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This Day in Labor History: August 11, 1911

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On August 11, 1911, workers at the Watertown Arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts walked off the job as the scientific management ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor began to be applied to their work. This resistance of corporate micromanagement of work was a last ditch attempt by American industrial workers to remain masters of their own labor, even within the factory system that had already degraded their skills and independence.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was an aristocratic Philadelphian who after a few years working as a manual laborer, chose to dedicate his life to making industrial labor more efficient and streamlined. He began managing some Maine paper mills before starting his own efficiency practice in Philadelphia in 1893. His first big job was with Bethlehem Steel between 1898 and 1901, when he was forced out for clashing with other managers, a frequent problem for the bullheaded Taylor.

Taylor believed that workers were nothing more than inefficient machines and like real machines could be time and trained to do more work at a greater speed for less money per unit, thus increasing both productivity and profit. Taylor himself publicized his work in his famous book, The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911. Interestingly. Taylor didn’t come up with the term “scientific management.” Rather, he borrowed it from Louis Brandeis, who coined it the year before in arguing a case about railroads before the Interstate Commerce Commission, borrowing from Taylor’s ideas to argue that railroads could raise wages without raising freight rates. Taylor fundamentally thought working people were stupid, a not uncommon belief for the Gilded Age. He said:

the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.

Taylor’s ideas, and those of other pioneers of scientific management, became popular among the nation’s industrialists by the 1900s. As increasingly huge corporations sought to maximize profit, controlling the lives of workers on the shop floor became more appealing. While the industrial system had long exploited workers, in many ways, workers still ran the shop floors with a significant degree of autonomy. The long cherished freedom of individual labor had long disappeared by the early 20th century, but the masculine idea of a man having some control over his labor remained strong.

In 1909, General William Crozier, head of the Army Ordinance Department, visited Taylor about his methods. This military facility was one of the nation’s largest arsenals, established in 1816 but turned into a site of gun carriage manufacturing only in 1892. Taylor and his acolytes, particularly Carl Barth, began implementing Taylorist ideas of reorganization. This immediately got the attention of workers, not only in Watertown but around the country. The International Association of Machinists urged members to complain to their congressmen. But when Taylor sent Dwight Merrick to Watertown in May 1911 with a stopwatch to time workers, the workers erupted in fury. Taylor warned the officers to not completely implement a time study plan without prior preparation of the workers, but seeking quick results they did anyway. The workers then walked off the job after one worker refused to allow Merrick to time him and was fired for subordination.

The Watertown molders wrote to Lieutenant Colonel C.B. Wheeler, commanding officer of the arsenal:

Dear Sir: The very unsatisfactory conditions which have prevailed in the foundry among the molders for the past week or more reached an acute stage this afternoon when a man was seen to use as top watch on one of the molders. This we believe to be the limit of our endurance. It is humiliating to us, who have always tried to give to the Government the best that was in us. This method is un-American in principle, and we most respectfully request that you have it discontinued at once.

We feel justified in making this request, on the ground that some two years ago you told a committee of the molders that you were well satisfied with the output of that department; also Gen. Crozier gave his word to a committee that waited upon him in Washington that he would not install any part o the Taylor system that might be objectionable to the men; and we assure that this part of the system will not be tolerated by the molders.

I love this letter because you can really feel the outrage. These men are insulted. They have pride in their work and they work hard. And then some college boy with a stopwatch comes around and tells them they aren’t working hard enough! That new technology must be used to speed up their work! No way! Moreover, they show how often early Taylorism to be a total failure because rather than increase efficiency, they caused strikes. Taylor’s hard-headed ways of running these experiments routinely led to these problems and thus most of his personal work was a failure.

The strike itself was short, lasting only until August 18 when the fired worker was reinstated and the Ordinance Department promised an investigation of the new management techniques. Taylor was furious that the officers had not followed his plans to the tee and thus precipitated the strike and the bad publicity that went along with it. The strike led to hearings in the House Labor Committee over Taylorism. They were testy, in no small part because Taylor was not good at hiding his contempt for workers and their dignity. When asked by Rep. William Wilson, a former official of the United Mine Workers and future Secretary of Labor under Woodrow Wilson, about his method, Taylor said “the ordinary pig-iron man is not suited for shoveling coal because he is too stupid. But a first-class man who could lift a shovel weighing twenty one and a half pounds cold move a pile of coal lickety-split.” Wilson responded, “but what about the effects on a man who wasn’t first-class? Taylor dismissed the concern: “Scientific management has no place for a bird that can sing and won’t sing.” Wilson was furious: “We are not dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are part of society and for whose benefit society is organized”

Oh how antiquated, thinking workers were humans. Congress did act on the workers’ anger, first taking apart Taylor’s system at Watertown and later banning the use of stopwatches to time workers in factories. Taylor personally suffered a major setback here, but his ideas of scientific management and efficiency based upon making workers’ lives worse continued to advance. No one did more on this front than Henry Ford, whose vaunted $5 a day wage has given him an unjustified reputation as a humane boss. But the reality was that Ford extracted his pound of flesh for that $5, working laborers so hard and with such speed and efficiency that many simply could not hack the work there and had to quit. Treating workers like machines became central to American labor management practices, with the eventual hope to just replacing them with machines, a project that would prove quite successful beginning in the second half of the twentieth century and contributing significantly to the decline of working-class power and economic stability by the latter part of the century.

