Today in labor history: First Model T leaves the assembly line

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On September 26, 1908, the first production Ford Model T left the Piquette Plant in Detroit, Mich. It was the first car ever manufactured on an assembly line

The problems of speedup and other dangerous assembly line practices were skewered in Charlie Chaplin's classic film "Modern Times." The film's exaggerated depiction of assembly line work wasn't far from the truth.

As Art Perlo wrote for the People's World in 2006:

"Henry Ford outlawed talking, restricted bathroom breaks, denied pay for setup time, and sped up the production line. Turnover was high, with workers leaving injured, exhausted or fired. Ford employed a private army of thugs, recruited from jails and prisons, to spy on, intimidate and crush any efforts by his workers to organize.

"Ford was reputed to be the richest man in the world. He cultivated an image as a kindly inventor who upheld old-fashioned values. But when the Depression struck in the 1930s, he cut wages and sped up production even more. When thousands of unemployed workers marched to his plant to ask for the relief Ford had promised, they were met with machine-gun fire from company police. Five workers were killed."

Ford boasted that he would never accept a union and for over 20 years he kept the union out of his huge River Rouge factory with guns, goons, blacklists and frame-ups.

The biography of "Brother Bill McKie" by journalist Phil Bonosky is an inspiring story about auto's rank and file, how they fought a long and bloody struggle and how, together, they won with the establishment of the United Auto Workers union. The paperback edition is available from International Publishers.

Photo: Ford magneto assembly line, 1913, Wikimedia Commons

 

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