Chapter 1 - Making Cars, Remaking People

 In 1913-14, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies") were organizing autoworkers in Detroit.
In 1913, they led what was perhaps the first major strike in auto history (at Studebaker).

Courtesy of Wayne State Archives
"Who would use it?"

--Seigfried Marcus, forgotten creator of the first workable car in 1875.

"The automobile industry stands for modern industry all over the globe. It's the industry of industries."

- Peter Drucker

"Never had there been such a device for speeding up labour. You simply moved a switch and a thousand men jumped more quickly. It was [like] an invisible tax... [and] even ifthe worker learns about it, it's like the tax in that he can do nothing about it. If he is a weakling, there are a dozen men outside waiting to take his place. Shut your mouth and do what you're told!"

- Upton Sinclair

The new mass production industries such as auto, rubber, and electronics, as well as related older industries such as farm machinery and steel, settled in southern Ontario. They concentrated there in response to earlier national policy decisions, markets and population, and dependency on the American manufacturing belt around the Great Lakes. The revival of unionism at this particular time in Canadian history would depend on the success of industrial unionism. Canadian unionism would therefore rise or fall with struggles taking place in communities such as Windsor, Sarnia, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Brantford, London, Kitchener, and Oshawa. The key industry in these southern Ontario communities was automobiles - an industry once called "capitalism's favourite child."

Capitalism's Favourite Child Comes to Canada

The auto industry stood at the centre of the new stage of capitalism by virtue of its relative size, dynamic growth, importance to other key sectors, and revolutionary role in reorganizing production. By the depression, auto comprised North America's major manufacturing sector, and General Motors (GM) was the largest manufacturing company in the world. Productivity growth far exceeded the rate of other sectors. The industry supported other key sectors, including steel, rubber, glass, and tool-and-die production, and the assembly line had come to represent, in industry circles and beyond, the ultimate in mass production techniques. After World War I, automobiles became the symbol of a prosperous materialist culture that affected our values and the structure of our lives. It was reflected in transportation systems, the development of cities and suburbs and changes in shopping habits, private versus collective space, recreation, and how we measured personal success.

The auto industry was relatively new, emerging only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Through the next two decades, almost two hundred companies attempted to become full-scale manufacturers in North America, but by the early twenties, an on-going shake-out had left only two of these firms in clearly dominant positions: GM and Ford. Chrysler joined them in 1925, and by the depression, the Big Three controlled over three-quarters of the market. One reason for the rapid shake-out was the critical importance of corporate size and product volume, especially after the introduction of the assembly line in 1913. Another reason was the move in the mid-twenties to annual model changes and their subsequent demands for design, marketing, and financing.

 Outdoor body drop, Ford Highland Park (near Detroit), c.1913.
Courtesy Wayne State Archives.

Canada remained a player through this period not as a result of the free market, but in spite of it. Given the American advantages of access to a large market and experience in the design and manufacturing of cars, the free market would have quickly decreed that we simply import our vehicles from the United States. But jobs and our own industrial strategy demanded otherwise. The industry remained in Canada as a result of conscious government intervention, by way of tariff policy, to change the logic of the market. A tariff of thirty-five per cent forced the manufacturers to at least assemble the vehicles and some components in Canada.

In addition to having its own market, Canada was the back door to the British Empire. Outside imports faced high tariffs in all countries of the empire, and this policy discouraged direct sales from the United States. These tariffs could, however, be circumvented by using one of the countries within the empire as a base, and that role fell to Canada. By the early twenties, Canada ranked second only to the U.S. in the production of vehicles (a position Canada lost during the depression when protectionism within Europe pressured the auto companies to set up facilities overseas).

The companies exploited the tariff to keep prices high in Canada. Since the industry was concentrated in Ontario, there was, not surprisingly, pressure from the West to lower the tariff. In 1926, an innovative solution emerged that would form the core of Canadian auto policy for the next six decades: the tariffs would be lowered, with the precondition that companies had to increase the level of Canadian content.

Although initially opposed by the parts companies, this policy quickly increased the number of parts jobs in Canada. Imports of vehicles also increased as some of the smaller assembly companies, unable to meet the content requirements, closed their assembly plants and shipped from the United States. Overall, the number of auto jobs grew, doubling in the twenties to reach over 16,000 by 1929 (still only about three per cent of the more than 500,000 auto jobs in the U.S.). In the Windsor area, the overall population increased fivefold between 1904, when Ford began production there, and 1929.

