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Cars and the Men

by Louis Stark

Reporter, New York Times

November 1935

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ERE, according to the report—and of this I know no counterpart—is an industry where men who are laid off do not know whether they will ever be rehired. Few workers are actually discharged. When they are laid off they are told that they will be notified when they are wanted. There may be no intention of rehiring them but, according to the evidence in the report, it is very difficult for the individual worker to find this out except through many months of application and "many heart-breaking attempts to secure employment."

"He goes to see his former foreman or he goes to the employment office and he is told there is nothing for him at that particular time but that perhaps there will be in a few weeks or a few months," the report states. "He comes back again and again and gets similar replies. It is only after he sees most of his co-workers rehired that he finally realizes that he no longer has a job in that plant. He tries to find out why and he cannot. That is not the unusual but the usual situation and a situation which needs correction."

We get a glimpse of the psychological problem of the automobile workers whose daily wage-earning is a gamble. As he passes into the plant he sees the long line of men waiting at the gate. There always seem to be lines at the gate, crowding the employment office. The man with the o job inside may slow down and the foreman says: "Step on it. If you don't want the job there are thousands outside who do. Look out of the window and see the men waiting in line for your job."

It matters not whether the plants, as a policy, have long lines of applicants at the employment gate. The effect, as outlined in the report, is to make those who are employed less sure of their jobs and so to prod them into the impetus to "step on it" a little harder.

That the "speed-up" and the large pool of labor go hand in hand is made clear by the investigators, who point out that the former can only exist because of the huge available supply of labor through which "as one man falls by the wayside another is there to take his place." The point is made that to criticize the "speed-up" is not to attack efficiency, since with a stable working force to which the industry was morally and financially responsible the "speed-up" would be most uneconomical.

In this connection the story of the Packard Motor Car Company and its long efforts to eliminate seasonality is recounted. This story is not a new one to the readers of the Survey Graphic but it is one that bears repetition. In 1934, 92.8 percent of its workers were employed at least 40 weeks of the year, while 76.3 percent were employed in 50 or more weeks. The annual earnings in 1934 of 53 percent of the company's workers exceeded $1200.

The report contrasts this with the showing of another company which had only 30.6 percent of its workers employed in 40 weeks and 11.5 percent employed 50 weeks or more, while 27.4 percent of the workers were employed in less than 14 weeks of the year. The annual earnings of only 23 percent of the workers employed by this second company in the peak month were equal to $1200, while 32 percent of its workers earned less than $400. While hourly earnings were found to be high—in some cases equal to those of 1929—annual incomes are low.

With the payment of higher hourly rates, due to the codes on the one hand and with the lower average sales price of cars on the other, parts had to be made better and cheaper. That was accomplished by improved machinery and equipment, by eliminating or changing operations and by greater production per hour on the same operations. No more graphic portrayal of the recent technological developments and the amazing ability of this ingenious industry to produce better products for the same dollar expenditure and even for a less expenditure can be cited than a reference to some illustrations offered in the report.

The automobile body has undergone tremendous changes and with these changes has come elimination of parts and of labor. Wood, which used to be a great factor in bodies, is now completely cut out. One body manufacturer closed his entire wood-mill which employed 3000 men in 1928. Today one company makes an enormous saving by one-piece stamping of the underbody. In 1929 the following parts had to be built and assembled for the underbody: 2 sidesills; 2 sidesill extensions; 3 cross sills; 2 front floor-board cleats; 1 front floor board; 1 toe-board set (right and left); 1 front-seat riser; 2 front-seat-riser corners; 2 front-seat-riser ends; 1 front-seat-riser rear; 1 rear-seat riser; 2 rear-seat-riser ends; trim stick; 2 rear door-boards; 2 rear floor-board-cleats; 1 rear-seat floor-board.

By one-piece stamping today it is estimated that 50 hours were saved for the manufacturing and assembling of the above parts.

Similarly a body company has made a one-piece top from a stamping and has eliminated the building and assembling of 46 separate pieces.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003