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The Complicated Legacy of Henry Ford
1Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903, producing an inexpensive, all-purpose car, the Model T. His company grew rapidly after the Model T became an instant success. The close relationship he enjoyed with his skilled workers deteriorated as he installed the assembly line and hired unskilled workers. In 1913, dissatisfaction among workers resulted in labor turnover of over 380% in one year alone. A small number of workers joined the International Workers of the World, which served as an outlet for the workers’ hostility.
On January 14, 1914, Henry Ford shocked the industry by raising the average wage for his workers from $2.34 to $5.00 per day. Although this made Ford known as the defender of the worker overnight, Ford’s motives were more complex. He believed that the more money he paid to workers, the more his cars would be bought. Although he paid his workers attractive salaries when they worked, he felt little responsibility for their continued employment and laid them off when necessary.
During this early period, Ford instituted other worker benefits that were revolutionary. He created a Safety and Health Department in 1914 and opened the Henry Ford Trade School in 1916 so that boys could learn a trade while attending school. Another farsighted policy was the hiring of partially handicapped workers, ex-criminals, epileptics, and former mental patients. In 1934, approximately 34% of Ford workers had a physically handicap.
Also instituted was the Ford Sociology Department that counseled workers and management alike. It gave workers advice on how to budget money and protected them when unscrupulous salesmen descended on them after they had received their paychecks. The Sociology Department also conducted a Language School to teach foreign-born workers spoken English. Labor appreciated his reforms and supported Ford in his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1918. Many experts feel that Ford’s reforms were the only labor reforms in the early part of the century.
But Ford was inconsistent in his dealings with his workers. During the 1920s, Ford instituted a cost-saving campaign. Assembly line speed increased, forcing workers to perform their jobs in less time. Discipline was strict, and workers were driven to work as hard as possible. Even the Sociology Department was disbanded. The Ford Service Police, a 3,000-person group, was created to enforce the speed-up and other discipline measures. Workers who were involved in union activities were often physically assaulted.
Ford, who was once hailed as the workers’ hero, was now viewed as a reactionary. During the Great Depression, layoffs in all industries resulted in massive unemployment. In March 1932, the Ford Hunger March took place. Several hundred workers marched on Ford, demanding a six-hour workday, two daily rest periods, and an unemployment bonus of $50 per man. The marchers were greeted by gunfire that resulted in four deaths. Henry Ford steadfastly maintained a hostile attitude toward any union activities.
The Wagner Act was passed in 1935, establishing a national policy of protecting the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain. Under the protection of the Wagner Act, the United Automobile Workers began a systematic campaign to organize the automobile industry. By 1937, they had succeeded, except for Ford.
In May 1937, the UAW began its campaign to unionize Ford. Walter Reuther headed the campaign and planned to distribute circulars to Ford workers on their way home. The union members stationed themselves on a bridge over a road leading to the Ford Rouge River plant. Ford Service Police ordered them to leave, and when the union supporters started to comply, the police attacked them. The Battle of the Bridge ended with Reuther and several others, including women, requiring hospitalization.
Even though Ford had prevented unionization yet again, time was running out. When the UAW began another organizing effort in 1941, they succeeded. After the head of the Ford Service Police fired eight Rouge River workers for union activities, the workers spontaneously walked off their jobs. They surrounded the plant and refused to let food and water be sent in to the Ford Service Police in the plant. On April 11, 1941, Henry Ford finally agreed to recognize the union.