Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 5, 1914

This Day in Labor History: January 5, 1914


On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous $5 a day wage to his workers. Ford is often lauded for his efforts here and he was surely forward-thinking in creating this salary. But this post will also challenge his reputation as a good employer, for Ford expected plenty in return from those employees, far more than any employee should have to accept.

Turnover was a massive problem for employers through the early 20th century. The horrors of industrialization combined with callousness of employers to lead to workers constantly seeking a job that was just a little bit less terrible than the last. The growth of assembly line work made this worse because it was so boring. Treating a worker like a machine, as Henry Ford did, deskilled and depressed workers who had once partially defined themselves through their physical labor. This labor was just as physical and exhausting, but required no thinking and provided no satisfaction. Thus the Ford Motor Company had the same turnover problems as other industries. In 1913, the turnover rate for the company was 370 percent. Ford decided he needed to do something about this turnover. So he began to think about what would become known as welfare capitalism. He thought that if he paid his workers a bit more and helped them take care of their basic needs, they would live with the fact that the work was so mindless.

So on January 5, 1914, he announced a reorganization of his company. Workers could be part of a profit-sharing system that would raise their salary to $5 a day. While this has been remembered as Ford wanting to pay his workers enough that they could buy the cars they made, that really wasn’t what this was about. Reducing labor turnover was the reason, which is fair enough. Ford also took power away from the foreman and centralized hiring decisions. Like many industrial worksites, foremen had almost complete authority over workers, including the power to hire and fire, as well as the setting of pay rates to some extent. Ford did not want these little dictators making these decisions and instead created a personnel department that the foreman had to check with before firing. If the personnel department disagreed, the worker would merely be transferred. The introduction of standardized wages (the number of wage rates were reduced from 69 to 8) also took power away from foremen.


The Ford assembly line

Ford had a requirement for acquiring those wages. Workers had to live up to his moral standards. Ford romanticized rural life and what he saw as traditional values. He wanted to inculcate this in his workers and seeing himself as a father figure, he believed he had the right to interfere in their personal lives. Thus if they wanted to work, they had to subject themselves to inspections from his Sociological Department. The department inspected workers’ habits and lives, discharging those seen as unfit. It gave advice, expected to be followed, on money management and family relations. Ford’s foreign employees had to undergo Americanization programs if they wanted their wages. Fore required English on the shop floor in a society and industrial workforce that was very heavily dominated by immigrants. Ford, a staunch prohibitionist, banned his workers from drinking alcohol. The SD would visit the homes of employees to inspect their lives. They would do so without warning so they could see what the inside of your home really like and whether you had liquor in the house. To say the least, no Jews were hired. Some workers were upset about this intrusion, but it seems that most accepted it, even if they complained about the violation of their personal liberties, because they needed the money.

747 Farnsworth

House purchased by Ford worker after Sociological Department assistance

Not all workers could earn those wages. Only men over the age of 22 shown to be taking care of their families, single men who were seen as thrifty, and men younger than 22 who were the sole breadwinner for their family. Female workers could also qualify after 1916 after women’s movement leaders protested their exclusion. The Sociological Department would make the judgment as to which workers qualified. Ford hated quitters, thinking them slackers and undeserving. So he also worked to reduce turnover by making the process to get hired onerous, with full inspections from the SD each time a worker quit. What this really led to was a certain amount of bribery of Sociological Department inspectors. Eventually over 200 SD inspectors pried into every corner of workers’ lives to see if they fit Henry Ford’s personal standards of how they should live. If workers didn’t follow the line, their pay was reduced back to $2.34 and if they didn’t improve in six months, they were fired.

And Ford would work these employees to the bone. Agreeing to work at Ford not only meant agreeing to the moral standards. It meant a lifetime of hard drudgery that gave you little real pride in the work you did. Said one of Ford’s production managers, “Ford was one of the worse shops in town for driving the men. I have been an S.O.B. with everybody in town.” But with wages so bad in 1914, the impact of Ford’s announcement was overwhelming. A crowd of 15,000 people descended on Ford to ask for jobs. They were dispatched with fire hoses.


Workers themselves certainly took the $5 day as a good deal at the time. But Ford became increasingly ossified in his ideas of labor relations and refused to raise the pay. What was a good wage in 1914 became less so year by year. In the 1920s, the Sociological Department’s influence declined and conditions worsened in the factories. By 1927, Ford was driving his men with a bunch of ex-boxers and thugs led by Harry Bennett, who violently put down any protest. By the 1930s, workers were furious with Ford’s labor relations and the plants became centers of labor resistance to employer domination of their lives and home to some of the great battles of the 1930s struggle for unionization.

