Manhood on the Line: Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland

Manhood on the Line: Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland

by Stephen Meyer


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Stephen Meyer charts the complex vagaries of men reinventing manhood in twentieth century America. Their ideas of masculinity destroyed by principles of mass production, workers created a white-dominated culture that defended its turf against other racial groups and revived a crude, hypersexualized treatment of women that went far beyond the shop floor. At the same time, they recast unionization battles as manly struggles against a system killing their very selves. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, Meyer recreates a social milieu in stunning detail—the mean labor and stolen pleasures, the battles on the street and in the soul, and a masculinity that expressed itself in violence and sexism but also as a wellspring of the fortitude necessary to maintain one's dignity while doing hard work in hard world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081545
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 04/15/2016
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stephen Meyer is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin “Milwaukee. His books include The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908 “1921 .

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Manhood on the Line

Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland

By Stephen Meyer


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-08154-5


Lost Manhood

Mass Production and Auto-Worker Masculinity

In the mid 1930s a Detroit physician testified at the Automobile Labor Board hearings in Detroit and described how work in an automobile plant threatened and undermined auto-worker health and safety, destroying any sense of worth, dignity, and manhood. Dr. I. W. Raskin characterized automobile plants as a huge, human sausage grinder. He recalled his reading of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle long ago and remembered how he "was horrified to read of a luckless worker who, in the process of making pork sausage, fell into the machine and was incorporated into the product." Practicing medicine among auto workers since the early 1920s, Raskin testified: "There is many a luckless worker today whose limbs and blood and sanity is part of that shiny car on the Boulevard." Over the course of thirteen years, he witnessed a dramatic change in the physical and mental health of his working-class patients. They now, he observed, suffered from a "high percentage of neurosis and psychosis," which he attributed to "the speed-up of the production line and the keenness in the competition in getting jobs and particularly in keeping jobs." The "high tension of work," Raskin added, "has broken down other portions of the human system." After listing several similar cases, Raskin concluded that these and many other workers were the American auto industry's "human INDUSTRIAL SCRAP."

From the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth, the American System of Manufactures evolved into a new system of mass production. Numerous academics touted mass production's unique importance to the modern industrial economy. As sociologist Ely Chinoy noted, the Ford assembly line "has been a dominating symbol of modern industrialism." The new automotive production technology was indeed the dominant paradigm for modern industrial technology for most of the twentieth century. As business historian Peter Drucker proclaimed, "The automobile industry stands for modern industry all over the globe. It is to the twentieth century what the Lancashire cotton mills were to the nineteenth century: the industry of industries."

Charles R. Walker, the director of the Yale Technology Project and deeply familiar with mid-twentieth-century American industrial life, understood the social and cultural importance of the automotive shop floor. Though speaking of the steel mills that he knew best years ago, he emphasized that factories were unique settings that created their own special social and cultural worlds. "Persons unfamiliar with mills and factories," he observed, "... often remark on visiting them that they seem like another world." He added: "This is particularly true if ... both tradition and technology have strongly and uniquely molded the ways men think and act when at work." The traditions of people and the forces of technology blended to refashion social and cultural workplace life. Even the new or "green" worker realized how this other world constituted a special and unique space in terms of its "social classes, folklore, ritual, and traditions." Factory workers spent the major part of their lives in their workplaces. All workers profoundly knew and understood its social and cultural context for working-class manhood. In the first decades of the century, auto-worker traditions were embedded in the skilled metal trades and its craft production technology. Especially after the innovations of Frederick W. Taylor, Henry Ford, and numerous anonymous engineers, work reorganization, more automatic machines, and assembly lines transformed auto-worker shop traditions. These certainly remade and refashioned how workers thought and acted at work. For male workers, these also reshaped their social and cultural attitudes toward their maleness.

Although work tasks, work situations, and work routines varied considerably from automobile firm to automobile firm and from one shop or department to another, the work of assembly line workers was the simplest, most boring, and most degrading. Though the assembly line was the predominate image of the modern factory, numerous other work tasks and routines bore similar traits. In a modern automobile plant, Chinoy noted that no more than 18 percent of auto workers were classified as assemblers, but many auto factory jobs, such as "paint sprayers, polishers, welders, upholsterers," and others, "have been subject to the same kinds of job experience as those engaged in assembly." In other words many, many others worked at machines whose rhythms and cycles shaped and determined their work tasks and work pace; most important, it reshaped their workplace social and cultural life.

