The Assembly Line

by William Serrin

The line, the goddamn line. Fifty-five cars an hour, 440 cars a shift . . . two shifts a day, 4400 cars a week . . . 44 assembly plants, 9 million cars a year . . . lights, machinery, noise . . . hundreds of hustling workers, arms moving, legs moving . . . tightening bolts, fastening cables . . . using big electric wrenches and drills, the hoses stretched out behind them . . . and the colors, the brilliant goddamn colors . . . aqua, grabber lime, pewter, pinto red, sassy grass green, rosewood, ascot blue, Nevada silver, cottonwood green, in-violet, curious yellow, burgundy fire, glacial blue, Tor-Red, amber sherwood, formal black, sunflower, sandalwood, cranberry, Sno White, Bahama yellow, true blue, rallye red, yellow gold . . . The Workers, 700,000 of them across the country, 200,000 of them in the Detroit area . . . men and women, whites and blacks . . . big blacks with Afros and young dudes with processes, paunchy whites, paunchy blacks, rednecks, fathers, husbands, suburbanites . . . women, tight-skinned, almost never pretty, with hair teased in the fashion of ten years ago . . . 8 hours a day, not counting a half hour off for lunch . . . 46 minutes of relief time, when a fellow can sit down or use the toilet or have a smoke or get a Coke or a Mallo-Cup . . . workers sanding gray metal and rough spots on painted metal after the cars have come from the bake oven . . . taking windshields from a pile, slopping glue on and attaching a rubber sleeve . . . a worker attaching the windshield to a hydraulic lift with suction cups and swinging it onto the line . . . workers swinging the engine onto the line . . . workers swinging the rear axle in and laying the rear springs on the line . . . the body now automatically dropped over the rear axle, the springs, the drive shaft . . . tires inflated by machine and workers taking them off conveyors and putting them on the wheels . . . workers bolting the tires down . . . workers in the pits underneath the assembly line, like slit trenches, standing all day at Ford or GM, sitting at Chrysler . . . installing wires, fastening bolts, 8 hours a day, their arms over their heads . . . workers beating on latches with rubber mallets to make the hoods lit . . . 8 hours a day, 48 weeks a year, $9000 or so a year, $130 to $150 a week in take-home pay . . . THE LINE, THE FINEST PRODUCT OF AMERICAN INVENTIVENESS . . . 350 models to choose from . . . fascinating, absolutely fascinating, how the engines, tires, fenders, hoods are fed onto the line at the right time, a 429 CID V-8 or a 200 CID Six, the right-size tires, the right-color fenders and hood, the system run by teletype and computer . . . FENDERS AND HOOD, THE SYSTEM . . . a few days from the time the iron ore is dug in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, the coal in West Virginia. Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, the limestone in northern Michigan, the tires manufactured in Akron. Ohio . . . the ore hauled to Gary, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, smelted into steel . . . rolled into sheet steel at 2300 feet per minute . . . stamped into side panels, inner panels, outer panels, fenders, roofs, hoods, decks, floor pans . . . the iron cast into engines, steel forged into axles, rolled into frames ... the body welded together . . . painted with zinc phosphate . . . painted with two coats of primer, wet-sanded, painted with three coats of acrylic enamel, baked for one hour at 250 degrees . . . dollied onto the line . . . the doors and deck hung . . . dropped over the engine and transmission . . . windshield, instrument panel, and upholstery installed . . . then down the final line . . . rear axle, rear springs, drive shaft, gas line, tires, fenders . . . six gallons of gasoline injected into the gas tank . . . battery hooked up . . . a worker gets in, moving fast, turns the key, and this tremendous noise . . . rrrrrrRRRRRRRRrrrrRRRRR . . . the car starts up . . . Mustangs, Cougars, Torinos, Dusters, Bonnevilles, GTO’s, Firebirds, Caprices, Mavericks, Pintos, Montereys, Imperials, Furys, El Dorados, Galaxies, LTD’s, Thunderbirds, Challengers, Darts, Barracudas, Valiants, New Yorkers, Chevelles, Novas . . . off the line . . . lights aligned, acceleration and brakes tested . . . washed . . . waxed . . . and onto haulaway trucks or railroad cars, 15 to the car, and hauled across America.

