[ Focusing on Ford Motor Co.’s rise, the author posits a connect
between racial practices in the United States, Brazil, and South
Africa and Ford’s divisive labor processes, seeing racism as an
essential element in the creation of global capitalism.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 THE MAKING OF CORPORATE EMPIRE  
[https://portside.org/2018-11-01/making-corporate-empire] 

 

 Jane Slaughter 
 November 1, 2018
November 1, 2018 Against the Current
[https://solidarity-us.org/atc/197/color-line-assembly-line/] 

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 _ Focusing on Ford Motor Co.’s rise, the author posits a connect
between racial practices in the United States, Brazil, and South
Africa and Ford’s divisive labor processes, seeing racism as an
essential element in the creation of global capitalism. _ 

 book cover image - The Color Line and the Assembly Line, University
of California Press 

 

As I was reading Elizabeth Esch’s absorbing tale of Henry Ford’s
20th-century imperialist adventures from Dearborn to Brazil to South
Africa, the announcement came: Ford Motor Co. was extending its empire
to my corner of the world.

The Color Line and the Assembly Line: Managing Race in the Ford Empire
[https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520285385/the-color-line-and-the-assembly-line ]
By Elizabeth D. Esch
University of California Press, 280 pages
Paperback:  $29.95
May 4, 2018
ISBN-10: 0520285387
ISBN-13: 978-0520285385

 

Ford officials aren’t shy to contrast their vision with the old,
battered Detroit, where the company has had no factories since 1927.
“It became a place where hope left,” Chairman William Clay Ford,
Jr. told the press, calling the long-abandoned train station that Ford
would now renovate as a tech center a “symbol of the city’s hard
times.” Now, it “should be a great talent magnet.”

The refurbished building, explained CEO Jim Hackett, “is gonna
attract a whole different kind of worker than we needed when we were
engineering physical systems and vehicles.” (Presumably in the
future we’ll just be beamed up.)

Echoing the governments of Brazil and South Africa in the 1920s,
Detroit local elites hailed the company’s $740 million investment in
the Corktown neighborhood. And just as developing-country officials
saw Ford as key to their projects of national modernization, Chairman
Ford promised: “If you’re young and want to change the world, what
a great place to work.”

To drive the point home, Ford displayed in lights on the building’s
exterior the Detroit motto Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus: “We
hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” The old
Detroit, hollowed out by capital flight, can be reborn when capital
returns, bringing with it (white — and Asian?) engineers untethered
to the city’s failed past.

Meanwhile, neighborhood residents predicted “There goes the
neighborhood” — and started talking about gentrification,
displacement of longtime Latino, Black, and white residents, and the
fight over a Community Benefits Agreement.

Making Men

As Esch shows, Henry Ford always said that he was as much about
“making men” as about making cars. As he spread the assembly line
around the world, she argues, his social engineering techniques “led
governments, social scientists, intellectuals, financiers, and
nationalists globally to seek out the ideas associated with Ford as
well as the actual investment.” (2)

Ford’s social engineering was not uniform from country to country.
It always had a racist or pro-nativist component: “elites in these
societies shared in common an overarching belief in ‘white’ as the
racial designation of civility, progress, modernity, and order.” (3)

But his managers applied their white supremacist ideas flexibly,
depending on the local scene. Although the “ethos of the assembly
line” would seem to see all workers as interchangeable, it was
actually used in very different ways to “draw, redraw, and harden
the color line.” (1, 3)

Esch looks at three case studies of the interaction of the color line
with the assembly line. In the United States, Ford is famous, and
often seen as progressive, for being the only Big Three employer in
the 1920s and 1930s to hire Blacks in any numbers, at his mammoth
Rouge complex in Dearborn, near Detroit.

 On his Brazilian rubber plantation, he recruited men he saw as
“mixed race” in order to better them. In South Africa, only whites
were hired.

Given the ample evidence of Ford’s racism, which Esch marshals
definitively, why would he break from others of his class to actively
seek out Black workers in the United States? Ford developed
relationships with Black ministers who thoroughly vetted job-seekers.
At the Rouge, Black workers were hired in at the same pay as whites.
In the early 1920s, a range of jobs was open to them.