In other words, we can certainly say that Ford was forward-looking in the sense that he advanced the corporate control over the workforce by giving them a small amount in return for the control over their lives. And the money was real enough, at least for awhile. But to point to the $5 wage as a good thing without placing it in context is problematic and should be avoided by people on the left.

I used Sanford Jacoby’s Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945, Joan Shaw Peterson’s American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, and Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, in the writing of this post.

This is the 129th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Derelict

    We look at Ford’s Sociological Department and think, “Wow! What an intrusion on the personal life of the worker! Nobody does anything like that today!”

    Instead, we get things like “Team Building Camp” and “Employee Empowerment Retreat” where employees (generally white-collar types) get their personalities broken and remade into whatever the company thinks good at the moment. My sister-in-law worked for Ameritech back in the ’90s and had to go to one of these things every year. She’d come back from each one looking and acting like she’d been taken hostage by a group of Werner Earhardt bandits.

    Today’s employers want more than just your time and skills. They want your soul and your complete devotion. In return for this, you have their promise that they’ll shitcan you without notice whenever it’s convenient for them.

    • If only there was anything even approaching the idea of class consciousness among white-collar types.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        isn’t it just that the white-collar folks tend to over estimate what class they’re in?

        • witlesschum

          Yeah, I think that’s more accurate. Professional and/or middle class people don’t seem to have any illusions that they’re better than the working class, but they do seem to have illusions that they share interests with the upper class.

          • Origami Isopod

            Professional and/or middle class people don’t seem to have any illusions that they’re better than the working class

            It depends on what you mean by “working class.” If you’re talking the trades, no. But if you’re talking people in service positions or anything at all that isn’t well-paid, there is most definitely a sense of superiority.

            • Raven667

              notalwaysright.com is chock full of amusing stories of over-entitled middle class types treating service employees like slaves.

              • postmodulator

                You think “amusing?” I read that site for a couple of minutes and always come away thinking that we should repeal the laws against murder.

                • Origami Isopod

                  Sometimes the customers in those anecdotes get their comeuppance. Which does make me wonder how many of the anecdotes are true.

      • Brett

        They have it – it’s just that unions among white-collar professionals call themselves “professional associations” and do their work with political schmoozing, lobbying, and regulatory capture.

        Of course, that doesn’t describe all of them. For many of those, I think it’s the combination of higher pay and the longer hours in and out of the workplace – it both allows them to justify being worked to the bone and consider lower-income people a bunch of whiners for complaining about working for “only” 40 hours a week at shitty jobs.

    • Warren Terra

      I don’t know offhand of any similar systematic intrusion by (civilian) employers going on today (though it’s not something I’d necessarily expect to know), but a couple of decades ago Perot Systems was infamous for ending out private detectives to spy on the private lives of their employees, who might then be fired for adultery, or drunkenness, etcetera. And Perot Systems had extreme control on their employees’ behavior in other ways, including fighting iirc all the way to the Supreme Court to enforce a rule demanding clean shaven chins, even on employees whose religions demanded beards, even when those employees weren’t customer-facing.

      In more contemporary news: one effect of the Hobby Lobby ruling and similar developments is to give employers quite inappropriate access to information about and control over their employees’ private lives.

      • Derelict

        In more contemporary news: one effect of the Hobby Lobby ruling and similar developments is to give employers quite inappropriate access to information about and control over their employees’ private lives.

        I think the Hobby Lobby ruling is not as revolutionary as it might seem. Employers have long had the ability to access and control employees’ private lives. For example, a company can demand that all employees quit smoking, and then demand urine tests to enforce that. Similarly, a company can bar employees from drinking, engaging in rock climbing, mountain biking, or any number of other off-the-job activities. And, as we re-discovered during the reign of Bush, your employer can even dictate how you vote (though, for the moment at least, they can’t force you to contribute to a political campaign).

        • tinycatpaws

          Hey now, some of the old tobacco producing states have passed laws forbidding employers from taking employment actions against employees for the “lawful use of a lawful product” outside the workplace. All in the name of worker freedom, you see!

          • Linnaeus

            It’s funny – I was talking with some people about marijuana being legal here in Washington but folks sometimes forget that marijuana being legal doesn’t mean you can’t get fired by your employer for using it.