In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter, completed a nine-month project: an awesome set of murals in the garden court of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The soaring murals, depicting life in the auto plants, caused a furor. Rivera did not celebrate life in the plants as the civic leaders would have had it: he painted the workers as grim-faced robots locked in dreary jobs. Automatons. The city was beside itself. Meetings were held; letters poured in to the papers. Rivera was reviled. Two august institutions, the Detroit News and the Archdiocese of Detroit, demanded that the murals be whitewashed. Reason prevailed, however, and the murals remain. So too, of course, do the automobile plants which Rivera painted. And now, more than three decades later, this is clear: in many cases, in many plants, life for automobile workers remains as monotonous and full of drudgery as Rivera painted it. It is preferable, for any number of them, to the mines, the military, or clerical paper pushing. But for many of America s auto workers— the very heart of the working class—life is dull, brutish, weary, stuporous.

This is ironic, of course, for the automobile worker is the beneficiary of the best that America has to offer. It was nothing less than the American Dream that brought the automobile workers to Detroit, the promise that hard work would bring the good life.

First the immigrants came: English, Italians, Swedes, Slavs, Hungarians, Scottish, Poles, Irish, to make big money, to cash in on the $5 day. Then the white Southerners from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi. Georgia, to make big money in Dee-troit. And then—originally because they worked cheaply, sometimes as scabs, and now because they provide a low-skill, close-at-hand labor force—the blacks. Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Automobile Workers, says. “If there ever was a melting pot. I think it’s the automobile industry.”

In the 1930s, in the stormy strikes in Toledo, Cleveland. Atlanta, Detroit, and Flint, the workers formed the United Automobile Workers. Today they profit from the UAW’s liberalism and aggressiveness. They are, moreover, beneficiaries of the fruits of mass production, the assembly line—this is the industry that brought the assembly line to American life.

These days there is unrest in the auto plants once again. Roughly 40 percent of the automotive work force is under thirty. And many of these young men and women say that their jobs, and their lives, are dull and unrewarding. Nearly 35 percent of the work force is black, and this figure often rises to 60 or 70 percent in low-skill jobs—laborers and production workers in the inner-city plants. Many of the older workers, largely whites in their forties and fifties, are also angry and dissatisfied. They want to quit but say that they can’t afford to; they wait to retire.

A sizable number of automobile workers, of course, have reached a level of affluence—an accumulation of goods—unmatched in the history of the working class.

A year ago, after a ten-week strike at the General Motors Corporation, the United Automobile Workers won what was one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of industrial negotiations—a package that GM said would cost it more than $2.4 billion in wages alone. Cost-of-living allowances could push the total figures much higher. The settlement, later matched at the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation, could, according to GM, raise the salary of many GM workers to some $12,000 a year by 1973. (In his initial reaction to the Administration’s anti-inflation moves, the UAW’s Woodcock threatened termination of the 1970 contracts and the possibility of new strikes if the ninety-day wage-price freeze, or extension of it, interfered with wage increases and cost-of-living adjustments negotiated with the industrv last year.)

In a booklet which General Motors Corporation sent to all its 440,000 hourly employees, GM workers were told that they are “well up on the income ladder—in the TOP THIRD income group in the nation!” Earl Bramblett, a GM vice president for personnel and director of its negotiation team, says that it is incorrect even to think of auto workers as the working class. Auto workers have achieved affluence, Bramblett argues, and there is “a long difference between affluence and the working class.” Sidney McKenna, director of labor relations at the Ford Motor Company, says, “I can scarcely believe that [the auto worker] could be identified as working-class poor.”

A woman at GM’s Fisher Body plant in Livonia: “We’re different people than we were. I’ve worked in the plant since 1928 . . . then we were just a bunch of blue-collar workers who didn’t amount to a hill of beans. . . . Now, well, look, a lot of us can afford summer cottages, some of us can afford boats, two cars, things like that.”

A black who works at a GM Fisher Body plant in Detroit: “Auto workers have achieved the more comfortable things in life.”

