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Why Ford Workers Strike (1933)

Why Ford Workers Strike

By CARL M. MYDANS, An Article in The Nation, October 25, 1933

THE real object of the strike at the Edgewater, New Jersey, plant of the Ford Motor Car Company was, of course, a wage increase. The workers seized the opportunity, however, to protest against a number of the conditions under which they had been working. These, each small in itself, had become unbearable, and the request for their amelioration was included in the workers’ demands to the Ford officials.

Ford has been applauded by the outside world for the favorable conditions in his factories, but he was referred to with sullen looks and sour noises when the writer questioned the workers about these conditions. The one which the workers protested against most vehemently is the result of circumstances which they are helpless to control. A breakdown on any part of the assembly line means that they all must knack off. The moment this happens, the time is recorded and the worker’s pay stops. If the tie-up is for two hours, he must work two hours longer that night. In the meantime he is not permitted to leave his station. He may not smoke, and even conversation is discouraged.

No lockers are provided for the men, and those who bring their lunch instead of eating in the Ford restaurant have no alternative but to leave their food in the washroom. It is a gamble whether or not they will find it there when the noonday gong sounds. Nor do the men have any place to leave coats and hats and other personal belongings. They are not permitted to carry them into the workroom, and it happens only too often that a man who came to work with a coat goes home without one.

Frequently production reaches a point where it is necessary to shut down early in the day. Very often this breaking-point is at noon. But the men are never advised of this until after they have bought and eaten their lunch at the Ford restaurant. Then they are dismissed for the day, their pay covering only those hours which they have worked.

If a man is one minute late he is docked fifteen minutes. No provision is made for a worker to leave his post at any time for any reason while the “line” is moving. It is an unfortunate day for the man who must leave for the washroom. Usually he doesn’t go. But if he does, he “must run like hell and back again” and catch up on what he should have been doing. If he can’t, “it is just too bad.” There is supposed to be a man who can fill in in such emergencies, but he is seldom available.

A man who injures himself has indeed a problem. He must decide quickly whether or not his hurt is severe enough to warrant his running to the plant doctor. If he doesn’t go, he is, of course, breaking a Ford rule. If he does, it is up to the doctor to decide whether or not the injury is bad enough to “O. K. for time” or slight enough to “deduct for time.” Unless a man is badly hurt, he decides against leaving his post, for a record is kept of every injury brought to a doctor, and soon a man is accused of being “careless,” a crime for which he will be fired. But a man can’t be too careful, say the workers. He is forced to work fast. “Most of the guys on that line are punch drunk,” one told me, “long before the end of the day.”

The men are given a half-hour for lunch They are paid twice a month–during their lunch hour. On pay days they must stand in line during this period eating their food. Those who are still in line when the 12:30 gong sounds must come back after work that night and stand in line again, or wait until the lunch hour of the following day. Ford pays his men on their time, not on his.

The workers voiced strong resentment also against the “pushers,” the men hired to stand over the assembly line and shout disconcerting advice to a man whose human effort may for a moment fail to keep pace with the machine Ford has built. The “pushers” are men made hard by their job.

The sprayers have another complaint. They must get to work a quarter of an hour before the rest of the men, and are not permitted to wind up their tubes until after the line has stopped moving at night. They are on the job, they say, some thirty minutes extra each day, for which they are not paid. Yet if they are a minute late they are docked for a quarter of an hour.

When the strike broke out at the Chester, Pennsylvania, Ford plant on September 26, the Ford Motor Car Company announced that the workers were out and that the plant would not be reopened. Unrest at the New Jersey plant followed, and the workers were told that instead of the four-day week they were getting, they would be given five. But they were not to be fooled. They knew that the extra day came from work previously done at the Chester plant, which was being turned over to them. They were not going to “scab” on their fellow-workers. So they murmured, and then they struck. And the Chester boys came over to Edgewater to see that they did.

It is rumored among the Edgewater workers that Ford will close the New Jersey plant also. “If he does,” they say with a determined coolness, “we will simply do what the Chester workers did. We will travel the country in mass and close every plant Ford owns.” The method appears to a pretty efficient one.

Source:  Mydans, Carl M., ” Why Ford Workers Strike,” The Nation, Vol. 137, No. 3564, p. 482 (October 25, 1933), New Deal Network, (June 2, 2014).

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