      • Irony there is that Perot ended up on the board of GM, and became a major antagonist of then-CEO Roger Smith (of Roger and Me). He was vocal in criticizing the GM management and the rest of the board. As a result, in 1992 congressional districts with lots of GM workers, like the Lansing-based district eventually won by Stabenow and the old district around Saginaw/Bay City now absorbed in to the Flint CD, had some of the highest Perot votes in the country.

        • CrunchyFrog

          That might have also been because a huge number of EDS workers were imported into Flint and Lansing during the 1980s. GM bought EDS and converted all of their IT workers (then called MIS – Management Information Systems) to employment by EDS, which upset quite a few. But they also moved large numbers of established EDS employees to Michigan and did massive college recruiting – of course selecting those most suitable to that kind of work environment.

          I was always amazed at how the employees just accepted their employment conditions, but then I suppose I’d do the same in their shoes. College new hires were effectively indentured servants in that if they left *or were fired* anytime during the first 5 years they had to pay back EDS for the inflated costs of their training – which from what I could tell was standard IBM COBOL and JCL regardless of what technologies were actually used wherever they would end up being assigned.

          Of all the employee abuses I saw there (as a vendor) the worst had to be when they called an employee on his vacation to fix a problem, not of his making. He did exactly as requested to great success, but because a security guard smelt alcohol on his breath he was fired for being at work after drinking.

          • Lee Rudolph

            I assume the security guards never got a chance to sniff management’s breath, after lunch or otherwise.

          • You’re right about the EDS employees, both how they were treated and that a bunch of them were transferred to Michigan. But them voting for Perot would have been the opposite of GM people voting for Perot. GM people thought Perot was sticking it to their bosses, EDS people were getting screwed by their boss, Perot.

      • Origami Isopod

        The mill owners of the 19th century most definitely policed the personal lives of the “girls” (girls and women alike) who worked for them. Then there have been all the restrictions placed on the lives on teachers, back when nearly all were women because there are very few other jobs open to women.

        Not that men’s lives aren’t policed by employers, as we see in Erik’s OP, or from the pre-employment drug testing for office workers that’s ubiquitous in the U.S. now. But employers have most definitely been more paternalistic in re their female workers’ lives.

      • Joe Bob the III

        Agreed, to a point. True that people aren’t having their homes inspected anymore.

        That said, there is the ubiquitous drug testing, which has only gotten more ridiculous over the years. There are a couple of corporations I have consulted for that require consultants to undertake drug tests if they want the privilege of walking around their buildings unescorted by an employee. Fuck me if I’m going to piss in a cup so I can walk around on their campus unsupervised a few days a year.

        So-called wellness programs have become increasingly intrusive. When these were first rolled out they were billed as a benefit for employees. Now they often come with sizable carrots/sticks tied to the cost of health insurance. While I have little sympathy for tobacco smokers, their habit shouldn’t make them pariahs in terms of employment. Similarly, my BMI, blood pressure or exercise habits shouldn’t be any of my employer’s business. I’m just waiting for the day I start getting happy emails from HR inquiring about the health of my prostate or colon.

        Lastly, there are the bizarre and opaque personality tests often used in the hiring process. When I was a young lad just out of college I would occasionally get a temp job doing trials of personality tests. I don’t even know how to describe that aside from saying that it creeped me out. I have always sworn that if I applied for a job and they put one of those tests in front of me I would turn around and walk out. I don’t want to work for people who feel they have to, or just can, do that to other people.

        • Linnaeus

          Lastly, there are the bizarre and opaque personality tests often used in the hiring process. When I was a young lad just out of college I would occasionally get a temp job doing trials of personality tests. I don’t even know how to describe that aside from saying that it creeped me out. I have always sworn that if I applied for a job and they put one of those tests in front of me I would turn around and walk out. I don’t want to work for people who feel they have to, or just can, do that to other people.

          Be sure, then, to avoid the Parallax Corporation.

        • Origami Isopod

          I’m just waiting for the day I start getting happy emails from HR inquiring about the health of my prostate or colon.

          I suppose they wouldn’t want three-dimensional evidence in an airtight bag inside a manila mailer.

    • Joshua

      Today’s employers want more than just your time and skills. They want your soul and your complete devotion.