Immense strides have also been made in improving shop conditions since the 1930s. Workers now have seniority and job security. They have 23 minutes of relief time in the first four hours of their shift, 23 minutes in the second four hours. Plants are cleaner: toilets now have doors; there are more fans for ventilation. GM’s Bramblett: “We have more than 15,000 vending machines in the plants.” Automation has eliminated many difficult, backbreaking tasks. Workers can no longer be told there is no work and sent home with no pay; if they are sent home, which almost never happens, they must receive four hours’ salary.

When plants are shut down for annual model changeover, workers draw 95 percent of their takehome pay. They have paid holidays. The 1970 UAW settlements provided unlimited cost-of-living protection and a new retirement plan, which would allow thirty-year workers to retire at a pension of $500 a month at age fifty-eight beginning this month. A year later, the retirement age drops to fifty-six. Many of the employer attitudes that helped bring on unionization are gone.

A retired Ford worker: “You know what they done at Ford’s? And this is the truth. They had the service man follow you into the rest rooms, and you’re sitting in there, and he made you get up and lift the toilet seat to see if you were doing something. And if you wasn’t, you was fired.”

A widow of a Ford worker: “Before the UAW came in. why, we never knew when our husbands would come home and say, ‘I’m fired.’ Here you may have been pregnant, had a doctor bill to take care of, a sick child . . . besides you maybe had parents to take care of, and your bills piled up. And sometimes the husband would get another job under an assumed name, and the lousy spies, factory spies, would come in and spy him and say, ‘Your name is John. How come your name is Al?' And he was fired. And that kept on until after the union had organized.”

A GM worker who belongs to UAW Local 174, which Walter Reuther led on the historic KelseyHayes sit-down strike in 1936: “You were just a badge number, years ago.”

Workers running through the parking lots of the Ford Rouge plant; lined up twoand three-deep in the bars across from the GM plants in Hamtramck, Flint, or Pontiac; shots of whiskey and beer chasers lined up one after another down the bar. The A & P . . . Krogers, K-Mart, the tract suburb . . . dinky houses with aluminum siding, the Lombardy poplars, the Page fences . . . big jets blasting overhead . . . white brick cocktail lounges . . . cinder parking lots . . . big water towers . . . drive-in movies. One sees the auto worker, if he is white, lined up in the traffic jams headed toward the suburbs or the fringes of the big cities . . . at the grocery stores and discount houses on Saturday mornings . . . drinking Seagrams Seven in paper cups at the Lions games . . . roaring up to deer season . . . whole families at the cramped campsites of northern Michigan, camper trucks wheel-to-wheel, the men in T-shirts and drinking Strohs, the wives in hair curlers and smoking Kools.

If he is black he comes the other way—to drink Strohs and smoke Kools on the busted porches of the inner city, or to live, mile after mile, in the black middle-class neighborhoods.

Many people have become rich in the automobile industry: scores, if not hundreds, are millionaires—Fords, Sloans, Ketterings, Motts, Wilsons, Roches, Knudsens. Thousands of middleand top-level executives make good money, as do many skilled tradesmen and foremen. But despite the cheerful phrases of the GM brochure, despite new contract gains, many of the workers in the shops are still pressed to make ends meet. A worker at GM’s Fisher Fleetwood plant says: “It takes two checks for a family to live comfortably in this day and age.”

It is said that no one goes into the shop intending to stay there. This was true thirty-five or forty-five years ago, and it is true today. Always the workers intend to work a year or two, put some money away, and get out. Many dream of going into business for themselves. But many stay in the plants. “Once you get in, it’s hard to get out, you know,” says a Ford worker, “because you have a wife and a family and this is your means of support.” A GM worker: “You get about ten or twelve years in, and you get to thinking about getting out. But like myself, I don’t have any training for any other kind of job.”

Irving Bluestone, director of the UAW’s GM Department: “I just can’t imagine that a worker [on the assembly line] can take pride in what he’s doing. Just putting on nuts and bolts, you know, what the hell kind of pride can you take in that?”

Ken Bannon, head of the UAW’s Ford Department: “You’re fighting this iron tiger. You’re handcuffed to it. You don’t get a fair chance at it. And every so often the big man comes over with his key, and unhandcuffs you, and then you can go get a cup of coffee or have a little break.” Pounding the table, Bannon says, “You’re actually handcuffed there . . . when that car comes down you better be there; you can’t be at the water fountain, you can’t be on the john, you can’t be having a snack. You are handcuffed to that line because when that product comes to you. brother, you better be there.”