For further reading on these issues, see Sanford Jacoby, Employing Bureaucracy. I also borrowed some details from Hindy Lauer Schachter, Frederick Taylor and the Public Administration Community.

This is the 115th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • jafd

    IMHO, Robert Kanigel’s biography, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, is an excellent book, well worth reading.

    “Aristocratic Philadelphian” is a bit misleading – his parents had money, but he was that age’s equivalent of a ‘red-diaper baby’.

  • efgoldman

    Most of the old arsenal is now a shopping mall. Hood rubber also made sneakers there for decades.

  • rea

    Taylor could be arrogant as hell, but Taylorism was probably, on the whole, a good thing. Well-trained workers working efficiently can mean a physically easier job with fewer injuries and the same or better productivity. The guy with the stop watch timing assembly lines might conclude that the lines were running too fast for maximum efficiency. Brandeis and Lenin were fans.

    • efgoldman

      I was subject to time and motion studies as an office worker in the late 60s, and again (doing our own tracking with PDAs) in the last decade.
      It is dehumanizing on its face.

      • postmodulator

        As a big, strong, fit 23-year-old I worked in a factory organized on such principles in the mid-90s. All these principles are is a way for capital to say to labor, “Work harder, you.”

        I know very little about Brandeis, but Lenin, it strikes me, had some other ideas which were also not necessarily entirely good.

    • ploeg

      For those who have not read Taylor, the case study about Schmidt is a good place to start. Certain things to note:

      * Taylor proposed to pay workers more for submitting to his rules. In this case, Schmidt was paid $1.85 per day versus the $1.15 per day that he was paid before, a 60% increase.
      * Through Taylor’s rules, Schmidt hauled over 3.5 times more pig iron than previously. Naturally, this gave some incentive for the employer to pay Taylor a substantial cut of the difference. (Edit: This also meant that Taylor had to present things in a way that maximized his role in all of this. Therefore workers were stupid and couldn’t figure out how to work efficiently themselves.)
      * It is mentioned that, previous to the implementation of Taylor’s rules, Schmidt had enough energy at the end of the day to “trot back home for a mile or so after his work in the evening about as fresh as he was when he came trotting down to work in the morning” and continue work on the house that he was building for himself. Any guesses about how fresh Schmidt was after Taylor came on board?

      • gregmiller

        As I recall, there is some question as to how much herr Schmidt was a real worker, and how much he was a figment of Taylor’s rather active imagination.

        • ploeg

          For purposes of illustrating how the method was supposed to work, it doesn’t matter so much how fictive the case study is. Even from the case study, you can see some issues; shouldn’t have people have some energy to do things outside of work? And you can go over Dr. Loomis’s discussion to see how the method worked in practice, especially when employers forgot to include the essential pay incentives.

    • infovore

      This is one of those theory versus practice things: in theory, Taylorism can indeed be a good thing, making sure that work is properly paced and done in ushc a way that workers aren’t harmed by doing it (for example by RSI). In practice however, see ploeg’s comment on how Taylor himself seems to have thought it ought to work.

      As for Lenin being a fan, I can only note that communism as implemented by people like him professed being for the good of humanity, but in the process ended up being pretty awful for actual humans.

    • In Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth:Debunking Modern Business Philosophy, the author shows that much of Taylor’s data was falsified. Mostly Taylor was out for his own aggrandizement.

    • shah8

      This is exactly how it is with school testing. Taylorism for teachers, replete with crude/unfair statistics, fad educational regimes, and lots and lots of punishment.

      Just because it could be a good idea doesn’t mean people do not have to be hard heads about doing things right. The sentiment by rea is, I think, one of the fundamental weaknesses of liberal forms of reformist thought–simply not analyzing the nature of reforms in the context of power relations and bezzle.

    • Brett

      Isn’t there something ironic about Taylor trying to force scientific management on existing skilled workers? If he really did believe that your average worker was stupid and his principles could be used to train said “morons” to do work more productively, then shouldn’t he have been able to take any sort of untrained, poor worker and shape them better to do the work?

  • postmodulator

    “We are not dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are part of society and for whose benefit society is organized.”

    That. Right there. “For whose benefit society is organized.” That’s the one principle totally absent from our discourse for the last thirty years. That’s how you get to a place where American politicians can describe American workers as lazy and overpaid without ending the day hanging from a lamppost.