      This is the real reason why Google and others offer free meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), massages, yoga classes, pet sitting, etc. etc. It’s so the employees’ social life becomes indistinguishable from their corporate life. That’s also almost certainly why anyone over the age of 35 or 40 is basically PNG in the tech world. People who are 40 have families and external lives and that is not something these companies want to compete with for time.

      • Origami Isopod

        People who are 40 have families

        Not everybody over the age of 40 has a spouse or children. Which is not the same as “having a family.” One does not need to marry or procreate to have a family. And the time of people without spouses or children is also valuable.

        • I missed where he conflated having a family with having a spouse and children. Was the point that spouse and children = family or was the point that older workers are less willing to give over their whole life to their employers? I see it all the time where tech companies endorse the ‘startup culture’ and routinely ask workers to throw their entire waking life into their career. It’s comparatively easy to find a recent grad who’ll work for 60+ hours a week for a few years until they burn out, these days, they’ll work like dogs to try and get out from under their college debt. A relatively smaller percentage of older workers is up for that kind of exploitation, either because of non-work obligations or for simple health issues (possibly caused by working 60+ hours a week earlier in their career) Also, older workers aren’t going to be looking for an entry level position, they will be seeking a position with compensation commensurate with their experience.

          To sum up lots of jobs with tech firms are aimed squarely at 20 somethings because to the HR departments, they mean workers who are more easily exploitable for less money.

          • Origami Isopod

            I most certainly take the point that companies prefer younger, less-skilled, and more-gullible workers who do not have commitments to children. That said, “People who are 40 have families” implies that people under 40 do not, and it’s also not hard to infer that by “families” Joshua meant spouses and children, possibly aging parents to care for as well.

            I don’t like the common societal assumption that everybody follows the same life path. Some of us have no children, but we aren’t any more willing than the parents among us to give up our lives to The Corporation™, because everybody’s external lives matter.

            • Vance Maverick

              I think the point is valid, suitably reframed. “Family” or not, people over 40 do have lives in a sense that fresh college grads do not. Networks of friends, community commitments, old relatives — the details vary, but we are essentially all more embedded in a wider matrix.

              • Origami Isopod

                I think this is well rephrased. If nothing else, the longer you’re around, the more people you’ve gotten to know, and the more understanding you have of your own worth.

              • Hogan

                Family, friendship, religion–these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.

                • Hogan

                  Church and religion are two different things.

                  ETA: should be below OI’s reply to mine above. Stupid WP clocks.

                • Origami Isopod

                  Religion doesn’t count in the workplaces where the first thing your new co-workers ask is which church you go to. Not whether you go but which one you go to.

        • Murc

          It would probably be more accurate to say “people over forty (which means they were born in 1974 or earlier) are much more likely have expectations about how work/life balance is going to be that are incompatible with Google’s preferred corporate culture, and all things being equal they’d prefer to not have to de-program those guys.”

          The age bias in the tech world is, thankfully, not nearly as bad as it once was because a lot of the first-movers who got into the game in the eighties and nineties are starting to go gray.

          • Origami Isopod

            I hope you’re right, but — wasn’t it here, in the last few weeks? that I saw someone complain about people in Silicon Valley who are only in their thirties experiencing age discrimination. Maybe that’s just Silicon Valley, not tech in general, but Silicon Valley is a huge place.

            • sparks

              Even in the ’90s, every SV interview I went on gave me the creeps. I did walk out on a couple when the interviewer started getting a bit too inquisitive.

              • Vance Maverick

                Gave you the creeps in what way? Personal stuff? I’ve never experienced that. At my current employer, they didn’t even ask about my previous job experience.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Well, of course they didn’t! They already knew everything about you!!

                • Vance Maverick

                  They probably figured the “Vance Maverick” who comments at LGM was a pseudonym.

          • I just read an article less than a week ago about how work/life balance was an obsolete concept, because one’s work should be so awesome that it is one’s life. The article claimed that employers who emphasized work/life balance were essentially saying “the work sucks and you can’t wait to leave here”. I wish I could remember where I read the article because it was a prime example of (deliberately?) missing the point.

            • I just read an article less than a week ago about how work/life balance was an obsolete concept, because one’s work should be so awesome that it is one’s life.

              I’m sure Mini__B would love to come to the office with me. His small hands are perfect for fixing the steam engine printer when it jams.

              • Linnaeus

                “PC load letter? What the fuck does that mean?”

      • witlesschum

        Yup. Don’t be evil my ass.