A Cadillac worker: “You walk in the plant in the morning, and the smell. As soon as you get to the door, you say, ‘What am I coming here for? I’m crazy.'” A fellow worker: “You follow that iron horse”—the assembly line—“all day, and your ass is dragging when you walk out.”A supervisor at a GM Pontiac plant says of the assembly-line worker: “You don’t think . . . you’re just an automated puppet.” Another GM worker: “That’s all I’m working for— my paycheck and retirement.”

At Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Main plant, a member of a militant black union group: “Black workers, they work on the dirtiest, greasiest, nastiest, filthiest, noisiest jobs. You go find the dirtiest, greasiest, nastiest, filthiest jobs, and that’s where you’ll find the black man.” The UAW’s Bannon says of the assembly line: “It’s a beast. It’s an ugly, ugly, ugly beast.” Frank Runnels, president of the UAW Local 22: “A guy would have to be a freak to enjoy a life like this.”

One UAW woman says she enjoyed the several years she worked on a transmission assembly line: “It was the cleanest place in our plant. It was air-conditioned . . . the floors were cleaner too. Some people say just standing there day after day can be terribly monotonous, which it is—if you think about it. The only thing I found . . . was you can’t stand there and think about what you’re doing. . . . But after you’ve once become accustomed to the job you can plan your vacation, you can plan your children’s college, you can plan your housework, you can plan all your outside activities . . . while you are working away.”

Automation has certainly eased some of the work. Irving Bluestone, who for years served as Walter Reuther’s intellectual-inresidence: “In the machine shops, the feeder plants, the stamping plants, you would recognize the difference over the past generation of workers . . . because here the major technological advances have taken place.”

GM’s Bramblett, who worked on an engine assembly line at GM from 1928 to 1934: “We have engineered out of existence a lot of disagreeable jobs. When I worked on the line we handled the crankshaft by hand, and in a six-cylinder engine that weighed sixty-nine pounds. We had no lifting devices. We picked them up in our hands, moved them to a fixture for checking, and put them in. Nowadays all the cranks are handled with lifting devices, counterbalances. So you can tiptoe them around, and you don’t really have to exert a lot of physical energy.”

Bramblett goes on: “Another thing that comes to mind is the polishing of paint on a finished car. You had a big rag wheel and an electric motor that was quite heavy . . . it turned, rotated. There was polish on it. This created wind, dust. It was quite a hard physical job. Modern-day paint techniques do not require that anymore. . . . I’m not suggesting that a factory is a lounge. It’s a workplace. But I would say there are a lot of heavy lifting jobs, disagreeable jobs, nasty jobs, that have been improved.”

And William Connelly, a member of UAW Local 598 at Flint, a man who participated in the 19361937 UAW sit-down strike, remembers: “We was spitting tacks. We used to take a handful of tacks, put them in our mouths to do our work with. And kids would come in there, breaking in, and whoops, they’d swallow a tack. And first thing the old-timers would do is tell them, ‘Take a handful of cotton and swallow it right away.’ The theory was that the cotton would wrap itself around the head of the tack and protect the stomach. I don’t know if it worked or not. But we used to do it anyhow.”

Windshields, which weigh about thirty pounds, are now moved into place on automatic lifting arms, the windshields attached to the arms on huge suction cups. Mechanical hoists are used for swinging seats onto the line for installation, and there are now mechanical roof loaders which place roof sections on top of the bodies for welding: mechanical door positioners; machines which place floor pans in position for welding to the underbody: and devices which transfer the completed underbody to what is called the “body build truck,” the wheeled platform on which the body is constructed. Side frame fixtures, large as half the side of a car, are moved into place mechanically. All these machines now perform jobs previously done by hand or with hoists which still required much physical effort. In addition, automatic welders have eliminated many demanding welding jobs, and safety in the plants is remarkably improved. GM says that its jobs “are the safest in industry,” and that “the most hazardous thing an employee does is to leave the plant.”

