Ford Factory Americanization: Engineering Americans

 

In 1914 the Ford Motor company introduced a profit sharing opportunity to their workforce that would give employees more money for less, but improved, work. The program was called the “Five Dollar Day” and in total the company allocated 10 million dollars in its inception. Why institute a new program that would cost millions of dollars to operate? With the introduction of the mass production the company experienced high labor turnover rates among employees, which meant they were losing workers at an exponential rate, workers would not show up to perform the tasks they were hired to do, and they had a high injury rate among the work force. The turnover rate was high but even that is an understatement, a year before the profit sharing was announced, “to maintain a workforce of about 13,600 workers, the company hired over 52,000 workers in the course of a year.” Among other factors, that are harder to calculate but important to mention, immigrant workers dealt with discrimination and were forced to perform tasks that their managers were supposed to be doing. In response to the unfair treatment of the workers, Ford wanted to strengthen the migrant worker population with American values and the ability to defend themselves against maltreatment and thrive in the new economic system. However with the power of language, thrift, and economic wherewithal there was still a forced Americanization on the immigrant workers showing that there were good and bad qualities of paternalism being instilled in the workforce.

The Five Dollar Day

The Five Dollar Day was at its very core a welfare program for the FMC workers. The implementation of the program was met with very excited responses from employees and press alike because of the huge benefits that it had for the workers. The program promised to shorten the workday from nine hours to eight, hire more employees, and of course give a five dollar minimum wage per day. This essentially a welfare program was a huge initiative taken on by the company but in order for it to be carried out it need to be mutually beneficial for the company as well.

The Company Benefits

The introduction of the Five Dollar Day at the Highland Park plant by the Ford Motor Company (FMC) was just as beneficial to the company as it was to the workers involved. How could hiring more employees and giving a large amount of money to the work population benefit the company? The answer has three possible conclusions; an increase in production leading to increased profits, upgrading the quality of life of the workers to ensure a more dependable workforce and re-shaping the workers to fit the new industrial system. The FMC increased production and therefore earned more money after introducing this system than ever before. The short-lived plan was a success for the company as it not only increased production but also increased the quality of life for a more dependable workforce. One way to determine this is to look closely at the injuries accrued over several years and to see how they were affected after the implementation of the Five Dollar Day. Unfortunately we cannot look at the records from the very start of the program as the files are not available but we can examine the records of injuries after the Ford Health and Safety Department was started in 1914. Between 1914 and 1915 the plant went from 390 injuries to 300 injuries, a significant decrease reflecting the positive change in safety for the workers and their lives at the plant. While examining the plant life is a good reflection to see how the FMC affected their workers lives we can also study more closely how their lives were affected outside of the workplace.

In order to see the intent to increase the workers quality of life we need to see that outside the workplace it was better as well, one account of the program working was with an immigrant who was in desperate need for a benevolent intervention from Ford and he received it. The FMC gave particular care to this immigrant where he received a donation from a charity fund ran through Ford and he was able to receive pay every day in order to upgrade his house and pay off loans so that his family could start building their lives. But more on this later. The company was able to meet their goals of upgrading their workforce to meet the growing demands of the consumers while sharing the profit for those who qualified for the program. But who were selected?

Selection Criteria

The introduction of the program reflected Henry Ford’s negative perspective against southern and eastern European immigrants, a conclusion based on who were initially chosen. The immediate introduction of the program was limited to salesmen, clerks, and factory workers. In those selections unmarried men were not considered for the program as they were not up to the Ford’s American ideal. The initial announcement of the program also caused a spark in migration to the Highland Park factory so a new requirement of residency was added so that only people who lived in the Detroit area for six months were considered. While those may or may not be strong indications of the bias, what makes it obvious was shown in the first group to qualify for the program. Of those who qualified, there were an overwhelming amount with British ancestry, in fact 1381 out of the 1400 selected had British ancestry. The idea that “good Ford men” were white, married, males (females were added later) and that the system was made to Americanize the large ethnic population in the workforce slowly became apparent. The situation became worse when the men that were not selected immediately were told that they had six months to meet the standard of a good Ford man with strong American values. Because if they did not meet the standard in six months they were let go from the company. This program may have been coercive and forced the assimilation and Americanization upon the employees. How did they acquire these strong American views and ideals in such a short time? This is where the Ford Sociological Department comes into the picture.