        • If you have to remind yourself not to be evil, you’re evil. I distrusted them the first time I heard that slogan.

      • anyone over the age of 35 or 40 is basically PNG in the tech world

        Some of us are JPG in the tech world.

        • Vance Maverick

          With all the artifacts and digital noise that implies.

          • Save me too many times and I’m useless.

            • Derelict

              I see.

        • Origami Isopod

          And some are TIFFs.

      • Linnaeus

        I remember Steve Gilliard pointing this out several years ago: he wrote (paraphrasing here) that when your employer puts in a foosball table, provides free drinks, etc., it’s because they don’t want you to leave.

      • cleek

        my employer offers most of that stuff.

        it’s not to blur work and social life, it’s to:
        1) make us like our jobs better
        2) reduce the amount of driving we have to do
        3) reduce the amount of time we have to spend running errands

        nobody wakes up Saturday AM thinking “man, i wish i was at work! i want some free M&Ms!” but we do enjoy being able to grab lunch on campus, or get our car washed, or go to the doctor, or the gym, or play soccer, or whatever, without having to get in our cars and spend 40 minutes driving around town.

        • Vance Maverick

          I could say the same, but in fairness, this doesn’t explain why our employers offer it, or its effects on us.

          I don’t think our fellow commenters would go so far as to say I’d be better off driving down 101 or packing my own lunch (or driving two miles to a taqueria) than riding a shuttle and eating in a cafeteria. But let’s find out!

          • The amenities on suburban campuses exist to balance out the fact that you have to work on a suburban campus. The weird thing is what you’re getting in SF right now, where they’ve sort of built a vertical suburban campus in the interior of a major city. The tech district has almost become a walled compound in mentality.

            • Brett

              Not just working on a suburban campus, but working for incredibly long hours every week. If I was putting in 14 hours a day on a job, I’d probably be grateful if it had a laundromat and cafeteria too.

              Some of them wanted to add housing nearby, at least, which would have made things easier. Google wanted to build some dormitories on their campus, but the town specifically went out of their way to prevent them from doing it for reasons I don’t understand.

    • JustRuss

      You left out mandatory random drug testing.

      • I’ve tested a lot of drugs, but I don’t think it should be mandatory.

        • Linnaeus


        • Origami Isopod


      • Brett

        I assume they’re worried you’ll steal from the company to buy drugs if you’re constantly getting high in your spare time, because it’s not like they couldn’t fire you for showing up intoxicated anyways. I remember several places I worked specifically had that as a policy – showing up drunk or intoxicated would get you fired on the spot, without going through the “three strikes” warning system.

        In fairness, that does happen . . . although not necessarily at the hands of workers. My brother worked at a pizza joint, and one of the managers was stupid enough to steal a deposit bag he was assigned to drop off in order to buy drugs. He was fired, of course – I can’t remember if they ever pressed charges against him.

  • Bruce Vail

    One of Ford’s innovations was an aggressive and creative PR Department to burnish the public image of Ford Motor Co and of Henry Ford personally. They were pretty successful in their day, but I think Mr. Ford’s reputation has declined quite a bit in recent decades. There are so many reasons it is hard to know where to begin….

    • I dunno. I grew up with my grandparents in a working class suburb of Detroit in the 1970’s and 1980’s. My grandfather was a metal lathe operator at the Rouge in the 1930’s. He was apparently good at his job, because when Ford set up the tractor factory in the USSR, my grandfather was asked to go help set it up and train the workers. [My Irish great-grandmother refused to let her son be that far from her, so he didn’t go.] He had nearly perfect attendance–I think just about everyone did, because if you didn’t you’d get canned. That eventually happened to him: he got fired for missing work…because he was in the hospital undergoing an appendectomy. {This was shortly before the UAW finally organized Ford, in 1941.] The joke in my family was that I was 8 or 9 when I finally realized the man’s name was simply “Henry Ford” and not “that son of a bitch Henry Ford.” While not everyone had stories like that in their direct family line, plenty did, and Henry Ford the man was by no means revered in the Detroit area.

      About the only place I ever encountered people who revered the man was when I went to U of Michigan-Dearborn in the late 80’s/early 90’s, and worked in his old mansion, which the family had donated to the University when he died in the 50’s. I waited tables in the restaurant over the filled-in indoor pool, and regularly walked around the house, which is on the national historical register, where I overheard the blue-haired old Dearborn ladies who gave tours of the House raving about Mr Ford. It stuck with me because they were about the only ones I ever heard rave about him. Mostly I heard ambivalence, or rants. And I don’t think those reactions were new in the 70’s.