It’s important to note, though, that Ford hired Blacks in numbers at
only that one plant. In 1939 there were 9,825 Black workers at the
Rouge and a total of 57 at four other Michigan factories.

Controlled Experiments

This segregation of Blacks in one place seems in line with Ford’s
penchant for experimentation; at the Rouge he had a controlled trial.

Esch speculates that Ford’s initial strategy was “strike
insurance” — if white workers were to walk out, the plant could
still be run with Black labor. But the integrated workforce soon gave
way to one where African Americans were placed on the worst jobs, in
the forge and foundry. White managers thought Black workers uniquely
able to deal with the heat.

In 1920 Auto Workers’ News wrote of the foundry as akin to a
sentence of “hard labor” in a job that “occupies the same place
in the Ford scheme as the ‘hole’ does in the penitentiary.” (96)
Yet Black workers tended not to quit the Satanic mill; they stayed on
the job longer than whites because they lacked other options.

Another Ford experiment is instructive. The company hired workers in
two other categories that other employers would not take a chance on:
ex-convicts and the handicapped. Thus Ford assured himself of captive
segments of the workforce, who were assured by their betters how lucky
they were.
 
The Rev. R.L. Bradby, one of Ford’s chief recruiters, patrolled the
plant to make sure Black workers stayed in line. Donald Marshall, a
Black Detroit police officer, was hired to keep order. One operative
for the infamous Ford Service Department wrote that Marshall
controlled “the colored vote” in Detroit, and that “If a colored
man would give any back talk in his employment office…Marshall would
take him out in the back room somewhere and …beat the very last
daylights out of him.” (92)

Black workers could not get housing in Dearborn, near the Rouge plant,
but were allowed to live in the village of Inkster, eight miles away.
As still another experiment in making men, and families, Ford took
over the Black section of Inkster in 1931.

He hired or rehired laid-off Black workers who lived there, but
thought them too irresponsible to handle their own pay. Of their wage
of $6 a day, workers were allowed to keep only a dollar, the rest
diverted to a fund managed by Ford officials, including Marshall. The
fund set up a commissary in Inkster, made home loans, built schools,
and paid for civic improvements like garbage pickup and road paving.

Esch writes “Here too, extremely limited options could make Ford’s
shouldering of the white man’s burden appear beneficent…Ford was
lauded nationwide and even in much of the African American press.”
(108-109) But the practice of withholding wages ended in 1933 with
passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, with its minimum wage
clause.

Nothing daunted, in 1936 Ford began another venture into creating a
total environment for workers. He bought a plantation in Georgia with
the idea of raising giant goldenrod to produce latex for rubber,
staffing it with white and Black workers.

Taking an experimental malaria drug produced by I.G. Farben was
mandatory. Stills on the 80,000-acre property were smashed. A manager
wrote that Henry Ford instructed just when to stop schooling for Black
children: “Give them a seventh grade education and that will keep
them out of trouble. But learn them how to work!”

Esch doesn’t tell us how this experiment turned out, but a quick
search reveals that for a time it made a profit in iceberg lettuce and
that Ford’s own mansion on the property is now the centerpiece of
“The Ford Plantation — a premier private sporting club and
residential community” complete with golf club, marina, and
equestrian center.

Straight Lines in the Jungle

Ford’s rubber plantations in the Brazilian Amazon were two more
examples of his experimental approaches to making men and making
production. Carving a replica of a Midwest factory town out of the
jungle, complete with time clocks, Ford could create a “total
atmosphere in which straight lines connecting behavior to work time
and leisure time could be drawn.” (121)

After research, Ford chose Brazil partly for its racial
“admixture.” (Liberia, for example, was rejected.) A botanist who
scouted plantations for Ford reported that the “three main stocks:
Portuguese, Indian and Negro…is not a particularly good one from a
racial standpoint but it is by no means a bad one…[they] have enough
of the white race in them to suffer keenly and long intensely for the
better things.” (131-132)

Brazilians were white enough to become good consumers, which would
presumably discipline them for punctuality and hard work.

But Ford was never able to convince the single men he imported to
Fordlandia, beginning in 1927, to stay on the job. He housed them in
barracks, fed them in cafeterias, and subjected them to an 11-hour day
in which the factory whistle sounded 12 times. Turnover was immense.