 Workshop at Packard showing auto
frames on horses before assembly line
was developed, c. 1913.

Courtesy of Wayne State

An Animated Tool of Management

The auto industry had emerged out of the bicycle and carriage industry, which had been based in Michigan, Ohio, and southern Ontario. Production was in the hands of all-around mechanics who worked at fixed stations to complete a single vehicle. At first, they moved around the workplace to retrieve parts and to change tools, but soon helpers were hired to bring the tools and parts so that the skilled workers could spend "the company's time" on what they did best. From the start, some specialization was common; in a small group of workers making a car, each individual concentrated on a different set of tasks.

These skilled workers had a full conception of the car they were making; they performed a variety of tasks and used their initiative, skills, and imagination to iron out problems as they occurred. They were, of course, pressured by supervisors, but the knowledge that resided in their hands and minds limited their vulnerability to the employer. It was this knowledge that management, by way of the assembly line, systematically tried to separate from the workers and capture for the company.

The assembly line was the culmination of a series of innovations in machine tools, standardization of parts, electrification of equipment, and the mechanical - virtually clockwork - integration and flow of components. A moving line passed in front of workers, each of whom repeatedly performed a narrowly defined task that was part of a whole conceived by others. Although the final assembly line accounted for only fifteen to twenty per cent of the workforce, it drove the process, setting the philosophy, direction, and goals of all operations.

We are here in this world to develop ourselves by working - by doing things.
- Henry Ford,
The Toronto Star
15 February 1937

In selling their labour, workers were selling their potential as productive "doers." In exchange for a wage, workers more or less left it to others to structure both how their skills were used and how those skills were developed. The move to assembly line production was a particularly dramatic and historically crucial extension of this system. In assembly line production management's drive to reduce labour to "one input like any other input" took a giant step. This philosophy eroded the difference between workers and nonhuman factors of production by directly attacking the inconvenient fact that, unlike other elements of production, workers could still think and protest. As this working class editorial of roughly 75 years ago reminds us, no one spelled out the implications better than the workers themselves.

 Ford upholstery shop and assembly line, Windsor, 1925.
Courtesy of Ford Canada

The problem for management had been that, while it could formally buy the labour power of workers, buying that living commodity was different from buying a set of tools or a machine. Workers could still limit the extent to which they passed on their knowledge, skills, experience, and ideas to the company. This capacity translated into a measure of power for workers and a barrier to the company. Breaking down this measure of worker autonomy and transferring it to machines and supervisors allowed the company to become more efficient, to plan better, and to strengthen its hand in the on-going conflict over production pace.

Henry Ford bragged that, in contrast to the former workplace, which was dominated by skilled mechanics and their helpers, better than two of every five workers could be trained within one day under the new system, and an equal number could be trained within a week. For Ford, the dream of replaceable autoworkers had arrived.

Editorial in International Molders Journal, 1918.

The one great asset of the wage worker has been his craftsmanship. We think of craftsmanship ordinarily as the ability to manipulate skilfully the tools and material of a craft or trade. But true craftsmanship much more than this. The really essential element in it <> manual skill and dexterity but something stored up in the mind of the worker. This something partly the intimate knowledge of the character and uses of his tools, materials, and processes of the craft ... But beyond this and above this, it's the knowledge which enables him to understand and overcome the constantly arising dif-
ficulties that grow out of variations not only in the tools and materials, but in the conditions under which work must be done ...

... the greatest blow that could be delivered against unionism and the organized worker would be the separation of craft knowledge from craft skill ... The first [way this is done] is the introduction of machinery and the standardization of tools, materials, product, and process which make production possible on a large scale, and the specialization of the workmen. Each workman under such circumstances needs and can exercise only a little craft knowledge and a little craft skill. But he is still a craftsman, though only a narrow one and subject to much competition from below.

The second, far more dangerous than the first is the gathering up of all scattered craft knowledge, systemizing it and concentrating it in the hands of the employer and then doling it out again only in the form of minute instructions, giving to each worker only the knowledge needed for the performance of a particular relatively minute task ... When [this process] is completed, the worker's no longer a craftsmen in any sense, but is an animated tool of the management. ...

if we do not wish to see the American workmen reduced to a great semi-skilled and perhaps little organized mass, a new mode of protection must be found for the working conditions and standards of living which unions have secured and some means must be discovered of giving back to the worker what he's fast losing in the narrowing of his skill and theft of his craft knowledge ...

