Saturday, January 5, 2008

The good, the bad
and the (perhaps)

Malcolm had always conceived a prejudice, well-deserved, against Henry Ford and his anti-union mentality. The image, left, is from the 1937 "Battle of the Overpass": those who don't recognise the reference should not hesitate to look it up, or even read on.

He wondered, though, if his assumptions might need at least partially to be reviewed and even revised when he came upon today's New York Times "On this day" feature, which looks back to a front-page story from 5th January 1905:
Henry Ford, head of the Ford Motor Company, announced today one of the most remarkable business moves of his entire remarkable career. In brief it is:

To give to the employees of the company $10,000,000 of the profits of the 1914 business, the payments to be made semi-monthly and added to the pay checks.

To run the factory continuously instead of only eighteen hours a day, giving employment to several thousand more men by employing three shifts of eight hours each, instead of only two nine-hour shifts, as at present.

To establish a minimum wage scale of $5 per day. Even the boy who sweeps up the floors will get that much.

Before any man in any department of the company who does not seem to be doing good work shall be discharged, an opportunity will be given to him to try to make good in every other department. No man shall be discharged except for proved unfaithfulness or irremediable inefficiency.

This is the other side of the coin to the vicious regime of strike-breaking at Fords, especially in the 1930s, and the internal security and thuggery run by Harry Bennett as Head of the firm's Service Department:
He ruled the Rouge Plant, and some say Henry Ford himself, through threats and intimidation, arguably becoming more influential than Edsel Ford, Henry’s son and the company’s President from 1919 to 1943. He first worked in Ford’s art department in 1917, but his “tough guy” manner got him appointed head watchman, and eventually he supervised over 3000 reputed crooks and retired policemen in the Service Department. “The Battle of the Overpass,” Ford’s 1937 response to attempts at unionization, was led by Bennett. Ford fought unionization until 1941.
A recent study, Strikebreaking and Intimidation, by Stephen H. Norwood, even tries to ascribe psycho-sexual motivation, a machismo, to Bennett and his like. A more straight-forward history can be found in Robert Michael Smith's From Blackjacks to Briefcases, telling the story of anti-union brutality.

This begins with Allen Pinkerton, the Glaswegian barrel-maker and Chartist, who fled Britain for Chicago, where he later established his detective agency. As Smith reminds us:
During the last decades of the nineteenth century Pinkerton guards were such a common sight at strikebound plants that "Pinkertons" became the eponym applied to all armed guards.
That chain of association brings Malcolm to recall that Dashiell Hammett spent eight years working for the Pinkerton agency. This experience led him to create the magnificent Sam Spade, and thereby the model for the "hard-boiled" genre.

It also provided material for Hammett's first novel. Red Harvest, is a specific account of the Pinkerton strike-breaking machinery. That text ought to be an essential for any (socialist) reading-list.

The setting of the novel, in "Poisonville", and the plot derive from the murder (quite probably by Pinkerton men) of Frank Little in Butte, Montana. Little was an organiser for the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World. Malcolm fully expects to corrected on the details by his standard authority on the topic, Our American Cousin. OAC's reflections on the election, as seen from Denver, continue as acid as ever, and well worth the trip to Misanthropy Abroad (Memo to Malcolm: this mutual log-rolling and back-scratching has got to stop!)

And, apropos of very little, that reminds Malcolm to mention another recent discovery, but one he will be watching with interest, at Holly Martin's Friend. Malcolm very much hopes that Mark keeps the cyberworld abreast of how and in what ways he fares in his New Year Resolution to:
Read more books that do not include detectives, drug-addled, doomed Europeans and headstrong British Navy Sea Captains.
Meanwhile, next Thursday, Malcolm will find a moment to raise an appropriate glass to the memory of the immortal Dashiell, on the 47th anniversary of his death. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

yourcousin said...

On Ford and his goods works. Its been awhile since I've dealt with any of the big three and their antics but if my memory serves me the good pay had alot to do assimilation and company supervision. The workers had to attend classes on "Americanization", allow the company to inspect their homes to make sure that they were taking their training, home, speaking English, and ensuring that there was no alcohol in the home (god forbid). In the end they attended a ceremony in which they walked into a giant vat dressed in the clothes of the their native land and come out wearing American work clothes (ie a melting pot of "cheap" labor). This was before they got the mythical five dollars a day. Note the "unfaithfullness" clause when it comes to layoffs. I'd be curious to see what constitutes "unfaithfullness"

Upon dusting off my labor history books, the Ford company had been operating on the nine-hour day since 1905 and then re-instituted the ten hour day in 1913 due to his ability to bully the ineffectual trade unions present at the times. In 1914 due to labor agitation and unrest Ford announced the 8 hour day and five dollar a day minimum wage (also confirmed by a second source). This move coupled with the security apparatus that you outline led to the decline of organized resistance until the late '30s.

Trust me, Ford sucks. If not for their labor busting past then for their crappy cars and NAFTA escapades you'd be better off buying a Toyota model (made in America and on the UAW do buy list).

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