Auto plant wars sparked decline of industry

May 25, 2009

dewar-headshot-150x150– Robert J. Dewar is a former Ford Motor Company general foreman and author of A Savage Factory: An Eyewitness Account of the Auto Industry’s Self-Destruction. He currently lives in Cincinnati, OH and runs a successful packaging business with his wife and family. The views expressed are his own. –

The war in the auto plants never ended. It flared up and died down, but it never ceased. Management and labor circle each other like sumo wrestlers searching for an opening. Like any war, it ignores honesty, human dignity and common sense. Like any conflict, it leaves collateral damage.

As a supervisor at Ford Motor Company’s largest transmission plant, I fought on the front lines. Despite leaving the auto company many years ago, the factory skirmishes were a key factor in the industry’s disastrous decline in the 1980s, and likely continue to play a part in the failures of the industry today.

The factory foremen had one big gun: Form 4600. It was the stepwise disciplinary tool that could take an employee up the punitive ladder to termination. Many supervisors rose in the management ranks not because of job performance, but by virtue of their 4600 tally. The auto industry rewarded tyrants rather than qualified managers with integrity and an ability to successfully lead.

The UAW arsenal easily outgunned management. Production was sabotaged. Critical employees were absent when high production was most needed. Tools mysteriously disappeared. Bad quality was run purposely. The weakest, least desirable employees were protected with the full power of the labor contract. When management and the UAW stood eyeball to eyeball, management always backed down – they had too – productivity and profitability hung in the balance.

The Ford factory was operated by two warring gangs. Clearly, this business model is doomed for failure.

The spark that ignites the factory battles is ever changing, but the underlying philosophy “us against them” remains the same. Foremen lead by oppression, intentionally making the work environment as uncomfortable as possible for the hourly employees. They justify these conditions with high salary. The UAW fights back the only way they can – production sabotage.

My time in the trenches still haunts me. One particular occasion I was assigned the task of scrutinizing a single employee’s every move for an entire eight hour shift. My only assignment was to nail him with something, anything, by the end of the day. The orders were clear. At the end of the shift someone would lose their job – it would either be him or me. What good was a supervisor who could not nail one single employee after observing him for eight hours?

Like a voyeuristic watchdog I was expected to follow the man to the rest room, noting how long he took to relieve himself, hand count and record his hourly output, follow his every move…

One employee brought his snub nose .38 to work with the explicit intention of murdering me. Fortunately he was so drunk that he left the gun under the seat of his car, and fell into a drunken stupor at his work station. The UAW saved his job despite repeatedly showing up for work intoxicated.

There were the regular bathroom sweeps – teams of supervisors and security guards periodically raided restrooms to ensure nobody was resting. Anyone caught not standing at a urinal or sitting on a commode was slapped with a 4600 disciplinary form.

The Coffee Pot War during the midnight shift was particularly noteworthy. Management confiscated and held hostage the only coffee pot available to the hourly employees, reportedly because they were taking too many breaks. This ill-conceived plan was designed to punish the workers and increase productivity. Things quickly turned sour. Machines stopped running properly. Production dropped. A critical tool that was needed for all the machines went missing. Squads of supervisors and security guards raided lockers, searched cars in the parking lot, and overturned trash cans. Foremen and UAW committeemen screamed in each others faces. Production came to a standstill. The critical tool could not be found.

The Coffee Pot War raged for days. Bleary eyed supervisors, fighting fatigue, faced the possible shutdown of assembly plants in four states because they were running out of transmissions. The foreman of that department had a nervous breakdown, and was carried out of the plant by mental health workers. In desperation, management returned the coffee pot. Within a few hours the missing tool showed up as mysteriously as it had disappeared. Production returned to a normal level.

These never-ending battles on the factory floor ushered in the quality control nightmare of the 1970s that caused 33 states to pass “Lemon Laws” designed to protect American car buyers from the Big Three. The wars destroyed confidence and trust in American built cars, which marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. auto industry. It opened the door for smaller, weaker, less experienced foreign auto companies to come to our shores and beat us at our own game. The wars drove the final nail in the coffin of Detroit.

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