Power and the moving line

1. The slaughterhouse

One thing that Taylor did not develop but which lifted the applicability of some ele- ments of his system to new heights, whilst seeing the abandonment of much that he held dear, was the moving production line. In 1913, 30 years after Taylor installed his first system, a revolution in manufacturing occurred when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line as a new way of producing automobiles, modeled on the Chicago slaughterhouses. There is a remarkable account of these slaughterhouses in Upton Sinclair’s (1906) ethnographic novel, The jungle. Sinclair spent two months in 1904 observing and recording what he saw in the Chicago stockyards and discussed with the immigrant workers who provided the labor. It is evident from Sinclair’s text that the jobs in the slaughterhouse were designed on Taylor’s lines. In the abattoirs each job was separated into a series of simple repetitive actions as the carcasses moved down the line to be progressively dismembered.19 Sinclair wrote about the extensive division of labor and the use of piecework, as well as the speed of the line. To relate the full terror of this work it is worth quoting Sinclair, who demonstrates both the extensive division of labor and the occupational risks that were entailed:

There were the men in the pickle rooms, for instance … scarce a one of these that had not some spot of horror on his person. Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle rooms, and he might have a sore that would put him out of the world; all the joints in his fingers would be eaten by the acid one by one. Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it … There were men who had worked in the cooking rooms, in the midst of steam and sickening odors, by artificial light; in these rooms the germs of tuberculo- sis might live for two years, but the supply was renewed every hour. There were the beef luggers, who carried two-hundred-pound quarters into the refrigerator cars, a fearful kind of work, that began at four o’clock in the morning, and that wore out the most powerful men in two years. There were those who worked in the chilling rooms, and whose special disease was rheumatism, the time limit that a man could work in the chilling rooms was said to be five years. There were the wool pluckers, whose hands went to pieces even sooner than the hands of the pickle men; for the pelts of sheep had to be painted with acid to loosen the wool, and then the pluckers had to pull out this wool with their bare hands, till the acid had eaten their fingers off … and as for the other men, who worked in the tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting – sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Dunham’s Pure Beef Lard! (1906: 100–2).

Indeed, as a more contemporary observer notes:

Since its inception, the ‘meat’ industry has employed the same formal rationality, the same language of calculation, measurement and efficiency and the same bureaucratic, accounting and scientific techniques that Max Weber deemed indicative of modernity in general. The analytic division of tasks and the rational ordering of production are designed to manage and control both working lives and animal deaths, to regulate the bodies that labor and are belabored. The irrational elements of sweat and blood are sub- jugated within a scheme of things that, from its own instrumentalist perspective, is entirely reasonable. (Smith 2002: 51)

The assembly line of production borrowed heavily from that of death. It vastly simplified production through running at a constant speed by which the workman must measure his pace, so that products are delivered at a constant production rate. Each job on the line had to be completed in an amount of time commensurate with this production rate. Each job became known by a precise description of the task it comprised; however, there were many thousands more jobs involved in the making of a car compared to the killing and butchering of a pig, with the job description manuals coming to resemble telephone directories.

The relations of power in these organizations were shaped by ever more elabo-rated definitions of routines, embedded less in traditional craft and practice and more in the creation and specification of new workplace relations and routines. They reached their zenith in the new workshops and factories of the automobile industry, especially the Ford Motor Company, which in the 1920s was seen as the very harbinger of what modernity was all about. The power of mass production was seen as the greatest productive power that had been unleashed by the modern world. But behind the glittering automobiles, behind the assembly lines of modern times, there was another more complex and subtle moral machinery of power at work.

While it is important to know how much time each element requires to be accomplished, other aspects of time study techniques were not appropriate for assembly line manufacturing. Individual incentives were not appropriate because every operator was tied to the speed of the line and they were not needed because of the discipline the line imposed. What remained from the Taylor system was the elemental decomposition of jobs. Jobs were small, repetitive and routine. In fact, routine became such a problem among Ford’s workers that, in the first year of full assembly line operation, the company experienced about 900 percent turnover (see Williams et al. 1992). Between October 1912 and October 1913, Ford hired 54,000 workers in order to maintain a workforce of 13,000. The annual turnover rate set- tled at around 400 percent and daily absenteeism ran between 10 and 20 percent. It was for this reason that on January 5, 1914, the Ford Motor Company announced the five-dollar, eight-hour day for all production workers, irrespective of pieces produced (which was determined by the speed of the line anyway, not individual effort). What the company announced was not a plan to pay workers an hourly rate equivalent to five dollars a day but a plan that allowed workers to share in the com- pany profits, which, in principle, would amount to a five-dollar day. This repre- sented a considerable sum of money for production work in contemporary terms, doubling incomes; and, with the possibilities afforded by hire purchase, a new inno- vation, it meant that having consumer goods such as cars became something to whose ownership it was feasible to aspire. Ford’s innovation reflects the relentlessly upbeat, optimistic culture of consumption, premised on the five-dollar day, which became a significant feature of American life and American world-wide culture.