Modern automotive mass production began in the Ford Highland Park plant in the 1910s and gradually spread through most other firms in the 1920s. The industrial technology of the American automobile industry had its origins in the American System of Manufactures that evolved through the second half of the nineteenth century. In many ways, the new mass-production technology that evolved in the Ford Highland Park plant from 1908 through 1913 represented a culmination of this unfolding technical system. Ford managers and engineers achieved the new forms of control through the stricter supervision of workers, the design of new machine tools, and the major innovation of line production. Under traditional craft production, the skilled craftsman often supervised himself and the helpers and laborers who worked with him. The years of apprenticeship and the pride in craft re-enforced the self-discipline and self-supervision as to the amount of output and the quality of the product. To be sure, craft notions of equity in the amount of effort and the amount of pay might inhibit management expectations for excessive overwork. In contrast, at the Highland Park factory a large contingent of foremen, straw bosses, inspectors, and clerks directly supervised and monitored Ford workers and their output. Foremen and straw bosses encouraged the men continuously to hurry up and work faster. The inspectors and clerks also assured that the quality and amount of work met supervisory expectations.

At Ford and later other auto plants, the design of the machines also defined the specialized machine operator's work routine and work pace. A drill-press operator, for example, neither measured and marked the places for holes in a piece of work nor located the work on the table of the machine, judged the proper feed and speed, or gauged the proper depths of the holes. Instead, he picked up the piece of work, attached it to the machine's fixture, and threw a switch. Then, a multi-spindled drill automatically made all the necessary holes in the right place to the proper depth. The machine operation redefined the drill-press operator's work routine. It now required virtually no judgment or thought. Moreover, the machine established the pace and rhythm of the machine operator's work.

For the skilled and specialized craftsmen (who constituted most of the early male auto workforce) and others, the mass production workplace was a singularly different world. A most common metaphor for it was a mad, absurd, and irrational place, a bedlam not connected to their prior work or industrial experience. A newspaper reporter who visited the Ford Highland Park factory used the image of the asylum to convey his impression of the new industrial system in 1914. For Julian Street, it meant just one thing — "delirium." The Ford plant was "a Gargantuan lunatic asylum where fifteen thousand raving, tearing maniacs had been given full authority to go ahead and do their damnedest."

Slightly more than a decade later, E. McCluny Fleming, one of a group of Yale students who worked in the Ford River Rouge plant during the summer in the 1920s and early 1930s also described the insanity of his work environment. "Alice in Wonderland could have no stranger sensations than I, as we hurried down the enormous, shrieking room," he wrote.

Machines everywhere, — acres and acres of them. Gigantic, clumsy, elephantine ones; small whirling, sputtering ones; punch presses, drills, conveyor motors, overhead trollies, — all clanging, and buzzing and roaring and pounding; — a deafening background noise against which occasional rivet guns and blow torches would emit piercing staccato screams. Everywhere a dizzy tangled jungle of flying wheels, whizzing cogs, jerking belts; clattering pinions, teeth, levers, flywheels, chains, gears. And buried amidst this mechanical bedlam hundreds of grease-covered, bored-looking men, moving hands and legs as in an awful dream. Would I be able to do my job? Did I know enough about machines? Could I ever stick it out? My God, would I ever come out of there alive?"

In the late 1920s a union correspondent who hired into the River Rouge plant objected to the monstrous conveyor system. "This new mechanical monster," he observed, "with its tributaries of chains, belts and slides binds practically the whole plant together and automatically adjusts the speed of every worker." In the crazed rush to produce, if a worker could not "keep up with the belt," then "the work piles up and the line gets clogged." Frantic to avoid such assembly-line pile-ups and supervisory recriminations, many workers pushed themselves to match the pace the mechanized monster. Ford workers "in their blind submission to the Ford machine drive each other on in a mad insane orgy of production, and the belt drives them all."

Many who labored on the lines or at machines resented becoming mindless automatons, laboring at their specialized small tasks. A union correspondent decried the loss of craft skills: "Mass production eliminates skill. Each laborer is assigned to a single operation. He repeats this over and over again and for all he knows he will continue to do so until the end of time. ... John Doe, for instance, who spends 48 hours a week tightening nut No. 17, in the course of time becomes a nut himself."

An Illinois college student in the Ford plant noted "a deadening effect, particularly upon a man's mental life" and "the repetitive nature or monotony of his work." He added: "You cannot get interested in screwing screw number 6421 into some housing or doing some similar job over and over, hour after hour, and day after day." For many workers, the loss of control over work tasks and routines, an important feature of craft production, was the most disconcerting feature of the new industrial system. One machine operator rhetorically asked journalist Robert Cruden: "Am I bossed around? No, I don't need to be. The machine I'm on goes at such a terrific speed that I can't help stepping on it in order to keep up with the machine. It's my boss."