Eliminating Discontent

The first principle of labour relations for the major auto companies was to keep unions out and force workers to confront the company as isolated individuals. The dehumanization of the pace and content of work may have made unionization more important than ever to autoworkers, but the immediate impact of the changes in production also made unionization extremely difficult.

The trades had provided the foundations of unionism. Canada, as a latecomer to industrialization, was dependent on immigration for its workforce; it had looked to countries such as England and Scotland for its trades. These tradespeople brought with them better-developed union traditions and socialist ideas. Even within Canada, recruitment of trades from other sectors into auto often brought workers with union experience in other sectors. But once the new system of auto production had cut the number of skilled workers to a minority of the workforce (less than fifteen per cent), the issue of unionization clearly shifted to organizing the unskilled and semiskilled workers.

Amongst the semiskilled workers were skilled trades, people whose work had been deskilled. Furthermore, the assembly line arrived somewhat later in Canada than in the United States, and the deskilling of jobs had not yet gone as far. But by the late twenties, even in Canada, the majority of workers were unskilled and the logic of the assembly line dominated the organization of production. These unskilled workers came from rural communities that had no previous exposure to unionism (mechanization and concentration were reducing the farm population and pushing workers into industry). Or, the workers were immigrants from the British Isles and Eastern Europe. Although these immigrants included workers with socialist backgrounds and the tight ethnic communities became a base for future unionization, radical changes required a cohesive movement which, like the confidence to take on the companies, would take time to develop.

From the beginning, workers resisted the assembly line. Many individuals simply quit: after the introduction of the assembly line in 1913, Ford had to hire ten workers to get one who would not, very shortly, quit. By 1918, Ford still had to hire over 55,000 workers to keep a workforce of 14,000. The rate of turnover was also high for more senior workers, especially ifother jobs were available. This high turnover, along with the large number of workers who viewed their employment as temporary (e.g., those who were saving for a farm), made collective action through unionization more difficult.

The auto companies, led by Ford, paid relatively high wages. The great increases in productivity as a result of assembly line production allowed for both high wages and high profits. But high wages were also a response to the extraordinary turnover of workers and early unionization drives such as those led by the IWW even before World War I. During these prosperous times, the high wages attracted a steady stream of labour to the auto towns. Henry Ford, in his autobiography, described his decision to stabilize his workforce by raising wages as "one of the finest cost-cutting moves ever made."

Pierre Chardain worked in the assembly division. He attached the rear springs. His hand held an iron shackle plate. The chassis moved. Pierre Chardain had one minute and twelve seconds. He fastened the shackle plate. He worked properly. After all, he had three children. His pay was four francs seventy-five centimes an hour. He wanted more. He wanted to buy a new bed. He even dreamt about a new apartment: his window faced a blind courtyard, and his youngest daughter, who was already four years old, still couldn't walk. He had lots of dreams ... It now took only fifty-five seconds to attach a shackle-plate. Now seventy chassis moved past Pierre every hour. He still received the same four francs seventy-five centimes. He didn't buy a bed. His daughter still hadn't learned to walk. He would come home, dismal and mindless. He was always silent. He seemed to have forgotten how to talk. All he knew how to do was fasten a shackle-plate. In fifty-five seconds. He would die five years ahead of time. But now each automobile was six centimes cheaper.
- Ilya Ehrenburg, The Life of the Automobile, 1929

The high wages didn't necessarily translate into high income because of the cyclical nature of car sales and the introduction of annual model changes in the late twenties. GM and Chrysler didn't follow Ford's wage system; they continued to use payment systems based not on work-time but on output (piece rates and group bonuses). These systems required less supervision since they exerted pressure on workers to police themselves. This pressure was especially high in the group bonus structure because any group members who weren't carrying their load directly lowered the bonus for all.

Higher wages were only one tactic the companies used to keep unions out. The companies used every kind of coercion they had at their disposal - or they could create - to keep unions from establishing a foothold in the industry. The regular bouts of lay-offs, at a time when seniority was only a distant dream, provided management with an enormous weapon to wield against workers. This weapon was used to cast aside older workers, to enforce discipline and compliance, and to weed out agitators and troublemakers.