      Couple other things Erik either alluded to or didn’t mention. First, Ford was a major employer of blacks. He essentially had on retainer numerous black pastors who acted as a sort of hiring department, sending him disciplined workers who wouldn’t make waves and knew their place (which was mostly in the shittiest jobs, in particular the infernally hot foundry). It was black workers in the foundry who in 1941, by not crossing the white picket line when a strike erupted, broke the back of Ford’s opposition to the UAW.

      The other thing is his antisemitism. He was deranged. His Dearborn Independent was a scurrilous rag that he paid to distribute all over the place. It was surely a factor in the Nazis awarding him Order of the German Eagle, which they gave to a collection of some of the worst people of the twentieth century.

      BTW, that house is pretty much exactly like the one in which my dad grew up. First time my wife was in Detroit I drove her to my dad’s old neighborhood. The last time I’d been there the neighborhood was half demolished, with much of it looking like prairie, and the house was falling apart. But in 2009 that block had about 5 brand new homes. I looked like maybe Habitat for Humanity had built them. It was nice to see.

      • postmodulator

        It was surely a factor in the Nazis awarding him Order of the German Eagle, which they gave to a collection of some of the worst people of the twentieth century.

        Tom Tomorrow did a really brutal strip on that in the 90s. Remember when Schindler’s List was broadcast uncut and without commercial interruption on network TV, and Ford sponsored it? Tom Tomorrow pointed out that when the announcer said “Schindler’s List was made possible by the Ford Motor Corporation,” that was true on a couple of different levels.

        • It’s true historically, but since Henry Ford died, Ford has probably been the best of the US auto companies. They’ve tended to treat their workers better, they’ve had fewer strikes against them, when they’ve been the strike target for pattern bargaining they’ve generally given more to the UAW than they would probably have gotten from GM or Chrysler, and the Ford family (other than owning the Lions, who have only one playoff victory since 1957) have been pretty good local philanthropists and corporate citizens. And I think the biggest reason Ford has been a better corporate citizen is that members of the Ford family to this day have a controlling share of the company’s stock, and they feel an obligation to the family and to their history to be good stewards. I think it’s an important reason that the family members involved in the company made moves in 2008 to protect the company earlier than did the GM or Chrysler leadership, and thus why Ford did not require direct financial support from the federal government.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        seems like they called the young ford “crazy henry” but after he actually did succeed he gained that kind of tin-godhood that seems to come with wealth, until the crazy just got too hard for his pr people to hide

  • Good stuff. I’ve always thought the $5 day was one of the most successful propaganda efforts in the field of labor relations in world history in terms of its impact in the popular memory vs. the actual reality. And there’s the irony that $5 a day for a 48 hour work week works out to an hourly wage of $12 today, which is just barely over the poverty line for a family of 3…and his $2.6 a day would be illegal today.

    The point is this: it’s often argued that certain forms of labor are intrinsically better paid because they create more value-added than others. But auto-manufacturing, and a lot of factory jobs, paid poverty wages back before these industries were unionized. Any job can be turned into a good job or a bad job, depending on regulation and unionization.

    • There’s a Simpsons episode where Lisa tries to prove Marge should aspire to more because doing housework isn’t that hard. She puts dinner on the table, realizes she didn’t put the sliced almonds on the green beans, leaves the room for about 3 seconds, and returns to an empty room of empty bowls, with one still spinning to a stop. It reminded me of my grandfather, who ate so fast it was kind of disgusting. Nobody else in his family did, which supported his claim that he’d developed the habit working at the Rouge, where their lunch break was, iirc, 12 minutes.

      • Yeah.

        Steel work was even worse. Always amazed me that for the longest time steel companies opposed bathroom breaks so that an entire building of grown men had to piss and shit themselves or risk losing their jobs.

    • Ronan

      How significantly did auto manufacturing wages increase after greater unionistaion and regulation, out of curiosity ?
      Is the reason so many on the US left are nostalgic for a society with a lot of manufacturing jobs because those jobs are easier to organise, or becuase the work is seen as ‘more meaningful’ than service jobs, or because the decline in manufacturing jobs hasnt been replaced with anything else .. (or something else) ?