It is clear that most changes in the auto plants have come about in order to increase productivity, because the UAW hounded the companies into changes such as the present forty-six minutes a day of relief time. As many people see it. the UAW. for all its power to gain higher wages and fringe benefits, can do little to change the working environment.

To many workers, automation is an enemy. Not, as it was once feared, because it eliminates jobs but because, they say, it increases production and gives workers more tasks. Van Brooks, a worker at Chrysler Corporation’s Jefferson Assembly plant: “I’ll say up until 1958, when you got up in the morning—under the work standards and the system we were working under—it was a pleasure to come out here and meet the fellows and work. You didn’t have to work under a strain. But after the recession, and they commenced to drive you and putting in automation . . . putting on so much pressure and adding so many jobs to you, that when you get up in the morning now, you say, ‘Oh, man, I wish I didn’t have to go to the plant today.’ ”

The auto industry—almost seventy years old now— has millions of dollars invested in its tools and machines; the complete automation that some theorists talk about is, from the economic standpoint, impractical. Many assembly lines are not suited to extensive automation. Only men and women, not machines. can perform many of the tasks—crawling in and out of automobile chassis, for example, to install trim. UAW vice president Douglas Fraser believes that many of the tasks eliminated by automation were tasks that required at least some degree of dexterity-tasks that gave the worker some challenge. Says Fraser: “In an auto plant fifteen years ago, there used to be some very fine jobs, what we called semiskills. The internal-external grinder, the trimmer, jobs like this where you can use a little ingenuity and individuality and some skill, and you could sort of beat the game by finding shortcuts. Now . . . I suspect when all these jobs were automated out of existence, some of the most interesting jobs disappeared. And this has hurt the system.”

There are, of course, ways a worker can improve his lot. If he performs well and is nominated by his supervisors, he can be promoted to foreman and earn a 25 percent increase in pay. He can apply to become a skilled tradesman. Under the new contract, for example, millwrights earn about $5.41 an hour, die-makers about $5.67, as compared with the average assembler’s pay of about $4.30 an hour. Yet few workers show interest in becoming foremen, despite the fact that it seems a natural goal. “The tension is too great,” says the UAW’s Fraser. “The kids are extremely difficult to discipline, if not impossible. They’re afraid of confrontation with the blacks . . . there are all sorts of pressures.” And the skilled trades are often closed trades, especially to blacks.

The easiest and most frequently used way to get out of the shops is to quit. There is another, more aimless method: staying home, or at least off the line.

Absenteeism, which traditionally ran at a rate of about 2.5 percent of the work force, has soared in the last five years to more than 5.5 percent, an all-time high. On Fridays and Mondays, says GM’s Bramblett, “it’s not wild to have 10 percent of the people absent.” In April, 1970, on the second shift on a Friday, more than 200 workers of the 2700-man work force (about 8 percent) were absent at a GM Chevrolet assembly plant in Baltimore. GM shut the plant down. The plant manager sent letters to the families of each worker urging employees to be “at work every day on time: to avoid the necessity of harsh disciplinary measures.”

In a Chrysler glass plant, a place the UAW’s Fraser calls “scrupulously clean, very quiet, by the nature of the operation,” absenteeism averages 8 to 9 percent on midweekdays, and around 15 percent on Fridays and Mondays. A great many of the workers who stay off the job are younger workers who feel that they can make enough money in three or four days to meet their needs. Black workers contribute heavily to the absenteeism rate: on Friday afternoons. after payday, they sit in cars in a parking lot behind a block-long string of bars across the street from Chrysler’s Dodge Main plant drinking beer, whiskey, and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. Often they don’t return to work those Friday afternoons. Fraser says: “I would say that the young people are rebelling against the system.”

In July, 1970, at 4:55 on a Wednesday afternoon shift, a thirty-six-year-old black employee of the Chrysler Corporation, James Johnson, Jr., walked into the Eldon Avenue Axle plant, pulled an M-l carbine from his pant leg, loaded it with a 30round banana clip, and went on a wild killing spree. “He’s firing at everybody in white shirts,” a worker cried. Within minutes, three men were dead: a foreman, Hugh M. Jones, who had suspended Johnson for insubordination an hour before, plus another foreman and a job setter. Johnson told a UAW committeeman who captured him, “They took me off the job I had held for two years and put a man with less seniority in my place.”