In 1930 managers fled a spontaneous strike. When they returned, they
found all the time clocks smashed as well as the trucks. Workers’
demands showed how much Fordlandia had tried to regiment their lives
in the name of “taming” them: the firing of certain despotic
managers; the right to live where they chose; free access to the docks
on the river; the right to drink alcohol and to choose their own
recreation; a second chance before firings.

Esch notes that when local managers blamed the strike on workers’
“Bolshevistic” tendencies, rather than “savagery,” they were
actually recognizing in them a degree of modernity.

Ford called in the Brazilian military and the police set up a system
of “passports” for Fordlandia workers, foreshadowing the coming
Pass Laws in South Africa. However, by 1934, with few rubber trees
surviving and no rubber exported, Ford threw in the towel and tried a
new experiment at a plantation 80 miles away, Belterra (“beautiful
land”).

There, the terms of the experiment shifted: male workers were
encouraged to bring their families. School was compulsory for children
and adults. One class was American folk dancing, a particular
obsession of Ford’s.

But just as workers were presumed unfit but moldable, Ford saw the
rain forest as a problem to be conquered rather than a resource to be
nurtured. Managers’ “willful ignorance [of rubber tree botany] in
the face of decades of local knowledge” (134) led them to uproot
forests and then plant trees close together in straight lines —
leading to the spread of deadly fungi.

In 1946, after synthetic rubber was conceived, the company abruptly
left Brazil.

[The Fordlandia saga is also recounted in historian Greg Grandin’s
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City
(2009) — ed.]

Amenable to Apartheid

Ford had a history in South Africa before the first Model T was built
in Port Elizabeth in 1924. The first Ford sold outside North America
was purchased there in 1903. The company was welcomed in the interwar
years, long before apartheid was formalized in 1948, because of its
willingness to hire only whites.

In fact, factory jobs like Ford’s were seen by the government as the
way to deal with what it called the “poor white problem.” The
Dutch Reformed Church and the national Department of Mines and
Industries petitioned the Carnegie Commission of New York to set up a
study. Its premise was that changing the behavior of poor whites would
get rid of both poverty and their desire to “mix” with nonwhites.

“The white civilization should not be coddled,” said education
reformer Ernst Malherbe. Rather, poor whites would have to adjust to
“the highly organized modern way of life,” which would then
distance them from the “natives.” (170)

Whites used to living on the frontier as subsistence farmers hadn’t
adjusted to capitalism and weren’t interested in consumer goods. A
solution, Esch notes, was a job at the Ford factory, followed by the
purchase of a Ford: “Fordism provided a model of not just industrial
but racial development.” (152) White workers would learn factory
discipline, but remain protected from competition with Blacks.

An emphasis on workers as consumers is usually said to be a central
component of Fordism, beginning with the $5 a day wage in Michigan in
1914. But in South Africa, Ford was willing to give up 80 percent of
its potential market, the Black majority, in order to conform to local
racial practices.

Blacks were not permitted to live near whites in Port Elizabeth, so
they built a squatter community, KwaFord, out of discarded Ford
packing crates.

There isn’t space here to discuss the multiple and contested
meanings of “Fordism” over the years. But Esch shows that it was
no universal plan. As today, Henry Ford’s capitalism showed itself
malleable to local conditions. Its only constants were a confident
assumption of racial hierarchy and a will to step up productivity by
any means necessary, whether that involved a carrot or a stick — a
$5 day or a beating.

 

_Book author ELIZABETH D. ESCH is Associate Professor of American
Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the coauthor, with David
Roediger, of The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of
Labor in US History._

_[Essayist JANE SLAUGHTER, a retired auto-worker union activist, is a
Detroit-based labor journalist and frequent contributor to Labor
Notes.  Her writing has appeared in The Nation
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nation], The Progressive
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Progressive], Monthly Review
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monthly_Review], and In These Times
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_These_Times]. She is the author of
Concessions and How To Beat Them and co-author, with Mike Parker, of
Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept and Working Smart: A Union
Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. She is also the
editor of Troublemaker's Handbook 2, and a frequent contributor to the
bimonthly socialist journal Against the Current. Information on the
journal and on subscribing is available HERE
[https://solidarity-us.org/atc/subscribe/].]_

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