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The Assembly Line and the $5 Day - Background Reading

In the late 19th century, the labor movement was on the rise, with unions being formed to protect workers and to make health, safety and wage demands on employers. Like the birth of the automobile, much of the beginning activity for union formation found its home in Michigan. In the auto plants many of the early conflicts were between skilled craftsman and unskilled laborers, but that soon changed to worker against company. After the adoption of the moving assembly line and its division of work into individual, simple tasks took over the industry, the need for skilled labor dropped. Turnover, or unhappy workers quitting, was very high because of the resulting boring, dangerous, low paying jobs, and Henry Ford's company, like many manufacturers, had trouble retaining workers.

When Henry Ford produced the Model T, he knew this would be the car he would build so that virtually anyone could afford it. At first, however, it was priced similarly to a Cadillac, at about $850. Around that time, he had made plans for the construction of a new assembly plant in Highland Park, Michigan. Nicknamed the "Crystal Palace" because of its many windows, it was to be a model of efficiency. Based on the principles of Scientific Management made famous by Frederick Taylor, it would employ the use of the moving assembly line. A massive conveyor belt would bring car parts to the workers, allowing each to contribute a small portion to the work-in-progress. This would speed up the production of the cars. Increased production would result in a drop in cost. He could lower the price of the car and appeal to more buyers.

Ford counted the number of parts required to build his Tin Lizzies down to the last bolt, about 5,000. Then, he took every job, such as installing the headlights, and broke it down into individual tasks. Each worker on the line would do one task, then wait as the line brought the next car, where he would repeat the task. One worker would put a bolt on; the next would put a washer on the bolt. The next would put a nut on, and the next would tighten the bolt. This process reduced everything to its most simple form so that any worker could be trained to do the job—the first part of Scientific Management. The process also made it so that most workers were replaceable, and no individual was able to slow down the production.

The next element was timing. Each task was timed to determine how long it should take. The assembly line was set to move at that pace. Speed was the key. If a worker had six seconds to complete a task, then he had to get it done on time every time. Whether he was ready or not, the next car chassis would be in front of him in six seconds. Shop supervisors would walk the factory floor with stopwatches, making sure production speed was at a maximum. When the company decided it needed more cars coming off the line, it often increased the speed of the line, forcing workers to work faster.

At the time, workers could count on about $2.25 per day, for which they worked nine-hour shifts. It was pretty good money in those days, but the toll was too much for many to bear. Ford's turnover rate was very high. In 1913, Ford hired more than 52,000 men to keep a workforce of only 14,000. New workers required a costly break-in period, making matters worse for the company. Also, some men simply walked away from the line to quit and look for a job elsewhere. Then the line stopped and production of cars halted. The increased cost and delayed production kept Ford from selling his cars at the low price he wanted. Drastic measures were necessary if he was to keep up this production.

Hours upon hours of performing the same, mindless task was very difficult for the workers to accept. Morale was often low. Also, line work—due its quick pace and repetitive nature—was dangerous. In 1916, the Ford Highland Park plant recorded almost 200 severed fingers and more than 75,000 cuts, burns and puncture wounds.

To combat the high turnover and to boost morale, Henry Ford announced the famous "$5 a day" wage. It was actually a profit-sharing plan. (The bonus wage came with certain obligations to which the employee agree.) Nevertheless, Ford's plan doubled typical wages and sent shockwaves through the other car companies. They thought Ford was crazy and would soon go out of business. Ford knew, however, that this new deal would not only lower costs due to decreased turnover, but it would create more buyers of his cars: the employees themselves!

The $5-a-day rate was about half pay and half bonus. The bonus came with character requirements and was enforced by the Socialization Organization. This was a committee that would visit the employees' homes to ensure that they were doing things the "American way." They were supposed to avoid social ills such as gambling and drinking. They were to learn English, and many (primarily the recent immigrants) had to attend classes to become "Americanized." Women were not eligible for the bonus unless they were single and supporting the family. Also, men were not eligible if their wives worked outside the home. Other groups also offered classes to help immigrants and southern blacks adapt to the Detroit area, but none were so prominent as the Ford plan.

More than 15,000 would-be workers showed up to claim the $5-a-day jobs, though only about 3,000 were needed. Those left outside were angry, and eventually fire hoses were turned on to disperse the crowd. The increased wage plan led to a stable workforce. Ford soon produced as many as 8,000 Model Ts in a single day. The price dropped to under $300 for a brand new car. In order to stay competitive, General Motors and other automakers followed suit. They also increased wages and began use of the moving assembly line. Henry Ford had changed the industry forever.


"Create a Car on an Assembly Line," "Henry Ford: The Innovator" and "The Assembly Line and the $5 Day" were developed by Tom Hopper for the Michigan Historical Museum.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/18/2010

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