That shooting made banner headlines, but was only one of several violent incidents in the plants. A man was killed in a shooting in a Chrysler plant the same month, and there have been other shootings, as well as cases involving the display of weapons.

According to James McGahey, president of the 23,000-member United Plant Guards, “there has been an extensive increase in incidents of assault with deadly weapons, the use of narcotics, and a complete breakdown of respect for plant guards.” He thinks—although the estimate is high—that probably as many as 60 percent of the automobile workers have guns on their persons or in their cars or lockers.

Nelson Jack Edwards, a UAW board member and its highest-ranking black, says of the Johnson incident in heavy understatement, “We’re not in sympathy with that kind of action.” A majority of black workers agree with Edwards; they see themselves making progress and remain allied with the UAW. But other blacks see it differently.

For the fact is that blacks are still making only small inroads into the skilled trades and foreman ranks. They tend to have the lowest-paid, most disagreeable and difficult assembly-line jobs. With no seniority, they are also the first laid off (hundreds of hard-core “unemployables.” hired in a well-publicized recruiting drive after the Detroit riot, were let go last year).

A member of a black union group, an affiliate of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers: “The morning the Free Press came out with the front-page headline of the shooting in the Eldon plant, this blood came in that had been off for two days, see, and the foreman said to the blood, real tough, see, ‘Come here. Where you been?’ I took the front page of the Free Press and I went over there and held it up to his face. He turned his back.”

Last May, in a stunning decision, a Recorder’s Court jury found Johnson innocent because of temporary insanity. The jury held that two conditions were responsible for the insanity: Johnson’s early life as a sharecropper in the South and the conditions of factory life, including violence, unsafe practices, harassment from foremen. “Did you see that cement room in the plant?” a juror was heard to ask during a four-hour deliberation. “Working there would drive anyone crazy.”

More than a year ago, Malcolm Denise, vice president for labor relations of the Ford Motor Company, addressed a group of management executives privately. (The UAW pirated a copy of the speech and made it public.) Denise declared: “Employees in the seventies . . . will be even less willing [than they have been in recent years] to put up with dirty and uncomfortable working conditions, even less likely to accept the unvarying pace and functions on moving lines.” He went on: “Large numbers of those we hire find factory life so distasteful that they quit after only a brief exposure.”

Auto executives’ statements on these subjects tend largely to be reserved for confidential talks. Many of them echo GM Chairman James M. Roche, speaking out with rare bluntness a year ago in an address in St. Louis in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the General Motors Corporation. His subject was absenteeism. Roche declared, “Management and the public have lately been shortchanged. We have a right to more than we are receiving.” He said that GM had an investment of $24,000 in each of its hourly employees, but that “tools and technology mean nothing if the worker is absent from his job. We must receive the fair day’s work for which we pay the fair day’s wage.”

Two questions come to mind: Must factories always be distasteful places to work? Will men who work in them always be looked down upon?

The new GM plant at Lordstown, Ohio, is the most automated plant in automotive history, capable of producing 100 Chevrolet Vegas (GM’s new subcompact) each hour, compared with the usual production rate of 50 to 60. Many difficult welding jobs have been eliminated, with huge robots replacing workers. GM’s John DeLorean, general manager of the Chevrolet division, insists, “Every tedious job [at Lordstown] has been eliminated from the assembly line.”

The Ford Motor Company has produced a film called Don’t Paint It Like Disneyland, which attempts to give the employee an accurate picture of the drudgery of factory life. It is perhaps the most candid look that a company has given its employees, and viewers are told, “It’s a drag at first, but you realize you got to do it. so you do it.” Chrysler Corporation experimented with S & H Green Stamps at its Mound Road plant, giving trading stamps each month to workers with perfect attendance records. And some foremen have been given sensitivity training.

But UAW demands for voluntary overtime and inverse seniority, for example, went by the boards in the 1970 negotiations as the talks got down to money. And even when progressive proposals are enacted, they do not get to the heart of the matter: the system. Auto and union men alike say that it is the system — the assembly line, and emphasis on productivity— that makes the auto industry, for better or worse, what it is.

