Labor Day, Part 2: Fordism

by K.M. Zahrt


When a Michigander thinks of labor, one undoubtedly thinks of the Motor City. Like thinking of Matt Damon without Ben Affleck, it’s hard to think of Detroit without thinking of the automotive industry with the UAW. There’s good reason for that. Detroit and the automotive industry, along with the unions, have developed some of the most basic concepts in labor we know today.

Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital describes what is known as “Fordism” as the way Ford dealt with “the unionization drive begun by the Industrial Workers of the World among Ford workers in the summer of 1913. Ford’s response to the double threat of unionization and the flight of workers from his plants was the announcement, made with great fanfare early in 1914, of the $5.00 day. Although this dramatic increase in wages was not so strictly adhered to as Ford would have had the public believe when he launched it, it did raise pay at the Ford plant so much above the prevailing rate in the area that it solved both threats for the moment. It gave the company a large pool of labor from which to choose and at the same time opened up new possibilities for the intensification of labor within the plants where workers were now anxious to keep their jobs” (p.103).

There are two lingering elements of Fordism that still define our conceptions of labor today:

1. The eight hour work day:  Even as many Americans — I would venture to guess probably most — work more than eight hours in a day on a regular basis, there’s this underlying idea that is so strongly rooted in us that, if we do so, we’ve worked overtime.

2. The middle class:  Every time you hear Obama talk about “strengthening the middle class,” you would be right in thinking of Ford. “‘The payment of five dollars a day for an eight-hour day,’ Ford was to write in his autobiography, ‘was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made'” (Braverman, p.103). How is that possible? He discovered the economic power created when average workers could afford to be mass consumers. Specifically, they could afford to buy his cars. That’s the kind of economic power that our politicians desperately try to maintain today when they talk about the middle class.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, there’s a beautiful mural by Diego Rivera that honors this rich history. And the mural, in the section below, illustrates the concept of Fordism with workers coming off the line at the end of an eight-hour shift and crossing a bridge to the parking lot where they will get in their vehicles, which they can now afford. Don’t miss it the next time you’re in town!

work 2


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