics.

          • Linnaeus

            It’s a little bit of both. There’s the part where the Japanese plant manager goes off on his boss because he thinks they’re expected to work too much (unlike Americans) and there’s the part where the American worker rep goes off on his coworkers because he thinks the Japanese have a better work ethic.

            • My management professor in college (Judith Garwood aka Catherine Dain) loved that film.

    • I think Blue Collar was actually inspired by Lordstown.

      • postmodulator

        I bet you could call Schrader and ask him. Something tells me he’s got free time.

        • He’s too busy working on The Canyons 2: Grand Canyon.

          • postmodulator

            I would have also accepted Canyunz 2: Electric Boogaloo.

  • Creature

    I worked at a Ford plant, outside Cleveland, until I got drafted at the end of ’72. Management sped the line up so fast that there were problems with fit and finish at the final assembly plants. The booze and dope we did, on and off the production line, sure helped to prevent any beatings/murders of management lackeys. The cars where schlock- design was pretty cheesy and production techniques rudimentary. It was also unsafe- I started work there before the noise level statues came into force- I’m still deaf at those higher sound levels. I watched a guy who did two tours in ‘Nam, in the infantry, lose a finger in a conveyor belt. I wouldn’t buy a Ford product for years, unless it was used and still functional. Working in the auto service business since then, I’ve given up on US automobiles. The UAW was a pretty good outfit, back when I was a member. My father retired from Ford, and he was happy with the deal he got, but he understood why I didn’t try to get my job back after I got out of the Army. I haven’t worked on a production line since- it is a mind-numbing, soul-killing onslaught of ennui. The only reason there should be a very high wage for the work, is to compensate for the mental deterioration. The plant I worked in is now pretty much robotic- there’s about 10% as many humans working there, than when I was there.

    • Thanks for sharing this. Was this the big Ford plant by the airport?

      • postmodulator

        Hey, I know that plant, I’ve driven by it dozens of times.

  • Creature

    It was a stamping plant in Walton Hills. UAW local 420. When I saw ‘Blue Collar’, I knew somebody else must have worked in car plant, and ended up in Hollywood, working in the motion picture biz. Years after I worked at Ford, a friend of mine had a Torino station wagon, of the era when I was building the rear quarter panels for them. He complained that the fuel tank fell out, at one point. I told him, ‘Yeah, I did it!’ We laughed about it, it was a funny thing, overall- the decrepit car, and my coming to grips, face-to-car, as it were. He bought a Chevy van later- a product of Lordstown GM.

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