Ford Sociological Department and the English School

The Ford Sociological Department was established in 1913 and was the driving force of the Americanization of the ethnic workers. The man in charge of the program was Samuel Marquis. The FMC selected investigators, “…whose duties are to explain the profit-sharing plan, and collect information and data from every one of the employees.” Employees were chosen for the Five Dollar Day accorded to a criteria set up by the Ford Sociological Department that determined if they were capable of contributing to the profit sharing system. The Ford English School might have been the most beneficial installment to the Sociology Department for the workers because on top of teaching American values it garnered the most basic need to become “American;” the acquisition of the English language. In order for the immigrant workers to learn the criteria and to become an American they would have to learn the language that dominated the factory and the country. The English School taught the immigrants the language in lessons given every day after work with American volunteer teachers that would instruct them in basic sentence structures. The ability to communicate gave them the ability to learn the criteria from the managers to achieve participation in the Five Dollar Day.

The workers were judged on criteria which was left to investigators to evaluate them on, if they did not meet the standards then they would need to attend the English School that instructed them in the same categories. The criteria that workers were judged on and given lessons in were concentrated in the following five categories, “Thrift, honesty, sobriety, better housing, and better living in general.” With the requirements established the investigators were able to sift through the labor-force to see which workers fit the Ford American ideals. If they did not fit, each category had classes to instruct the student workers how to properly behave and conduct themselves. This is where the pattern of Ford paternalism came into play as each category carried with it heavily biased opinions of his workers and how to “fix” them. However the paternalistic attitudes and ideals managed to be both positive and constructive while maintaining a negative and coercive undertone.

Analysis

The lessons given to the migrant worker-students coincide with the notion that the entire Sociological Departments aim was to Americanize these workers according to the paternalistic Ford ideal. The idea of implementing a system that was paternalistic may be seen as a coercive attempt to force the worker population to become obedient and dependent. However it can also be viewed with a positive, helpful light. The system gave the FMC a dependable and productive workforce that yielded the company higher profits. Teaching the workers skills to survive and thrive in America was very beneficial to them. The ability to communicate with the larger population, learning to save and allocate funds appropriately, and a healthier living condition are all positive attributes of the system. A huge argument for its coercive nature is the fact that they had six months to meet the standards or they were let go from their jobs. A problem with the pamphlets was the way they worded their directions on how to achieve a “better” life. The wording and reflecting ideas tended to be ignorant and negatively biased against the immigrants. There were positives and negatives to the system and based on the criteria of the Sociological Department we can derive what was beneficial to the workers and what was not.

How a man should live encompasses quite a few facets that were considered when judging the employees. Of those considered, childcare, housing, and living conditions are the main focus of a man’s life that Ford’s investigators evaluated and critiqued in the program. All of these aspects of living can be viewed as having positive and negative aspects associated with them.

Childcare was one example of how the FMC wanted to teach their employees how to maintain a healthy and respectable family while remaining ignorant to their conditions. The FMC wanted employees to invest in their children and, “…insure good health, and enable them to enjoy in fullest measure the desires of happy childhood, they should have open ground and space for play.” Which can be viewed as wanting the best for the children and a good thing for the company to suggest. However, it exhibited a rather ignorant view of how the employees took care of their children. For employees to provide ample room and ensure good health it is suggested that the parents have a constant eye on their children, “Do not fail to watch them closely…” For immigrant parents who both work it was not a reality to constantly keep a watchful eye on their children. The parenting advice may have been helpful but it was not completely realistic to judge the family on. What could be looked at more thoroughly was the housing and living conditions which go hand in hand with overlapping factors that the investigators judged the families on.

Living conditions were very important to the investigators evaluation of the employees. How the employees lived, cleaned, and cared for themselves, were viewed as integral to the candidacy of participation in the Five Dollar Day.  The FMC view on how a man should live was discussed in one of his packets where we can decipher subtle subtext of the view of the men. “Employees should live in clean, well conducted homes in rooms that are well lighted and ventilated. Avoid congested parts of the city. The company will not approve, as profit sharers, men who herd themselves into overcrowded boarding houses which are menaces to their health. Do not occupy a room in which one other person sleeps, as the company is anxious to have its employees live comfortably, and under conditions that make for cleanliness, good manhood, and good citizenship.” It is clear that in the eyes of Ford and his investigators that there was an image of immigrants living in small quarters and poor housing as if it was their choice and preference to do so. They seem to have ignored the fact that many workers could not afford to live on their own and had to live with many people to afford housing costs while finding work or working. The aspect of cleanliness was a particular case where the Ford ideals and investigators take the fatherly role too far. While they wanted the best for the men they also viewed them as children, unable to clean themselves without their own instruction as reflected in one particular case, “he bought “a liberal amount of soap’ and gave the family ‘instructions to use freely’.” While the intent to help is there it does have an overwhelming tone of superiority which cannot be viewed as constructive criticism but rather disgust or pity towards the men.