  • Back in 1979 someone sold my employer, the venerable San Francisco firm of Flatline, Comatose, Torpor & Drowse (BrainDead Systems since our ill-considered 2003 merger with Senescent Technologies) on the notion of tracking performance via time and motion surveys, so that at fifteen minute intervals I had to drop whatever I was doing (at that time generally repetitive data input on a terminal) and write a brief narrative description of the activity I was engaged in at that moment. I wrote “completing this survey” for every entry, which might have got me in trouble had not this same response occurred to several of my colleagues as well. We’ve been subjected to many idiocies and abuses since then, but never a repetition of this particular insult.

  • BigHank53

    The frustrating part is that time and motion studies don’t have to be insulting to the worker. I’ve been in on a few from both sides. The good ones are “how can we make your job easier?”. After implementing some of my recommendations a lead-molding process didn’t get any faster…but the scrap rate dropped by 75%. That’s less work that has to be done over.

    It’s the stupidest managers that just want to push speed, as though gross output was the only measure worth counting.

    • This. So much this. This was my course of study in college, and there is a whole lot of crap out there that seems to work towards the goal of turning factory workers into meat robots. Over optimized tasks have their own hazards like repetitive motion injuries and mistakes from boredom.

    • Brett

      It might be the multiple tiers of management. The person running the workers wants to improve some metrics (like output) so he or she can leverage that into a promotion higher up. And the bigger and more impersonal the company, the more it leans on metrics like that just to get a grip on how its operations are doing.

  • DrDick

    Another great addition to this series. The contempt for workers has always been strong among the capitalists and remains so today. It is worth noting that the methods employed by Arthur Jensen or Charles Murray in The Bell Curve to demonstrate the innate inferiority of blacks were pioneered in the early 20th century by a British psychologist to demonstrate the futility of educating or attempting to better the lot of the working classes.

  • Woodrowfan

    my first job out of high school was on an assembly line making appliances. At some point someone in management decided that there were two jobs that could be combined for one worker to do. As the newbie I got stuck with it. An awkward 18 year old, with no line experience, I was awful at it. The manager for that line would call me into his office and scream at me, threaten to fire me, etc. He reduced me to tears. My first job and I was going to be fired!

    He replaced me with another, experienced worker, who also failed, then he tried another. Finally they found someone fast enough to do the two jobs at one time. It made the line more efficient but rather than say “this is a difficult job that not everyone is fast enough to do” they used it as a means to belittle those of us who were not fast or coordinated enough to do it.

    I did end up with a job on the line that I did well, but when I remember those first weeks I still get sick feeling in my stomach.

  • creature

    We got ‘time-studied’ when I was at a Ford plant (circa ’70-71), and the standard before was 160 parts per hour, afterwards, it was 60 parts per hour. We normally ran at 120 php, and finished 4 hours early! I honed my poker-playing skills in those last fours, in the cafeteria. I also swore I would *never* work an assembly line again- and didn’t! I read about Taylor and Brandeis, when I was pursuing a Labor Relations degree a few years later (GI Bill!). I thought they were pretty brutal, but I think a whole lotta folks must have thought they were geniuses. And I had worked for them!

  • Anna in PDX

    I had never heard of Taylor until I read We last year in a translation which had extensive endnotes about who “Taylor” was. The characters did “Taylor exercises” and every minute of their day was scheduled. It was an amazing book when you consider it was written in the 20s.

    • Hogan

      Interesting entry at the Encyclopedia of Marxism:

      It is easy to see the kind of class composition and class relations that are generated in the society in which Taylorism prevails in the major industries: the productive workers are utterly alienated from society and poor and uneducated to boot; there is a substantial layer of those people who wear white coats and carry clip boards – the inspectors, overseers, foremen, floor managers, clerks and bureaucrats of all kinds, who defend the system and are hated by the mass of unskilled blue-collar workers. The unions, when they are formed, are as obstinate and penny-pinching as the employers. The mass, blue-collar, unionised, class-conscious, hard-nosed and disciplined, unskilled male workers which form the classic image of the proletariat of the early part of the twentieth century is a product of Taylorist capitalism.

      In 1915, as part of his studies for Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin made a study of work organisation in the United States, including a close study of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (see Collected Works Volume 39, Beta Notebook). After the revolution, facing the severe crisis and the backward state of Russian industry, including its workforce, Lenin was insistent on the introduction of Taylorism into Soviet factories: “We must raise the question of piece-work and apply and test it in practice; we must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system; we must make wages correspond to the total amount of goods turned out.” (see Immediate tasks of the Soviet Government, March 1918). Opposition to this practice is alluded to in “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, 1920. In fact Taylorism remained ever after the methodology of the Soviet economy.

  • steverinoCT

    When I read about Taylor it always reminds me of Frank Galbraith, of Cheaper By The Dozen fame (at least that’s how I learned about him).

    According to Wikipedia, he focused more on the laborer and making his work easier/more efficient than just on time.

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