Says Douglas Fraser of the ground swell of support for the UAW’s 30-and-out, a contract proposal that workers be allowed to retire after 30 years “in service”: “Fellows my age, and I would not want to say this in a mass meeting because it’s so regrettable, these fellows—fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three—guys I had worked with, would be calling me up and saying. ‘Doug, you got to get this 30-and-out. We got to get out of here.’ ”

The UAW has made some specific proposals: voluntary overtime, so that only those workers who want additional hours will have to work them: inverse seniority, so that older employees with more seniority can be home during layoffs and new employees (this would be especially beneficial to hardcore unemployed—the blacks) can earn more. The UAW’s Nelson Jack Edwards would allow employees to declare how many days a week they wish to work. This would permit the younger employees, who add so much to absentee rates, to take off the time they wish, and allow the companies to plan for this as well. If, as John Kenneth Galbraith writes, overtime broke the “barbarous uniformity of the weekly wage” that assumed that “all families have the same tastes, needs,” this “undertime” proposal would go far toward meeting particular needs of individuals and families. Frank Runnels, the UAW Local 22 president, proposes installing service centers in plants so that blue-collar employees can share the opportunities of white-collar workers who do not punch time clocks: purchase of stamps and money orders, haircuts, check cashing, paying of utility bills. Blue-collar workers, for example, ought to have as much right to air conditioning as white-collar workers. Air conditioning remains a white-collar amenity.

The UAW’s Ken Bannon has proposed abandoning the present assembly line for a system in which cars would be built by teams: a team would take an automobile—or a major component—and follow it down the line, assembling it entirely by themselves. “The average guy wants to do a decent job. I don’t give a damn what walk of life he’s in.” His proposal, Bannon argues, would “give men dignity” and pride in their work. But neither management nor the UAW took the proposal seriously.

The auto executives know there is discontent in the shops: the staff psychologists and psychiatrists say so. The company reports say so too, when they tell the number of toilet seats ripped off toilets, the absenteeism rates, the vandalism, the parking-lot crime, the turnover, the sabotage.

Yet the executives point out that millions of American workers, whiteand blue-collar, are unhappy. Lee A. Iacocca, president of Ford: “What the hell. I have tough days. It’s boring as hell up here sometimes.” He says: “Some guys . . . can’t wait to get a white collar on and work in a computer center feeding cards. And that’s monotonous. That’s really monotonous.”

Most auto executives believe that while, in the words of Ford’s McKenna, “we’re frank to admit that working on the line is different than working in a bank or supermarket,” the drudgery, the physical exertion, the monotony of the shop are exaggerated. Or they believe, at the least, that many jobs are tough—that it is time that workers, and the work philosophers, accept this. That it is time that workers start showing up on time, start giving their jobs their all—and stop complaining.

‘The truth of the matter,” says Earl Bramblett, “is that GM jobs are good jobs.”

To many people, however, the assembly line— which Daniel Bell has said represents the “distinctive ethos” of twentieth-century America—is a cruel, dehumanizing place, one that should not, need not, be tolerated in a nation as rich and technologically advanced, as professedly concerned with human dignity as America.

Through the years, critics have proposed many reforms: job rotation, job enlargement, participatory management. Charles R. Walker and Robert H. Guest, using suggestions of the workers themselves, proposed in their book, The Man on the Assembly Line, increased rest periods and. where possible, that the companies allow workers to create “banks” and to “work up the line”—that is, to work as fast as they wish so that they can get ahead of their job—say, build up a stack of fenders or tires, and then rest. They called for “real communication,” arguing that “both groups”—management and labor—had “much of mutual interest to tell each other about the assembly of automobiles.”

Daniel Bell, in his short book, Work and its Discontents, recommended extensive use of multipurpose automatic machinery which, he said, would bring about “decentralization of the industry . . . [construction of] new plants away from major cities.” He declared: “If one hopes to consider the worker as more than a part of ‘human relations’ . . . his job must not only feed his body; it must sustain his spirit.”

Dr. Stanley Seashore, a psychologist with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, says that auto companies must learn to “minimize status differences and maximize learning.” He says changes will come not by increasing salaries and fringe benefits—normal results of company-union negotiations—but when “some manufacturer takes a hell of a big risk and makes a dramatic change in the whole philosophy of the organization—the conception of the relations between the management and the employees, between the employer and the community.”

