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Cars and the Men

by Louis Stark

Reporter, New York Times

November 1935

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A HUSHED stillness pervades the mass of drab-clothed men eagerly intent on catching the words of the witness on the platform. The stubby fingers of the young workman clasp and unclasp as he strives to become articulate. His eyes wander to the heavy oak vaulted ceiling of this chamber in Detroit's Masonic Temple—the Sistine Ghapel—and then toward the three men who are questioning him in not unkindly fashion.

In their pew-like seats the crowd of automobile workers are silent or at intervals they may murmur quietly as one of their fellows describes his experiences, which are so close to all of their lives. The heavy carpets of this large auditorium soften the tread of newcomers who take their seats with something akin to awe and reverence. Here is something that many of them may have dreamed of but never regarded as possible, a governmental inquiry into the problem of regularizing employment and improving labor conditions in the automobile industry. On the platform, at two tables that form a sharp V are the investigators, Leon Henderson, director of the NRA Research and Planning Division, casual and informal, fatherly and encouraging; his associate, Richard Lansburg, keen, technical minded, an analytic wizard when it comes to personal problems; Isidor Lubin, rapid-fire interrogator, precise and orderly in his method of getting at the statistical phase of the problem at hand.

For two days there is a procession of witnesses on and off the platform. Most of them are shy, for it is their first appearance on a public platform. A few have addressed audiences of workingmen before—some in the professional capacity of labor leaders—and these show evidence of a platform manner. Simultaneously assistants of the government officials on the platform are presiding at more informal "man to man" meetings in small rooms on the upper floors of the building.

Photos from Ewing Galloway
"The scientific orderliness and uniformity of the assembly line and the end result, an automobile rolling off the line under its own power." A mass-production plant

At the end of the weekend period two thick volumes of stenographic reports freeze the record of human experience in the automobile industry between blue-covered pages. In some thirteen other cities, during the days that follow, other agents of the investigators follow the same procedure, in Flint, Pontiac, Lansing, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo. Soon two blue-covered volumes are supplemented by others. As the analysts pore over these typed pages there seem to open to them wide vistas of achievement and hope. From these pages there seem to crash forth the roar and clanging of the machine shops, the stamping of heavy automobile bodies, the scientific orderliness and uniformity of the assembly line and the end result, the magnificent achievement, an automobile rolling off the line under its own power generated by the first measure of gasoline in its tank, to play its part in the conquest of time and space for the people of the motor age.

But from these volumes, also, there seems to march forth an army, not with banners, but with something akin to despair. This is the army of the idle, the army of the "technologically unemployed." These are men who are assured by economists that "in the long run" they will have jobs. But they reply that they must eat and feed and clothe their families "in the short run." These are the men who, it seemed yesterday, or rather some few years ago, were assured of status, of decent wages, of a bright future, of the warmth and satisfactions of the family circle. These are the men whose economic future seemed guaranteed for the years to come by this new industry, which in technical achievement probably eclipsed anything the world has ever seen. These were selected men, from Kentucky, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and a score of states.

Since the turn of the century they had descended on Detroit and its satellite cities, young, eager for adventure, pioneers of a new frontier. Their foothold seemed to be secure for some time. But the years passed and their foothold became less sure. New processes meant new machinery, new technical advances. Mechanization grew apace. Automatic and semi-automatic machines revolutionized processes that were new for a year and then obsolete. Soon, all too soon, the foothold of these new recruits of industry became more shaky, less sure. Then, ultimately, the effects of widespread and wholesale mechanization came to be felt, first on a small scale, then on a wider scale.

This was a process that antedated the hard times, apart from the mass unemployment due to the business depression though it has been heightened by it. The machine, designed to lighten labor and cheapen production, succeeded all too well. By the thousands men who clung to the heavy punch presses, to the multitudinous machines and techniques of the new industry were flung clear. Their grasp loosed, and these miners and sappers of a superb industry, whose labors helped make possible for so many of us all the joys of swift and comfortable travel found themselves certain of only one thing—insecurity.

Twas indeed a "dark picture" that these witnesses painted for the investigators; necessarily so, because the nature of the assignment was such that the inquirers could not delve in detail into the industry's "multitude of positive contributions to the social and economic progress of the country."

Essentially, however, the report dealt with close-in human problems in human terms. Here may be found also the story of the "speed-up," one of the first words to fall from the lips of automobile workers in these depression days. Here was laid bare, also, the existence of espionage systems, of foremen who drive as they are driven, of a competitive industry that has been propelled by the depression to spur on its human cogs by "setting jobs . . . on a speed-up basis . . . beyond human capability to produce day by day." In these pages, moreover, are imbedded the story of workers who are old at forty, of an industry whose new "low" age for the displacement of workers is "an all-time low."

The investigators record that "it is socially and economically indefensible for the automobile industry to say that old age comes to its workers from ten to twenty years prior to the time it comes to any other group of similar workers in the United States."


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003