The paternalistic ideals might have been ignorant but they also were a good model for the immigrants to follow in how to conduct their homes. If we examine it as a matter of cleanliness and healthy living, which Ford did, than we can see it was aimed to improve the workers’ lives. In this specific instance, exposure to illnesses in an overcrowded house of people lead to sickness that was reflected in the employee’s absence from work. By reducing the amount of people in one house down to an employee’s immediate family, Henry Ford was trying to provide a model for healthy living. One particular story, that was briefly mentioned earlier, culminates in a graphic scene that reflects the positive virtues of better housing; “…had their dirty, old, junk furniture loaded on a dray [truck or cart]  and under the cover of night moved them to their new home. This load of rubbish was heaped in a pile in the back yard, and a torch was applied and it went up in smoke. There upon the ashes of what had been their earthly possessions, this Russian peasant and his wife, with tears streaming down their faces, expressed their gratitude to Henry Ford, the FORD MOTOR COMPANY, and all those who had been instrumental in bringing about this marvelous change in their lives.” It is important to note that he was able to upgrade his house, furniture, and healthcare for his family after the intervention.

The fact that this was a very generous intervention does not deject from Ford wanting his men to be able to afford these improvements themselves, which is where the virtue of thrift comes into the picture. The FMC wanted the employees to, “…foster habits of thrift, to provide against sickness or any misfortunes that may befall them or their families.” Thrift held a major stake on both sides of the selection process. They were evaluated before they were selected to see if they were handling their money well or if they showed the promise of being able to. And if they were accepted into the profit-sharing program, a procedure was followed to determine if they were ensuring their profits to do a lasting good for themselves. The procedure would involve the investigator calling upon the employees randomly to check in on them. While the system was very paternalistic it also ensured that the men would have a lasting savings account to contribute to him and his family’s future. Unfortunately there were also suggestions that the FMC thought of their employees as naïve and ignorant resulting in an overly paternalistic manner.

There were negative aspects in regards to thrift more specifically the company’s viewpoint and the actions they took onto themselves to instruct the employees were extremely paternalistic. Especially in the advice on how to save their money efficiently. The first line in an instructional packet read in bold letters, “THE BANK IS A SAFE PLACE FOR SURPLUS MONEY.” It was as if the managers felt that the employees were incompetent and ignorant regarding the purpose that banks served, even going as far as assuming employees were only using trunks as a means of banking as reflected in the same handbook, “The company also urges that employees do not use their trunks as savings banks; they were not made for that purpose.” The banking instructions in the handbook are clear on how to save money, where to save it, and to invest it in a house, all contributing to the American ideal that to be considered successful you most own a house and have money saved in the bank. The suggestions should not be looked at as poor advice but rather coercive because of their nature, even in the category of thrift, if the employees did not fully comply with the suggestions they would be released from the company. The idea of thrift goes even further when approached from the growing idea of consumerism at the time. While saving money is one facet of thrift, it also involves buying the best product for the best price, including say, an affordable car that a local company builds. Thrift was one section of evaluation but another comes in the form of communication.

A huge part of the program was teaching non-native immigrants the English language. Due to the fact that the workers were employed in an American factory in the United States the effects of learning the language could only have been positive for them, but with all the rest of the program there is a negative side as well. Showing that the paternalism was engrained in each and every aspect of the company’s profit sharing program.

The positive aspect of the system is the empowerment of learning the language. By teaching his employees English he gave them the chance to earn the Five Dollar Day and to communicate more freely with people inside and out of the factory. He also had their best interests in mind, “…it will ensure safety and save money.” It ensured safety by granting them the ability to defend themselves in positions where they formerly would have been able to be taken advantage of. For instance in the preliminary observations of the factory before they introduced the program, the investigators found that the managers and overseers of the floor would demand more of the lower level workers who could not speak English well. However benevolent it was, ensuring safety and defending themselves had a negative side as well.

