Every culture has its foundational myths. Now that we’re in the midst of a presidential election campaign pitting a Republican businessman representing the interests of business and commerce against a Democratic president sympathetic (some would say beholden) to labor unions we are starting to hear one of the hoariest foundational myths of organized labor. I won’t deny American labor unions’ role in the shaping of the American middle class but it’s simply a myth, or rather a constellation of myths, to say that before the successes of unions organizing industrial labor American workers were chained to their work stations, forced to endure 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, with no medical care or insurance for their families. Long before labor unions succeeded at collective bargaining the work week was shrinking, and wages and benefits were going up. It was the prototypical American industrialist, Henry Ford, who gave us the weekend, not organized labor.
With Democratic National Convention taking place this week in Charlotte, the Democrats have published their party platform. As expected, it’s highly favorable to organized labor and parrots labor’s narrative.
Democrats believe that the right to organize and collectively bargain is a fundamental American value; every American should have a voice on the job and a chance to negotiate for a fair day’s pay after a hard day’s work. We will continue to fight for the right of all workers to organize and join a union. Unions helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known. Their work resulted in the 40-hour workweek and weekends, paid leave and pensions, the minimum wage and health insurance, and Social Security and Medicare – the cornerstones of middle class security.
Even if you don’t belong to a union, organized labor and the Democrats want you to thank a union member for improving the lot of the average worker in America. We’re supposed to be grateful to organized labor for being able to spend time with our families on the weekend. The problem with the Democratic platform and organized labor’s preferred narrative is that organized labor takes credit for things that it never achieved. Minimum wage laws, Social Security, Medicare (and child labor laws, another thing organized labor likes to claim as their own effort) are the result of legislation, not collective bargaining. As for better wages, the 40 hour work week, weekends and health care, well, let’s just say that Henry Ford had more to do with those improvements for the average worker than Sam Gompers and Walter Reuther.
With the success of the Model T, the auto industry exploded. The Model T was introduced in 1908. Organized labor would not have a significant impact on the American auto industry for almost three decades after that.
The labor movement had little success organizing U.S. industries, particularly the auto industry, until the 1930s. FDR’s New Deal and in particular, the so-called Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 tilted the balance of power towards organized labor. While attempts to organize autoworkers date to the industry’s birth, the auto companies were not fully organized until the late 1930s. The legendary UAW Flint sit-down strike and the “Battle of the Rouge Overpass” both took place in 1937.
Meanwhile, labor and auto industry historians say that wages, benefits, and working conditions for American workers had started improving decades earlier.
In 1911, Henry Ford said, “Coming [is] a shorter workday, and so is the daily wage. It will be a daily wage of five dollars, perhaps as much as ten dollars, and maybe more. We are just beginning to get moving in the automobile industry, and the men who build the cars are entitled to better wages and better hours.”
Two years later Ford Motor Co. started an embryonic employee health plan, with company clinics for on the job injuries, employees, and their families. The company health department also placed the many handicapped workers Ford hired in suitable positions and in some cases monitored their health.
In 1914, Ford shocked the world, announcing a wage increase from $2.34 to $5.00 per day. The increase was paid as a bonus to men who met Ford’s standards for sober living as verified by Ford Motor Company’s Sociological Department and Harry Bennett’s spies. Henry, meanwhile, would quietly putter up the Rouge from Fairlane in an electric motorboat, docking at a secret staircase in the mansion he built for a young stenographer who joined the company in 1909.
Obviously Ford was no saint. He raised wages out of pure self-interest. His factories were terrible places to work. Contrary to legend, Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, mass production, standardized parts or other elements of modern manufacturing. All of those processes had been proven by earlier industrialists. What Henry contributed was the notion of breaking the task into individual discrete processes and make it as we would put it today “idiot proof”. You did the same individual task all day long, tightening the same bolt. You did those tasks in a less than idyllic environment. The factories that Albert Kahn designed for Ford let in natural sunlight and fresh air but they were still factories, employing many workers who had never been near a factory before.
The new assembly line was mind numbing, backbreaking drudgery, and dangerous too. Hundreds lost fingers or limbs in hand fed presses and stamping machines every year. Factories were noisy and dirty and the line moved brutally fast, with no breaks. Supervisors had stopwatches. No wonder there was a 10% absentee rate and a turnover rate as high as 370%. In 1913, Ford Motor Company hired over 52,000 men to keep 14,000 employees, something a business model based on productivity could not afford.
The $5 wage stabilized Ford’s workforce. What’s not widely known is that at the same time Ford also shortened the workday. An eight hour day meant the plants could run three shifts, 24 hours a day, speeding production and reducing costs. In 1922, Ford shortened the workweek from the industrial standard of 50 hours, including half a day on Saturday, to a five-day, 40-hour week. That way, with overtime, he could run full shifts on the weekend and keep his plants busy 24/7/365. I’m sure that if Ford had known that safety increased productivity, Henry would have made the plants safer.
Even concerning safety and working conditions, unions’ benefit to non-union workers is somewhat exaggerated. Once again, one can never underestimate the power of selfish interests. E.I. DuPont started a gunpowder mill on the banks of the Brandywine River in 1802. He faced some of the same difficulties Henry Ford did in attracting and keeping workers. Making black powder and gunpowder with late 18th century technology was even more dangerous work than operating a punch press in one of Henry Ford’s factories. Eleuthère Irénée DuPont did something as clever as Ford’s $5 a day wage. He told his employees that if they were killed on the job he’d support their families. You could say that old E.I. invented employee life insurance. Then, instead of building one large mill, he built several small mills with three stone walls and a fourth of wood facing the river, each designed for one stage of production. In case there was an explosion the wooden panel would blow out towards the river, leaving the walls standing and keeping the explosion from spreading to the entire operation. He also trained his employees to be very, very safe. To this day, “safety first” is DuPont corporate culture. Like Ford, DuPont was no saint. He and his descendants have made one of the world’s great fortunes producing explosives and gunpowder, the raw ingredients of destruction, death and war. DuPont didn’t stress safety just because he cared about his workers. He stressed safety because mills were expensive to rebuild, and widows and orphans expensive to support.
Ford and DuPont didn’t act out of the goodness of their hearts. Neither did unions, whose primary accomplishment has been giving individual employees economic leverage and preventing workers from getting fired without cause, not making the world a better place.
I don’t owe unions any more thanks than I owe Hank and E. I.