Dr. Christopher Argyris, a Yale University psychologist, warns that people “must stop assuming that the humdrum, programmed life that a worker now leads is going to be changed” drastically, no matter what a company might do. But he says that while there are limits to change, much change can come. He says: “You can make jobs attractive enough so that the worker has the chance to experience some meaningful ness, some growth in his life.”

Dr. Edward Lawler, a Yale psychologist, says that a “sort of class racism—classism” exists in which managers say, “ ‘Those guys don’t have anything to offer and therefore we don’t ask. And when we do ask they don’t really say very much.’ Well, there are a lot of reasons why they don’t say very much, including the fact that they’re rarely asked.” Ross Stegner, a psychologist at Wayne State University, says: “We may have to abandon some of the efficiencies of assembly line production and go back to small factories where people work as a congenial group.”

Dr. David Whittert, vice president of a Manhattan industrial consulting firm and a consultant to General Motors, says: “I always tell them [GM] that there are two things they ought to do. They ought to automate those jobs as fast as possible—and they’re doing that, really—no human being should be required to do that kind of work. . . . And the other thing—something I tell them not to do—is to stop kidding these people by giving them the big picture, this kind of nonsense where you go down and tell a guy he’s building America, that kind of bullshit. The poor bastard ought to be left alone and not tortured with that kind of nonsense. He knows better. He puts bolts on wheels, that’s what he does. Let’s not kid him by calling it something else.”

Victor Reuther, brother of the late UAW president and director of the UAW’s international office, suggests that union and management join as partners to improve work conditions. “If the union is to be forced solely into a position of a negative attack on the corporate structure . . . then it will constantly remain in a combative position. If the trade union, however, is invited to play a constructive role in these areas—in the problem of absenteeism, the problem of drugs, the problem of joint participation in the training of workers—then I think the whole relationship between the union and management can undergo a significant change.”

To automobile executives—top men like Henry Ford II, Iacocca, James M. Roche, Edward N. Cole, Lynn Townsend—to thousands of middle-echelon executives, division managers, plant managers, sales managers, superintendents, accountants, engineers, the men from whose ranks the future generation of automobile leaders will come— to these men such criticisms and proposals are, at minimum, impractical. At the extreme, they are Utopian claptrap.

The intellectuals, of course, say the executives are difficult to work with. Dr. Louis Davis, a UCLA psychologist, says that one of the difficulties of working wiih management “is to try and convince them that what they are seeing is a consequence of what they have asked for.”

The executives, in reply, say they are doing what they can to improve plant life—new plants, noiseabatement programs, elimination of unpleasant jobs—within limits of practicality, their obligations as employers, and the finances they feel they can address to the problem.

General Motors has commissioned the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan to conduct a three-year survey of its blue-collar workers to see exactly what complaints exist and, it is hoped, to chart a course to combat them. The study, if for no other reason than GM’s gigantic size, will likely be one of the largest, most significant studies to come from American industry.

Critics condemn the companies for negligence in improving factory conditions, but they also have harsh words for the unions—including the UAW, despite the fact that it is probably the most socially concerned of the major unions in the country.

Most unions, says Louis Davis of UCLA, see jobs only “in terms of the number of people who can be working and the amount of money per hour that can be gotten.” Companies strive to reach accommodation with the unions, he says, and as a result both sides help inflate wages and the cost of fringe benefits, and do little toward improving work environments.

Dr. Whittert says that what the workers say is: “OK, if you’re going to make me do something this stupid, if you’re going to torture me this badly all day long, then I’m going to make you pay through the nose . . . because all I can get from you is money.” He says: “Then management looks at them and says, ‘Look, what money grubbers—all they want is money.’” He says: “That isn’t all they want; it’s all they can get.”

Auto officials often imply—they never say it outright, only suggest it in private conversations—that the men and women who work in auto plants are unambitious, that if they had the characteristic American drive to get ahead, to better themselves, they wouldn’t be in the plants. To this, the UAW’s Douglas Fraser replies, “When a guy tells you the workers are not like you and me, that’s nonsense. It’s precisely because they are like you and me that the companies are having the goddamn problem. The workers are thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ ”