Socialist Worker

Lines of control: 100 years after Ford's first automated assembly line

100 years after Ford’s first automated assembly line, Simon Basketter looks at a workplace model that bosses still follow today

Issue No. 2382

Ford Motors started using a moving assembly line  100 years ago—and so transformed manufacturing. 

In fact, Henry Ford didn’t invent the production line. He didn’t even bring it to Ford Motor Company. That was done by production boss Charlie Sorensen.

Nonetheless, the speed at which people worked now depended on the speed at which the line moved, rather than their individual motivation.  

Up until then Ford and virtually every other auto maker assembled whole cars at a station with a team of workers working together to complete a single example.The guinea pig was the Model T’s magneto, a starter component to the engine.

With each worker assigned to complete a few specific tasks rather than build the entire unit, Ford reduced magneto assembly time from about 15 minutes to five, and the required workforce decreased from 29 to 14.

This took a process as old as capitalism up to a new level. Karl Marx had noted how under capitalism workers are “hourly and daily enslaved by the machine”. So the process was spread across the entire factory and production and profits soared. 


When Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered “scientific” management it matched the move to the new production techniques. 

Taylor argued workers spent too much time “in partial idleness, talking and half working, or actually doing nothing”. 

Ford agreed, concerned with idleness, he said, “The sole object is to get the work done and get paid for it.”

In the first factory where Taylor tried his ideas he cut the workforce so that 35 women did the work that 120 had previously done. He did this by speeding up the work of those who remained.

He seated the women so far apart that they could not talk to each other. Taylor’s methods were adapted for use in the early mass assembly lines. The same pressure on people to work flat out was achieved by increasing surveillance by supervisors with, for instance, mechanical counters on machines indicating the level of work achieved. 

Then as now technology and supervision were used to increase work. And then as now implementing the new techniques wasn’t straightforward in Ford’s.

Ford’s announced on 5 January 1914 that the company was increasing its wage rate to $5 per eight-hour workday—more than double the existing rate for the nine-hour day.

There are two myths about the $5 day. One, that it was altruistic. The other that Ford wanted to ensure that his workers could afford to buy the cars.In fact Ford’s motives were far more pragmatic. 

The work was mind-numbingly dull and unpleasant so turnover was vast. In 1913 Ford hired more than 52,000 workers to sustain a workforce of about 14,000. Though the far right Heny Ford’s hostility to unions didn’t help.

There were strings attached to the $5. The basic wage was $2.34. 

To qualify for the rest, a worker had to meet company standards for clean living, including sobriety, no gambling, thrift, and a happy home environment. 

Ford actually formed a sociological department whose members visited homes to assess workers’ worthiness for the full five bucks. 


They spied on workers to ensure good behaviour. Women workers and workers under 21 weren’t entitled. Migrant workers had to show progress to becoming American to keep the payment.

Part of this was a consequence of what Marx described as the bosses’ desire to “fill up the pores of the working day”.

He wrote in the mid-19th century about the brutal effect this has on people’s lives, “It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight.

“It haggles over a mealtime, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself. It reduces the sound sleep to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, 

absolutely exhausted, renders essential.”

That as a description matches the auto factory of Ford or the warehouses of Amazon.Marx explained how exploitation is built into capitalism. 

A tiny minority of people own the means of producing wealth—factories, offices and equipment. 

Workers only have their capacity to work, their “labour power”. They have to sell this to get the money to live on. 

But workers produce more value in a working day than the boss pays the workers in wages—that is why the boss employs them. 

This surplus value, as Marx called it, is the source of all profit. This doesn’t just apply to workers who make products like, say, cars. Nurses, firefighters, teachers and postal workers are exploited too. 

The work they do is part of the general process of production in society. Yet they are only paid a fraction of the value of their work.

Marx also showed that this exploitation means there is a continual struggle between the two basic classes in society, bosses and workers. Bosses, because they’re competing with other bosses, are under pressure to extract more and more from workers. Resistance is produced by those pressures. 

So Ford was against piece work because “it would mean endless bother”. On that he was right. Piece work was introduced in the 1920s to sections of the car industry as a means of attacking working conditions. 

But the battle over the rate for the job ended up being the backbone of some union organisation.Neither the assembly line or piece rates on their own could prevent workers standing up for their rights.

As Ford once complained, “Every time I hire a pair of hands I get a human being”.  And the workers were not passive.

At the time of the introduction of the moving assembly line the Detroit Employers association wrote, “There is at this time more restlessness, more aggression among the workmen in Detroit than for several years. 

“There is a lot of inflammable matter scattered about the plants and it is up to you whether a spark ignites it or it is cleared away before damage.”

The $5 day was launched to huge publicity. Over 3,000 workers were rumoured to be needed.

Each morning of the first week some thousands turned up looking for work. On the Friday when they wouldn’t go away fire hoses were turned on them and rioting ensued. 

The sociological department soon became the thugs of Service Department who fought a brutal but unsuccessful

decade-long campaign to keep the unions out of Fords.

'Team working' is not in workers' interests

The pseudo science behind the assembly line is still with us. 

It’s there in the “team working”, “appraisals” and “flexibility” measures that workers have become used to.

These things are said to be empowering. In fact they mean we are stressed and exhausted because bosses are getting us to do more work for less.

Bosses introduced “team working” to improve efficiency. The concept was initially invented in the car industry.

In Japan, where the system was first developed, “teams” weren’t mentioned. US human resource managers added the word to sell the idea to workers.

As one US car industry study put it, “The teams in auto plants are made up of interchangeable workers adaptable enough to grant management maximum flexibility.

“Such teams have more in common with a team of horses—equal beasts of burden yoked together to pull for a common end (determined by the person holding the whip).”

The practice has come to be known as “management by stress”.

In its original form a system of lights was placed above an assembly line. A green light indicates no problems. A yellow light shows an operator is having trouble keeping up. A red light signals a problem that requires stopping the line.

Under management by stress, all green is undesirable. It means the system isn’t running as fast as it could.

It is far better to have yellow lights flashing fairly frequently, indicating that workers are being stretched to their limits.

Once the system has been fine-tuned, stress can be ramped up by increasing the line speed or cutting the number of workers.

The other side of management by stress is to make workers continually share their thoughts about the production process.

Team meetings allow workers to come up with ideas about how they could work faster.

Trade unions are excluded or brought into the process. The purpose is to co-opt workers so they identify with the bosses’ interests.


  • Economics of the madhouse by Chris Harman
  • We sell our time no more by Paul Stewart
  • Rivethead by Ben Hamper
  • ’The Working Day' chapter in Capital by Karl Marx, available at
  • Working for Ford by Huw Beynon

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Article information

Tue 3 Dec 2013, 18:15 GMT
Issue No. 2382
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