      • Linnaeus

        I haven’t been able to find anything about annual wage increases in the auto industry, but the wage increases are probably pretty significant. My father, when he retired, was making somewhere in the $30s/hr range (mind you, he was in the skilled trades). Overtime was time-and-a-half (and anything over 8 hrs in a day counted as overtime), and Sundays was double-time. So you could do really well with some overtime work, but even a standard work week wasn’t bad at all.

        As for your second question, I’d say it’s a combination of those factors, but I think the third is probably the most significant. Manufacturing jobs were, for years, a way for someone with a high school education (or less, in the case of my maternal grandfather) to earn a good living. Now those opportunities are much less available and the alternative that was supposed to fix it all (going to college) isn’t the panacea we were promised it was. I have to say I found it a bit amusing several years back when outsourcing/offshoring became a problem in the US because it was happening to white collar workers – it had been happening for years to industrial workers, but that wasn’t a problem, it was “progress”.

        • Hogan

          The argument I read once was that layoffs were more damaging to white-collar workers because it never happened to them, while blue-collar workers got laid off all the time.

          That was when I started writing my “This will not be a fit country for decent people until the blood of the rich runs in rivers down Wall Street” speech. I’m available for office parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

      • They increased dramatically. Between 1945 and 1975, weekly wages rose from $56.51 to $249.53 (constant dollars).

        I think it’s a couple things: first, unionized blue collar jobs didn’t really get replaced by anything that paid as well. Second, there’s a strong tendency of the Left to want to validate the meaning that people did find in their work – and you can find meaning even in the lowest work, and people do. Third, there’s a kind of gendered, nostalgic preference for manufacturing>services (“we used to build shit in this country”).

        But if you go back to the 70s, there were a lot of young autoworkers who wanted out from the assembly lines but couldn’t find anything to replace it. Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin Alive is very good on this.

        • Brett

          But if you go back to the 70s, there were a lot of young autoworkers who wanted out from the assembly lines but couldn’t find anything to replace it.

          Not without extra education, at least.

          Of course, that’s always been one of the dangers with an economy where you only have piecemeal unionization of various sectors and companies. While the company’s doing good you’ve got good wages and benefits – but if it tanks or (god forbid) goes bankrupt and shuts down the plant, you’re likely to be shit out of luck because all the non-union employers around you are paying less and consider you to be “over-valued”.

      • Brett

        They may have been easier to organize, simply because you had a lot of workers in a single area who could potentially collaborate. Modern service sector businesses tend to have much fewer workers in any particular location, which raises the communication issues and costs of organizing the labor force of an entire company. It’s certainly not impossible, though – witness unionized grocery stores.

        As for the nostalgia, it’s a combination of manufacturing jobs paying good wages for people with sub-college levels of education, and manufacturing being seen as “Real Work” compared to service sector stuff.

      • Ronan

        Linnaeus , Steven, Brett – thanks for the responses

        added: this book might be of interest to people


        i havent read it yet, but have had it recommended a few times and it seems to be making waves at the min, so to speak (for a very limitied definition of a wave)

    • Brett

      I think the union wages can actually make them more productive forms of value-added labor, at least in theory. You push for better, more trained workers to get more out of them in exchange for the higher labor costs, and supplement them with labor-saving technology that increases productivity because you can’t simply shove a whole ton of cheap laborers in a factory line China-style.

      Assuming, at least, that hiring remains somewhat meritocratic and doesn’t become a nepotistic “sons following fathers” scheme. Or that the union doesn’t fight the new technology as long as they can keep wages and job security.

  • Murc

    Any job can be turned into a good job or a bad job, depending on regulation and unionization.

    Example: supermarket bagging and checking.

    Today, this is thought of as work done by surly teenagers, retirees looking for PIN money, or, if you’re a conservative, by people too lazy, shiftless, or dumb to have a better job. You’re worked hard, have no control over something as basic as bathroom breaks, and there are cameras focused, not on the customers, but on you, because the assumption is you’re a thief.

    ‘Twas not always thus. For many many years, checking and bagging was a good job, a solid union job. You didn’t make minimum wage doing this; you made enough to provide for yourself an for a family, with solid pay, solid benefits, and at many groceries, a pension of some sort. It was respectable labor, not something you sent your kid to do during senior year of high school.