2. Ford and the Sociological Department

Hitherto, the regulation of work had stayed within the organization and its discipli- nary practices. It soon expanded outside, into the streets, the homes, the bars, and the savings accounts of industrial workers. The stimulus was an attempt to ensure that only deserving workers received the high wages that Ford’s factories were paying. In 1914 Ford established the Sociological Department to investigate the home lives of workers (Marcus and Segal 1989: 236–8). It was a remarkable example of an ulti- mately failed attempt to institute meta-routines governing societal politics. The five- dollar day was designed to include only those who were ‘worthy’ and who would ‘not debauch the additional money’. The rules governing eligibility were demonstrating that, if one were a man, one lived a clean, sober, industrious and thrifty life, while women had to be ‘deserving’ and have some relatives solely dependent upon them. After a probationary period, subject to a recommendation from their supervisor, worker eligibility would be investigated. About 60 percent were found to be eligible. Investigators from the Sociological Department visited workers’ homes and sug- gested ways to achieve the company’s standards for ‘better morals’, sanitary living conditions, and ‘habits of thrift and saving’. Employees who lapsed were removed from the system and given a chance to redeem themselves. Long-term failure to meet Ford Motor Company standards resulted in dismissal from the company.

Meyer (1981) reports a 1917 Sociological Department study. Fifty-two investi-gators visited 77 districts throughout Detroit and its suburbs. Each district contained an average of 523 workers. Each investigator had an average caseload of 727 workers, making 5.35 regular investigations each day, 5 ‘absentee calls’ and 15 ‘out- side calls’. For each investigation Ford maintained a record consisting of every avail- able source of information from churches, civic organizations, and the government. The company wanted to know whether or not the worker was purchasing a home, whether he had a savings account and whether he had debt. It required the bank account number, name of the bank and balance of any accounts; for debts, the com- pany needed to know the holder of the debt, its reason and the balance (1981: 130).

3. Highway 61, urban blues, and moral panics

There was a degree of racism at work in these sociological investigations, parallel- ing Ford’s well-documented anti-Semitism (Lee 1980). After the Civil War, black people had been leaving the sharecropper society of the deep south in droves, flee- ing a culture rooted in slavery. And, after hitting Highway 61, they headed for the burgeoning factories of the north, in Chicago and Detroit, in the latter of which Ford began hiring African Americans in large numbers in 1915, paying them the same wages as his white employees. The material basis of the jazz age for the many black people who headed north was work in the factories and assembly plants. By 1923, Ford employed 5,000 Detroit-area black men, far more than in other plants. The influx of black people into northern cities and jobs was the occasion for middle-class white anxieties. Indeed, at the time they were a source of what Stanley Cohen has referred to as a ‘moral panic’ (1972: 9). A moral panic occurs when some ‘episode, condition, person or group of persons’ is ‘defined as a threat to societal values and interests’. Such moral panics are based on the perception that some indi- vidual or group, frequently a minority, is dangerously deviant, and poses a menace to society. They often occur as a result of a fear of a loss of control when adapting to significant changes. Typically, as Cohen suggests, authorities create ‘stylized and stereotypical’ representations, raise moral fears, and ‘pronounce judgment’.

Moral panic fed into the work of Ford’s Sociological Department. They wanted to ensure that Ford employees were sober, disciplined men, whose energies would be conserved and minds wholly focused on the necessity of being excellent five- dollar-a-day men. Workers who wasted money on booze, dope, and vice were not welcome as Ford employees, as members of the Ford family. Decent Protestant white folk knew the type of person most likely to be wasteful of their energies: any- body not like them, especially European Catholic immigrants and black economic migrants from the south.20 They also knew the kinds of excesses in which they would be wasted. Bars and clubs sprouted in the black areas of the cities, featuring the new music of jazz, selling liquor to its aficionados, turning night into day, as the poet Langston Hughes remarked. African Americans, jazz, and intoxication of various kinds became inexorably intertwined in the popular imagination of, as well as some of the experience in, black culture. The scapegoating of black cultures, such as jazz, was emblematic of a deep-seated paranoia.

Jazz received a fair amount of negative press in the late 1910s and then became the object of a moral panic during the 1920s. Some whites feared jazz because it was rooted in black culture, because it played a role in facilitating interracial contact, and because it symbolized, in racially coded terms, the intrusion of popular tastes into the national culture. (Porter 2002: 9)

The moral panics that grew in the 1920s and 1930s around ‘jazz’ were barely coded concerns for the contagion of white society by black bodies and black culture. As Lopes suggests, from the Jazz Age of the 1920s ‘the sordid world of jazz and the deviant jazz musician became a common trope in the popular press, pulp fiction, and Hollywood film. Jazz in general served as a trope for the darker side of the American urban experience’ (2005: 1468). For Ford, establishing a Sociological Department (as well as employing Pinkerton’s to spy on potential troublemakers and unionists and to break up union meetings) to ensure the moral probity of these new employees seemed a small investment to make to ensure an efficient, reli- able and certain workforce, untroubled by an inability to save, invest and consume. Such irrationalities were to be expected of people who made jazz their culture.

It is not surprising that jazz played this role; first, it was associated by respectable white society with unrespectable black society; second, it infused the body with passion, rhythm, movement, and a lack of disciplined sobriety. It was wild dance music and its main feature was its exuberant ability to move its fans and musicians to shake their bodies, dance, and beat the rhythm. As Appelrouth suggests, ‘man- ners of the body share the potential for becoming a stage on which the struggle for social legitimacy and control is dramatized’ (2005: 1497). In the body may be seen the larger social order and its struggles to impose good order, taste and discipline on nature. Pollution of the body is a metaphor for the disruption of the bound- aries that shape ‘legitimate’ society, as Douglas (1996) suggests. Thus, following Appelrouth ‘we should not be surprised to find anxieties concerning social disrup- tions expressed through a body-centered discourse. During periods in which chal- lenges are posed to existing social divisions and schemes of classification, attempts to define the body publicly take on heightened significance’ (2005: 1497). As the Ladies Home Journal saw it,

Jazz disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a break- ing away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad … The effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condi- tion on the brain cells of conception, until very frequently those under the demoraliz- ing influence of the persistent use of syncopation, combined with inharmonic partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong. (Faulkner 1921: 16; from Appelrouth 2005: 1503)

Degenerate brains, an inability to follow rules, and a general lack of moral qualities were not what Mr Ford required in his employees, so the Sociological Department had much to do as a private moral police for the Jazz Age and, even though the department did not last long, it hardly mattered.21 After 1921 it was discontinued and rolled into the notorious Service Department, run by ex-boxer and security chief Harry Bennett, who formed it into a private army of thugs and gangsters to terrorize workers and prevent unionization. Ford’s Service Department would grow to be the largest private police force in the world at that time. Its major work was spying such that no one who worked for Ford was safe from spies, intent on seeing that the five dollars was not being wasted, both literally and metaphorically. There was increasing societal support for Ford’s ‘sociological’ and ‘service’ projects. First in the ranks was the project of Prohibition, the doomed attempt to ban alcohol consumption from a number of US states, which started in 1920, and which Ford had long supported and promoted. It also intensified a prohibitory gaze that sought to ensure that employees could resist temptations to vice. In fact, the struggle against liquor was also a struggle against the jazz with which it was associated in licentious-ness. Gramsci explicitly made the connection to moral panics:

The struggle against alcohol, the most dangerous agent of destruction of laboring power, becomes a function of the state. It is possible for other ‘puritanical’ struggles as well to become functions of the state if private initiatives of the industrialist prove insufficient or if a moral crisis breaks out among the working masses. (1971: 303–4)

Power in the organization was now effectively buttressed by power in the wider society; in order to ensure the most efficient routines at work, some control over the type of person that was employed was required. Initially, the new power of surveillance over private life was vested in and an extension of the organization; latterly, as Fordist modernity became characteristic of modernity in general, in workshops large and small, the state took over the functions that private capital had hitherto assumed.22 Small employers or those new to business could not develop their own sociological departments, but the state, as an ideal total moralist, supple- mented the work of surveillance over those in whom the churches and associated temperance movements had not succeeded in instilling a governmental soul. Power shifted its focus from the individual to the collective.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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