In 1953 Alfred Granakis, president of UAW Local 1250, wrote to UAW president Walter Reuther about "wrestling with myself for weeks on end" and being unable "to come to any solution" on some thorny shop-floor problems at a new Ford plant in Cleveland, Ohio. The local union president described his concern about the Brook Park engine plants and foundry, depicted by Ford officials as "today's nearest approach to a fully automated factory in the automobile industry." This complex, they proclaimed, was "another milestone" comparable to Henry Ford's original assembly lines. In his letter to Reuther, Granakis declared, "I am greatly distressed and deeply concerned about the problem of automation." Although he acknowledged "the theory that mechanization brings about increased employment," he worried about "what happens during the period of transference from multi-manned operation to limited manned operation. Of course, I do not advocate a return to pre-Industrial Revolution days, but what happens to the workers' equity when there are fewer workers to share in a given sum which many more shared in before. Is that an economically sound situation?" (1)
In negotiating his local contract with Ford officials, Granakis was the first local president to confront the shop-floor consequences and labor-displacing implications of the new automated factories. As such, he feared the establishment of undesirable precedents and pleaded for Reuther's aid in dealing with Ford management. "I am not," he wrote, "critical but merely fearful of being a party to any agreement that may at some future day be prejudicial to the workers' endeavors in their struggle for their attainment of just economic demands." In his plaintive appeal, Granakis raised a popular image of science and technology gone awry:
"What is the economic solution to all this, Walter[?] I am greatly afraid of embracing an economic `Frankenstein' that I helped create in its infancy. It is my opinion that troubled days lie ahead for Labor, and certainly [I] do not wish to contribute anything, however small, to an already aggrieved matter." Granakis further noted, "Our Local negotiations are the first to deal with automation.... Our Plant is the new Ford Plant ... in which new methods, particularly those effecting [sic] Labor, are being tried." (2)
In the mid-1950s automation, or what some manufacturers labeled "automation hysteria," captured the full attention not only of American social and economic commentators, industrial leaders, and managers, but also of factory workers and their union leaders. At the time, Brook Park was the nation's most highly automated automobile production plant, and industrial engineers from across the nation toured and studied its state-of-the-art facilities. Though others have examined broadly the issue of workers and automation, this essay focuses on how the leaders and members of one union local perceived and reacted to the coming of industrial automation. Reuther viewed the coming of the automated factory from the lofty premises of his Detroit UAW office, but Alfred Granakis and his fellow union members confronted the new production technologies as they evolved on the shop floor of the Ford Brook Park plant. The view from that perspective was somewhat different. Granakis and other UAW Local 1250 members wrestled with difficult new workplace issues without effective means to either combat or control them.
In recent years several labor and social historians have examined and reassessed the various issues and problems concerning the relationship between workers and automation. For Ronald Edsforth automation presented an important, but missed, opportunity to shorten the work week of American automobile workers in the 1950s and 1960s. In response to the dissident Ford River Rouge Local 600's "30 for 40" campaign--seeking a thirty-hour week for forty hours' pay--Reuther consistently "urged bargaining for greater income security and more goods, instead of bargaining for shorter hours and increased leisure." (3) In his important biography of Walter Reuther, Nelson Lichtenstein focused on the UAW leader's national programs and policies and only briefly touched on the interconnectedness of automation, productivity, and job displacement. Rather than directly confront automation's social implications, the UAW leader "retained the faith that a combination of Keynesian demand stimulation and government economic planning were tools sufficient to handle unemployment." (4) And in his study of Detroit's postwar conflicts and decline, Thomas Sugrue underscored the social consequences of deindustrialization and job displacement, especially Ford's use of automation and decentralization as a means to weaken and tame the militant River Rouge local. Reuther and other top UAW leaders "worried about automation only insofar as it affected employment levels nationwide." Then, they "poured their energy into cushioning the effects of layoffs through extended unemployment benefits, improved pension plans, and preferential hiring for displaced workers." (5) For the most part these historical studies have accented the perspectives and policies of national UAW leaders and emphasized the social impact of automation as seen from the top down rather than from the bottom up.
