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Cars and the Men

by Louis Stark

Reporter, New York Times

November 1935

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The labor costs of a door today is 35 cents. It was $4 in 1929. Hand finishing body frames of wood before panelling cost 20 cents today. The cost was $3 in 1929. Trimming the body costs $4 today and cost $12 in 1929. Welding back and quarter panels used to require six welders and twelve finishers. The work now requires one machine, two operators and a helper.

Assembly Line
Not all cars move down the line, setting the pace for the men who make them. Skill not speed is required of these men at work on an engine of a high-priced car.

IN 1928 and 1929 three skilled men were required to do certain machine work which had to be accurate to within .0005 of an inch. Today the same part is finished by one unskilled mechanic in the same time that formerly required three men. A new inspection machine, using the photoelectric cell, eliminates from ten to twenty inspectors. An automatic-lock manufacturer is introducing buffing machines which entirely displace labor. A labor saving of 60 percent is estimated for a new method of polishing moulding strips. Ball bearings, formerly inspected and sorted by hand, are now handled by machinery. A 50 percent labor saving is expected by the use of a full automatic hydraulic vulcanizing machine.

Less than five years ago a well-known auto manufacturer finished 100 eight-cylinder motor blocks on a given line-up with 250 men. Today the same line-up finishes 250 motor blocks with 20 percent more operations using only 19 men. Five years ago these men were paid on an average of $13.20 per 100 blocks per operation. Today by doubling and tripling the number of machines, and using Tungsten Carbide tool tips, also by increasing the number of operations allotted to each operator, the workmen have received a cut to $5.20.

A roller-bearing manufacturer at the time of a strike in 1934 employed something over 1000 men. Since then he has eliminated 150 men from his payroll and increased his production 15 percent. This was accomplished "by speed-up and labor-eliminating machinery."

THAT does "speed-up" mean in terms of the individual worker? Here is J. Kennedy's story:

We were speeded up to where it was a point almost unbearable and you were told by the foreman that you either had to keep up your end of the work or, if you did not, there was hundreds of men out at the gate willing to take your place. That threat was held over your head several times a day and to show you that the work was almost unbearable for the average man, the men working on that line, there was not an average of two men out of fifty on that line that were forty years of age. There was not an average of ten men out of fifty on that line that were 35 years of age and the majority of them were between 20 and 30 years of age.

Everett Francis:

I don't know whether it is generally understood by the layman what a speed-up consists of or how it reacts on the men. It is hard on their system. It makes them in some cases what you would call a physical wreck and a nervous wreck. I can go home after 9 hours of production in the shop and before I eat my supper lay down and go to sleep and then prodded [sic] to come and do my work. That is a fact. If I work four days and I go back after the next three days to work, it just takes exactly that much time for me to get to feeling right again.

Charles Madden was one of those who said that the group bonus system served to eliminate men from the payroll. Each man in a group was busy trying to figure out a way of reducing the number of his group members in order to increase his pay. He charged:

Having done that he finds eventually after one pay, we will say, that he has not increased his own pay but that he has very frequently disposed of one of his fellow-workers; so that there is no lasting benefit at all from this and it cannot be. The system itself takes care of that, that when it gets to a certain amount the bonus is reduced. Another thing particularly bad about the bonus system, and it is also the piece-work system, is that it sets up a false average. The speed of the fastest man is set to be the speed of the average man which is of course as we know absolutely false.

The report credits time-study men with helping to bring the industry to its efficient peak in the decade that followed 1920. But, it is claimed:

The competitive conditions of the past few years have reached down to these time-study men. They have been forced to show how to make inequitable reductions in working time to hoId their own jobs and, from setting jobs on an efficient basis they have come to set them on a speed-up basis that puts production demands beyond human capability to produce day after day.

The espionage system which the investigators found to be widely existent was bitterly resented by the workers as being un-American. William McKie, a tinsmith, found the so-called "service" men employed by one company obnoxious. He said:

You would think in the ordinary course of human dealings that at least a worker would be entitled to talk to any other worker during his lunch hour, during his own time, or speak to a worker going across the bridge going home, in the busses or in the street cars or at such times and places but that is not so.... The service men during every lunch-hour will come around and see half a dozen men sitting around and the service men will simply say: "Move, boys" or if you don't particularly move they will simply put somebody down beside you at another particular time to see just exactly what you are talking about.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003