The adverse side of the school was not that they were taught English but it deals with more of how they were taught in English. The first words they learned were, “I am a good American.” Which precedes basic greetings or phrases, in this we see that the most important thing they could learn is to become a good American based of what their teachers dictate is “good.” S.S. Marquis, the head of the department, commented on the immigrant’s decision to even be a part of the program in the first place by stating their attendance as, “virtually compulsory. If a man declines to go, the advantages of the training are carefully explained to him. If he still hesitates, he is laid off and given uninterrupted meditation and reconsideration. When it comes to promotion naturally preference is given to the men who have cooperated with us in our work. This, also, had its effect” With this the program is an ultimatum for the immigrant, either learn the language or you are fired, a very coercive statement and viewpoint indeed.

There is a case that completely embodies the workers experience with the Ford English School and effects of the paternalistic ideals. A worker named Mustafa was an immigrant that moved from Turkey to the United States and found work at the Highland Park factory. He was accepted to the program after graduating from the Ford English School. During the time in the program and working he was awarded the Five Dollar Day and saved enough money to save up for his wife and child to be brought to America and live with him which was a very uplifting story reflecting what the program could do for the workers. The downside for the experience was what he gave up to live up to the ideal, his religious beliefs. Before the program was started he was a devout Muslim that prayed five times daily and with that washed his hands and feet for the purpose of prayer, after the program he changed to praying three times to accommodate for the loss of time working. While not a significant change in his daily routine he also took to the idea of making as much money as possible while sacrificing his religion, something that Ford was very proud of and a very American ideal. The worker is the embodiment of the program because while there were positive values in the Ford system it was closely associated with negative trends such as giving up ones religion for work. However the Americanized Mustafa was very grateful for what Ford did for him going as far as saying, “: “Let my only son be sacrificed for my boss (Mr. Ford) as a sign of my appreciation for what he has done for me. May Allah send my boss Kismet.”

Conclusion

The “Five Dollar Day” in its inception was one of joyous relief and aid too many of the workers that the program was offered to. It offered them the chance to better themselves exponentially compared to the humble living situations that they were enduring. The criteria that they were judged upon laid down by the Ford Sociological Department seemed fair and in their defense they wanted the best workers to fulfil the company’s requirements to take part in a profit sharing system. Unfortunately when the workers were being evaluated and educated in how to achieve the Ford ideal the judgments and schooling turned into a very paternalistic reality. The men, and later women, that were involved underwent schooling that taught them how to live better according to Ford. In the end the result of going through the program was not completely negative, teaching them in the fashion that they did can be viewed as both good and bad which yielded those involved higher pay and a steady job. The ignorance by the Ford Motor Company cannot be completely overshadowed but there were equal parts helpful for every part manipulative in their Americanization program.

The paternalistic views embedded in the profit sharing system were reflective of the views towards immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. If we look at the criteria as the point of analysis we come to understand that the viewpoint of immigrants was rather negative. The immigrants were viewed as; dirty, unable to clean themselves, unable to care for their children, bad with money, and had a predilection towards living with many people as a preference. While the criteria and the Sociological Department was meant to guide them towards the Ford ideal it was also indicative of how they viewed proper American citizen. Namely; a clean, active member of the consumeristic society, who had their own house that only sheltered their immediate family, and had money saved in the bank. To make a further point of the views of a proper American, the idea that they were a protestant religious member and spoke English were important. Analyzing the criteria and the Sociological Department we can see the views of what made an ideal American during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Bibliography

Primary

Assimilation through Education,” Ford Times June 1915.

Ford Motor Company Archives, Dearborn, Mi.

Ford Motor Company. Helpful Hints and Advice to Employees: To Help Them Grasp the Opportunities Which are Presented to Them by the Ford Profit Sharing Plan. 1915.

“Lecture by Dr. Marquis, Delivered Before the Convention of the Conference of National Charities YMCA, May 17, 1916”, in acc 63, Folder 1, FMCA.

Secondary

John R Lee, “The So-Called Profit Sharing System in the Ford Plant,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 65, Personnel and Employment Problems in Industrial Management (May, 1916), pp. 297-310, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1013585 (accessed November, 21, 2014).

Hooker, Clarence, “Ford’s Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture Among Assembly Line Workers c.1910—1917.” Journal of American Culture 20, no.1 (Spring 1997): 47-53.

Meyer III, Stephen “Adapting to the Immigrant Line: Americanization in the Ford Factory 1914- 1921,” Journal of Social History 14, no. 1 (Autumn, 1980): 67-82.

Meyer III, Stephen The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company 1908-1921 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981).

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