Noise was another unsettling feature of the madhouse of mass production. Two of the Yale students commented on the insidious influence of the dreadful noise in the huge machine-filled Ford plant. Sawyer Brockunier complained about the horrible volume of noise of the Ford River Rouge Plant: "In many buildings, the roar of machinery is terrific." Even after a long night's sleep, he added, "when I got up, my ears would still seem muffled two or three hours after that." Everett Davies, an African sociology student at Yale, worked a stereotypical job for black workers in the foundry and expressed a similar sentiment about his work. "Without exception," he stated, "the noise of the machines is simply distressing." He complained about "the nauseating noise resulting from the operation of these machines." In order for one worker to speak with another, "one must put his mouth directly to the other's ear and then talk as loud as he can. ... [E]veryone tries to talk by signs."

The Yale students all discovered that the machineand line-paced work was repetitive, monotonous, mindless, and continuous. Davies described how his work in a Ford foundry "dwarfed" his mind. "The trained mind and the skilled hand," he wrote, "once in the sole possession of the worker are now being transferred to machines." While the modern machines eliminated "man-power," he added, "they are also displacing mental keenness and alertness, and arresting mental development." All that the worker did was "simply to remove what the machine has made." Another student, Kemper Dobbins operated a Gleason press at Ford. Though at first impressed with the "wonderful precision" and the "automatic adjustment" of the machines, he quickly learned his "series of seven physical movements — absolutely automatic in character." Soon, he realized: "I was on a tread mill — producingproducing-producing-getting nowhere." Finally, he concluded: "Compared to the work of the machine, mine was worth nothing."

In his 1929 assessment of the automobile industry, Phil Raymond, treasurer of the early Auto Workers Union, highlighted the impact of "new machines and industrial processes" on auto worker skills. "Many new machines," he observed, "have been introduced, displacing skilled workers by unskilled." He mentioned two machines specifically — the polishing machine and the striping machine. These machines eliminated skill and sped up the work of the metal polishers who smoothed and prepared auto bodies for painters and of the stripers who added the final detail to the paint jobs. Due to the "slave-driving system of the Ford plant, plus the piece work and fake bonus schemes in other plants," he noted, "the workers are literally burned up in this mad orgy of speeding production."

In addition to its massive size, frenetic activity, and deafening noise, the new mass production system contained two technical innovations that transformed the work regime into Bedlam. Each undermined or removed the workers' ability to control their work situations and regulated and controlled the pace and rhythm of brutal labor regime. These were the semiautomatic and automatic machines and the conveyor belts that characterized the new production system. The new specialor single-purpose machine tools removed the machine operator's discretion of judgment in its operation. The cycle of the machine determined the pace of loading and unloading. If a worker had idle time, the foreman typically assigned a second machine. The new conveyor systems, where each operation followed the previous one and set the limits of the next one, similarly controlled the pace and rhythm of production at the workplace. Each operation depended on the other. Moreover, the conveyor line controlled how much time an auto worker had to complete each operation, over and over. The speed of the conveyor set the work pace. In a similar manner such machines arranged in line according to consecutive tasks also set the workers' pace. Machine operators and assemblers neither thought about nor controlled their work. They no longer determined the tempo or rhythm of their work in the factory. This loss of mental skill and control greatly diminished and eroded their sense of manly accomplishment.

The speed-up, or the technical acceleration of machine and line speeds and the insidious incentive schemes (in other words, individual and group piece rates and other systems), increased work effort and sapped human strength and endurance, especially as the Great Depression deepened and workers strove to match ever higher work quotas and levels of production. For labor journalist and researcher Robert W. Dunn, the speed-up was one of the most pernicious evils of the modern production system. "Speed-up of man and machine," he reported, "rules the Detroit automobile industry, piling up workers on the job market in long queues of the unemployed, even in the busiest seasons." This speed-up occurred in many ways, he added:

The assembly line may be screwed up a little faster. The stop watch men may observe that workers, by sweating more, can turn out more per hour. The task is then increased. The rates may be cut so that the worker has to move faster to equal his former wage. The steam may even be turned low in winter to keep the workers a bit chilly and hence in the mood to move faster at the machine.


Excerpted from Manhood on the Line by Stephen Meyer. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Introduction: Forms and Meanings of Working-Class Manhood, 1,
1 Lost Manhood: Mass Production and Auto-Worker Masculinity, 12,
2 Reclaiming Manhood: Shop Culture, Industrial Unionism, and the Derogation of Women, 1920s and 1930s, 33,
3 "Rats, Finks, and Stool Pigeons": The Disreputable Manhood of Factory Spies in the 1920s and 1930s, 58,
4 Fighting to Provide: The Battle to Organize the Ford River Rouge Plant, 1930–1945, 82,
5 Fashioning Dense Masculine Space: Industrial Unionism and Altered Shop-Floor Relations, 1935–1960s, 112,
6 The Female "Invasion": Women and the Male Workplace, 1940–1945, 141,
7 The Challenge to White Manhood: Black Men and Women Move to White Male Jobs, 1940–1945, 165,
Conclusion: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same, 192,
Abbreviations, 211,
Notes, 213,
Index, 241,

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