    People are always skeptical when I tell them this. I’ve had to trot out my grandmother or people in her age cohort to confirm it. I have on my phone a picture of a nice little two-story in her old neighborhood, I can tell people truthfully “that house was purchased by a hard-working Italian immigrant who checked and bagged groceries, did light inventory work, and walked customers to their cars for forty years after he got out of the army before retiring. He sent two kids to college with the money he made.”

    • MikeJake

      But surely the marginal productivity of their labor couldn’t possibly justify such wage premiums.

      • Murc

        Them being human beings doing necessary work justified such wages.

        If that was intended as snark and not seriously: I actually don’t know how the situation of that particular kind of labor being secure and well-compensated arose. I do know how it was destroyed.

        • MikeJake

          Aye, it was snark. It’s one of the typical economist’s justifications trotted out to explain a result that’s really a function of power relations.

          • Linnaeus

            …a result that’s really a function of power relations.

            Whoa, now. That’s commie talk, there.

        • MikeJake

          Them being human beings doing necessary work justified such wages.

          And this is another problem. People don’t understand what work is anymore. Work is simply stuff that needs doing, whether cleaning a floor, giving a haircut, auditing a company, manufacturing an automobile, whatever. We seem to look at paid labor now as some kind of reward for the virtuous. This is the mindset that justifies Henry Ford’s Sociological Department prying into one’s personal life.

          • postmodulator

            “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

            “The Federal Reserve should keep unemployment from getting to low to avoid inflation.”

            “No one should hang me from a lamppost for believing both of those things at the same time.”

          • Redwood Rhiadra

            “We seem to look at paid labor now as some kind of reward for the virtuous.”

            Thus, Calvinism…

        • Brett

          More specifically, we’ve got a society that believes that you should work full-time 40 hours a week unless you have a handful of other obligations (family, illness, age, etc), and builds the safety net and welfare system around most people having to work full-time to live.

          If that’s what you got, then you probably shouldn’t have jobs that don’t pay at least whatever the bare minimum is decided to count as a “living wage”* in your area for full-time work. If that means that a particular sector of the economy has fewer full-time jobs in it, then so be it.

          * That’s going to vary by area, but for an overall US average $16/hr puts you at $33,000/year before taxes. I generally consider anything in the $30,000-40,000/year pre-tax income to be “lower middle class”, so that works.

      • Vance Maverick

        Like Murc, I hope you’re joking. [ETA: you were.] I can see an argument from “MikeJake is worthy of his hire” to “Let’s find something productive for MikeJake to do”, but not from “Vance is doing something with little productivity” to “Vance deserves less”.

    • Other than Walmart and Target, in most places outside the South and Plains, in chain supermarkets those jobs still are unionized. The United Food and Commercial Workers–which is mostly supermarket employees–is one of the largest unions in the country.

      • Warren Terra

        Maybe so, but the unions are losing their grip. Famously so in California, where iirc about five years ago the unions managed to hold on to high wages for existing workers, but had to concede much lower wages for new hires.

    • TribalistMeathead

      Another, similar example of this: Janitor.

    • Brett

      Sounds like they were primed to be decimated by self-checkouts, assuming the dominance of non-unionized grocery stores hadn’t happened first. Of course, the jobs that remained might have still been good jobs, just like how longshoremen still make pretty good money even if there’s a lot fewer of them and a lot more machines.

  • Rob in CT

    I wonder what the SD cost Ford. I bet a fair bit. All that nosing around your workers lives would require quite a few man-hours, and even assuming the SD folks make low wages it surely added up.

    • Murc

      Well, remember, for Ford it wasn’t about cost. Once he knew he’d be rich for the rest of his life no matter what, he cared about enforcing moral purity more than he cared about money.

  • Linnaeus

    I used Sanford Jacoby’s Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945, Joan Shaw Peterson’s American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, and Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, in the writing of this post.

    Another reference on this topic that is useful is Stephen Meyer’s The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921.

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  • Brett

    What is with the moralistic paternalism that seems to pop up over and over again with prominent American capitalists? Why did they give a shit about what their workers did in their spare time, as long as they showed up sober, did their jobs, went home, and voted no on union elections?

    Not that I had a particularly good view of Ford anyways, after reading Corey Robin’s piece on Ford’s endless battles with bathroom breaks and lunch time.

    That said, is it really true that Ford workers took no pride in their work? It was hard, repetitive work, but they also got to see their work roll off the assembly and driving around in the streets. How do you think a Ford assembly line worker in 1915 would have reacted if you accosted him and told him Ford’s cars were all built like shit?

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