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Imagine a World Where People Love Their Jobs

With 15 million men and women unemployed, the first step to fixing the job crisis is re-imagining what Americans should be working on in the first place.

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When the Ford Motor Company opened in 1903, “jack-of-all trades” mechanics were needed to build the first cars. This kind of labor still belonged to the craft tradition—“worthy work” that required skill, knowledge, and experience obtained through years of apprenticeship. The work was varied and interesting and carried with it, as William Morris once put it, “the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.” In the face of growing demand for the Model T, however, the knowledge and experience of mechanics were found to be expendable. To increase productivity, Ford’s managers broke up the craft of building cars into its constituent parts; highly skilled mechanics found themselves turned into mere assemblers, reduced to performing an ever more limited set of tasks.

By 1910, these once-independent craftsmen refused to accept what they experienced as the mind-numbing and degrading division of their labor and began to walk off the job. During the next few years, Ford took even more extreme measures to step up production, instituting the endless-chain conveyor system; car assemblies now moved past fixed stations where men carried out ever more simple, repetitive operations. Again, these men registered their revulsion at this systematic destruction of their knowledge and skill by walking off the job, this time in droves. “It was apparent,” writes Keith Sward in his The Legend of Henry Ford , “that the Ford Motor Co. had reached the point of owning a great factory without having enough workers to keep it humming.” For the year 1913 alone, the employee turnover rate reached 380 percent. “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system,” Sward reports, “that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

This crisis only intensified when the Industrial Workers of the World began a unionization drive of Ford workers during the summer of that same year. To put down both threats, Ford introduced his much-trumpeted five dollars a day. Harry Braverman, in his groundbreaking Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974), questions whether even this pay rate, which was almost double that of Ford’s competitors, would have kept the men on the job had there been any other viable options for skilled mechanics. But there were not; by this time, competing manufacturers, in an effort to keep pace with Ford’s increased output, had also forced the assembly line on their skilled mechanics, thus wiping out all alternative modes of work in the burgeoning car industry. Ford’s workers had no choice but to stay put and their union representatives began their long fight for concessions from management.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced with some urgency that, “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” But as I have been reading about how to create jobs for the fifteen million men and women who are currently without work, I have been struck by how much space is devoted to breast-beating about declining standards of living and fear-mongering predictions that America will be a “second-rate” power by the end of the decade, and how little is given to any serious consideration about what kinds of work people will be doing.

The near collapse of the auto industry and the way it was averted, in large part, by unionized workers accepting deep cuts in their ranks, hours, wages, and benefits, herald the end of the kind of blue-collar occupations that afforded generations of working people secure, comfortable lives.