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Jack Wilson

News and Views from the Labor Front

Auto Speed-Up Cuts into
Pay Work Standards

(27 May 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 21, 27 May 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, Mich. – The 18 and a half cent wage increase recently won by the UAW-CIO in its major contracts in the auto industry is rapidly disappearing in an infamous scissors squeeze.

The story of the wage increases disappearing before the rising cost of living has been told repeatedly, and is known to most people. That can be called one blade of the scissors.

But the other side of the story hasn’t received enough attention, although it is now the burning issue in the shops.

This is the wiping out of wage increases by the introduction of speed up. In some cases, wages have actually been CUT by the use of the speed-up. This may be called the other blade of the scissors squeezing labor.

In many shops this is accomplished simply by speeding up the rate per hour of the assembly line. In one plant, for example, the number of cars assembled in one hour increased from 40 to 45 to 50. Since this was done without increasing manpower, the result was that each man was doing roughly 12% more work each hour!

Set Pre-Union Standards

At Ford Motor company, the rate of production is set by 1939 standards, according to an agreement between the union and the company. This means that pre-union standards now prevail, for the 1939 standards were exactly that.

At Chrysler, the 1941 standards of production are set as “normal.”

In a word, the production standards of five and six years ago are being used by the corporations io judge the amount of work each man should do per hour. Many of the hard-won gains of the shop committees arid the stewards are wiped out automatically by this device. Is it a wonder that dissatisfaction intensifies in the shops?

The change from war-time production standards to the old peace-time speed-up technique produces sharp reaction in every shop. The recent Briggs strike arose from a dispute over production standards. The workers just refuse to go back five years to the old standards. In other shops, the “right” of management to speed up the line, and thus the work of every man on it, is protested by slowdowns, a very high rate of quitting, and absenteeism.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the next major profit-making move of the corporations is going to be not along the lines of price increases, but rather by extraction of more work per hour from each man through the speed-up. Thus the struggle within the shops is becoming more acute and unrest greater. Unless the UAW-CIO meets the next crisis with an additional point in its program, higher wages without the speed-up, in addition to the program of higher wages without higher prices, the gains of the auto workers will be built on a quicksand foundation.

In the fight against speed-up, the shop steward system is the key to the answer. A powerful system, backed by a solid rank and file, can intervene, and must intervene, in the production process. Management can not be permitted to control production, independently of the will of the men on the line. It is the assembly line worker whose tired body feels the effect of the speed-up. In self-defense, the assembly line workers must and are beginning to take a hand in production control.

The speed of the line must be subject to renegotiation. The old pre-war rate is just too fast. And stewards must get out those stop clocks again, because the companies cheat on the speed every chance they get, and everyone knows it.

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Last updated: 6 July 2019