The American Work Ethic and the Changing Work Force: An Historical Perspective

By Herbert Applebaum | Go to book overview

15
FACTORIES IN THE
TWENTIETH CENTURY

In twentieth-century America, factory and machine production dominate the way work is organized for making goods, both semifinished and finished products. The factory brought into being a new workplace ethic. In a sense, the factory has become the metaphor for an industrial society, just as the computer is a metaphor for the postindustrial, information society. As the mill and the factory replaced the workshop, the underlying logic of work motivation changed, not just in the factory, but in the entire culture. A work ethic is only as effective as it is incorporated by workers and then reinforced by the family, the political system, the education system, and the mass media. A certain work ethic becomes motivational to workers when it reflects sentiments and meanings strongly held by the society.

With the coming of the large-scale twentieth-century factory there was a need to get workers to accept centralization and collective behavior in the workplace. Factory production required synchronized production in a shared work space. A single craftsman can only do one thing at one time and in one place. In the factory, many workers can do many things in many places at the same time. In order to accomplish this goal workers must be forced to follow certain rules--no spontaneous, unpurposeful actions; no wandering from one's work station; no gazing out the window; no absenteeism; and no lateness. Those who resist such rules are resisting the factory work ethic and there is much evidence that such resistance was widespread throughout the twentieth century.

The automobile industry provides a classic example for the study of factory organization in the twentieth century. In large part, the twentieth century in America might be called the century of the automobile, representing as it does mass-production and assembly-line organization of work. The automobile changed the culture of America, criss-crossing it with roads, creating the need for bridges, tunnels and cloverleafs, and as an unintended consequence, led to the clogging of cities and the smogging of the atmosphere. In the 1950s and 1960s, one out of six or seven jobs

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