Kelsey workers making wheels during
the depression.

Courtesy of Windsor Star.

Workers did not have to be reminded of how fragile their hold on their jobs was. But many supervisors, facing the pressures of production and having the power to fire people at will, didn't hesitate to abuse, and reinforce that power with favouritism. Plant-level favouritism was also linked to a network of shop-floor informers amongst the workers.

Yet even this structure of power was not enough for the companies in their anti-union crusade. Ford's crusade was supplemented by an internal "service" department of 3,000 thugs, spies, and enforcers. Chrysler employed the Corporations Auxiliary Company, a private anti-union agency. General Motors' strategy included coercion, but it also focused on the lure of welfare schemes. The company's paternalism included profit-sharing plans, sickness insurance, health benefits, dances, bands, company-financed mortgages (approximately three-quarters of Oshawa workers in the thirties had such mortgages) and, especially important, a broad range of sports clubs.

Once unionization became a possibility, GM added an externally hired spy system. In the U.S., the company employed at least fourteen private detective agencies in the mid-1930s. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, which specialized in providing spies, agent provocateurs, and private anti-union armies, had GM as its largest customer. General Motors didn't want a third party (a union) interfering with its operations, but was prepared to hire as many third parties as it could to keep things that way. One of the subcommittees of the U.S. Senate, popularly known as the La Folette Civil Rights Committee, was holding hearings in the mid-thirties on the corporate spying against the unions. It characterized the contract between GM and Pinkerton's as "... a monument to the most colossal super-system of spies yet devised in any American company."

 Every foreman had favourites; chore boys [who] would cut his lawn and paint his home ... you had to call the foreman to see ifyou would be called back to work ... there was no respect for seniority, years of service, or age.
- Albert C. Ward, who started at Ford in 1913 and in 1941 was a member of the first bargaining committee.

In Canada, the role of spies=less documented, but auto companies often employed the Corporations' Auxiliary, an organization set up by employers to infiltrate and undermine union organizing drives. The spies would name union activists, and the resultant firings and suspicions about who might be a spy intimidated and demoralized workers.

During these years, the auto companies also intensified their demands on the independent parts companies. At first, the auto makers were primarily involved in the design of the vehicle and the coordination of its assembly; they bought components from independent companies. Then, the majors began to consolidate internal parts production. This move strengthened their bargaining position with the suppliers: in addition to playing one producer off against another, the auto majors could also threaten to do the work themselves. This new pressure on the parts companies led directly to intensified pressures on the wages of parts workers.

Stuck in Second Gear

In spite of the risks, strikes did take place in auto during this difficult period, and, on occasion, they were successful. The trades in particular, though now a minority, had not completely lost their ability to shut down production. Before World War I and in the twenties, there were a number of attempts at forming industrial unions in auto, but these attempts were consistently undermined by the craft-based Trades and Labor Congress (TLC), which refused to support these organizations, or expelled them as dual unions competing in jurisdictions where unions already existed.

Given the absence of a union base, the workers' only strength lay in tight production schedules. Militancy, when it did occur, therefore tracked upturns in the business cycle. In 1928-29, the Canadian auto industry was at a peak. As a young industry, its potential was high, and it had grown rapidly during the twenties. This growth was reinforced by a highway building program. In addition, not only was the economy and therefore Canadian demand booming, but trade policy had increased Canada's share of North American production. At the same time, however, competition for market share was intensifying. With Ford in the midst of completing a major shut-down and massive restructuring, the title of industry leader was up for grabs. The smaller assemblers desperately tried to avoid the competitive crush of the giants.

 Report of National Recovery Administration (NRA) on
spying by companies on workers in American industry,
23 January 1935.

The result was that the companies were intensifying pressures on workers at the same point in time that the industry could accommodate a response by workers. A rash of strikes erupted in 1928-29: GM in Oshawa; Chrysler in Windsor; Willys-Overland in Toronto; Studebaker in Windsor; Canadian Top and Body in Tilbury; Ford in Windsor; Dodge in Toronto; and again GM in Oshawa. Most of these strikes lasted only a few hours, and although the cause was no doubt an accumulation of grievances, the dissatisfaction was expressed through a focus on wages and methods of payment.