This article focuses on how the "economic `Frankenstein'" of automation affected the everyday lives of Ford workers on the shop floor and how local UAW leaders struggled with its immediate consequences in the workplace. In the early 1950s these new and evolving production technologies transformed deep-rooted shop traditions, such as the social structures and social relations of work and the privileged nature and carefully defended boundaries of the skilled trades.
For automobile workers the major consequence of industrial automation was the transformation of the content of their work. As automated production emerged in the Brook Park plant, Ford officials claimed that the "increasingly complex and complicated" new industrial technologies "brought about a significant change in the relationship between production and maintenance employees." In other words, the routinized production work typically done by assemblers and machine operators often blended into the diversified and more skilled tasks performed by maintenance workers. The new production system brought the two types of workers "closer together to the extent that they now merely play different positions on the same team." The materials-handling devices and the automatic machines and conveyors were "electrically connected and interlocked so that a mechanical breakdown anywhere along the line may stop production until the trouble is diagnosed, located, and repaired." The "maintenance functions" had to "be synchronized with production so that mechanical interruptions may be held to an absolute minimum." In effect, formerly autonomous maintenance workers became directly attached to line production operations. In time, the distinct roles of production worker and maintenance worker would be fused into a new job classification: automation worker. (6) What this company analysis failed to emphasize, however, was that not enough slots as automation workers would be created to employ all the former production workers.
In the conventional mass-production automobile plant, semiskilled workers--machine operators and assemblers--constituted the overwhelming majority of the factory workforce. Situated between small numbers of unskilled laborers and small numbers of highly skilled tradesmen, these workers comprised the huge middle layer of the shop social structure. But Brook Park needed far fewer of these semiskilled workers. Ben Seligman, a UAW analyst, described the automated operation of the fifteen-hundred-foot-long battery of machines at the Brook Park engine plant: "Automatic machine tools perform more than 500 boring, broaching, drilling, honing, milling, and tapping operations without any human assistance." On this automated machining line there were "less men ... than formerly. In one part of the line 25 men perform the same as 117 did using the old method, mainly because it is no longer necessary to stand before each machine and accurately position the work before the machine tools can do the job." (7)
Whereas the old-style shop-floor hierarchy had a small upper layer, a huge middle level, and a small bottom stratum, automation upgraded some workers from the middle (thereby alarming some skilled workers who feared encroachment) and then emptied out much of the rest of the middle. In his analysis of the displacement of the machine operators in automated automobile plants, the sociologist Bernard Karsh described the new bifurcated social composition of the factory workforce. Two types of employee predominated: "the unskilled worker, the broom pusher, whose job may be too menial to automate and ... the highly skilled worker, who designs, constructs, repairs and programs the machine." (8) The new production technologies eliminated large numbers of semiskilled machine operators and assemblers. Hyman Lumer, a leftist union critic of the new production technologies, noted, "With complete automation, it is estimated, maintenance personnel would equal or exceed the number of operators on the production lines." (9)
If automation meant more highly skilled workers on the shop floor, it also drastically altered the traditional character of skilled work. In the new Brook Park engine plants, Lumer estimated that skilled machine maintenance workers constituted 21 percent of the workforce, whereas in a conventional auto plant they normally constituted only around 5 percent. (10) Moreover, traditional skilled maintenance workers in automobile plants often were far removed from direct production operations, worked within strictly defined craft boundaries, and had considerable autonomy in their work routines. As the number of relatively skilled workers and their direct involvement in production increased, their exclusiveness and autonomy were threatened.
Confronted with these considerable changes on the shop floor, local UAW leaders like Granakis could call on few real resources to combat the challenges to their workers' established tasks, routines, and work structures. In the new post-World War II system of "workplace contractualism," (11) UAW leaders negotiated national and local …