The most significant of these strikes was the first: the one-week strike in Oshawa in March, 1928. This early strike attracted attention and excitement amongst groups trying to organize autoworkers in Detroit. It began with the walk-out of 400 trimmers - skilled workers who had experienced the steady deskilling and downgrading of their work over the past decade, and whose work allowed for some regular communication amongst themselves. General Motors had enforced cuts in piece rates in 1927 and, in spite of record profits that year, announced further cuts in 1928. The rest of the workforce (3,000 worked in the facility at the time) soon joined the walk-out, and the workers were militant enough to both reject the strike committee's recommendation of independent arbitration and insist on union recognition.

Through the intervention of the TLC, workers eventually accepted the company's withdrawal of the cut in pay, went to arbitration, and established a local linked to the TLC. The workers were not ready to join forces with the smaller, less established, more radical labour central that was formed the previous year - the All Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL). The eventual arbitration ruling was a bitter disappointment, and the union was generally discredited. When 250 tool-and-die makers went on strike in March, 1929, their efforts were defeated after two-and-a-half weeks. There were some departmental strikes at GM in 1930 and 1932, but they were isolated events.

In the late 1920s Canadian labour was divided into four labour centrals:

  1. The TLC, established in 1886, was based on craft unionism and was dominated by its American counterpart, the American Federation of Labor.
  2. The Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour in Quebec, established in 1921, was closely linked to the church. It supported cooperative class relations and fiercely opposed the politics and militancy of emerging industrial unionism.
  3. The All-Canadian Congress of Labour was established in 1927 by a combination of conservative unionists, nationalists, and communists. What unified these groups was their opposition to the craft-based and American-dominated unionism of the TLC.
  4. The Workers Unity League (WUL) was established in 1928 after Moscow pressured communists to set up their own labour centrals to lead a more militant industrial unionism, strengthen links to unorganized and unemployed workers, and work to transform (not just reform) the capitalist system.

The communist-led Automobile Workers' Industrial Union (AWIU) had been formed in June, 1928, in Windsor, where the Communist Party (CP) had a base and the support of a similar auto union established earlier in Detroit. The AWIU was formed after the first GM strike and in the middle of a rash of other strikes. Labour historian John Manley has argued that "For most of the 1920s the single voice unreservedly advocating industrial unionism in Canada belonged to the Communist Party (CP)." Until 1927, the CP worked to spread this message within the craft-based TLC, with virtually no success. It was only after the TLC began to encourage member unions to expel militants endorsing industrial unionism that the CP began to develop an independent base amongst workers.

The AWIU called for an industrial unionism based on class struggle but also encompassing immediate demands in bargaining that were to resurface in the historic strike in Oshawa in 1937, and political demands that reflected the potential of unions as a social force. Amongst those demands were the eight-hour day and the forty-four-hour week; an overtime rate of time-and-a-half; regular shifts; the rejection of the bonus system (pay linked to output) in favour of pay for time worked; enforcement of safety regulations; equal pay for equal work regardless of age, sex, or race; and unemployment insurance paid for by the state and the employers. The AWIU quickly set up locals in Toronto and Oshawa, as well as in the Windsor area, but by 1930, the short life of the union was over.

The companies had become more aggressive in combining wage incentives as the carrot attached to the stick of firings and intimidation. The union had meanwhile weakened itself through splits over edicts from Moscow over direction. When the depression hit in 1929, slightly more than a year since the formation of the AWIU, the devastating collapse of the industry essentially put further unionization in cold storage for a few winters.

The early years of this century witnessed the arrival of the automobile, a product that changed how we live. The restructuring of work that accompanied the automobile's evolution, especially the development of the assembly line, radically changed the role and status of skilled workers, robbing many individuals of their knowledge and ability to use their skills, and undermining their autonomy. Along with this shift to a workforce that was predominantly semiskilled and unskilled came expanded mechanisms for controlling all workers. Those controls were rooted in the production system itself: the assembly line, tight supervision, and methods of payment. But as workers resisted and looked to unionization, more underhanded and coercive tactics - including spying on the social and union life of the workers - became common.

The first significant hopes of unionization in the automobile industry occurred in the late twenties. This development was, however, blocked by the depression. The severe economic collapse had provided the companies with an additional weapon to push unionism aside. However, the idea of an industrial union had been placed on the agenda, and experience had been gained. Whether this union could challenge the control of auto giants over their workers would depend on broader developments in society.

Table of Contents / Chapter Two


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