Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Production and Labor
Model T Ford production during the eighteen months it was manufactured at the Piquette Avenue Plant proceeded from the first floor up to the third. In addition to containing the Ford Motor Company business offices, the first floor housed the heavy metal-working machinery, including drill presses, planing machines, and lathes. Here, engine and other castings produced at independent foundries were finished in preparation for assembly. This work was then moved by elevator to the second floor, which contained assembly departments for engines, rear axles, and flywheel magnetos. All of the assembly work was completed at a fixed "station," usually a bench. The second floor also contained the drafting department and pattern shop. The components assembled on the second floor were then delivered by elevator to the third floor, where final chassis assembly took place. The final assembly operation also involved stationary assembly, where a team of workers would add engines, transmissions, axles, and wheels to Model T frames. Once completed, the chassis would then be delivered by elevator to the ground floor and pushed out into the yard to the west of the brick factory building, where the engine would be started for the first time. Finally, the chassis would receive a body supplied by one of several body companies serving Ford, probably in the building housing the "Chassis Room."
During the time that the Ford Motor Company was at the Piquette Avenue factory, from October 1904 through the end of 1909, the company evolved into a very large enterprise, in terms of machinery and workers. Ford employed an average of about 125 workers at the Mack Avenue plant in late 1903, but this force increased to about 300 by fall 1904, when Ford moved to Piquette Avenue. Estimates of employment then range widely from an average of 700 in 1906 to and average of 450 in 1908. There is a more precise figure for 1909, when Ford employed an average of 1,655 workers in Detroit. This was an exclusively-male work force, with one exception. Women assembled flywheel magnetos in the Winding and Insulating Department on the second floor, in an area entirely separated from the working men.
Employment fluctuated wildly based on demand, model changeover, and the seasons. Although "average" employment for 1908 was 450 workers, a detailed payroll list showed 609 working for Ford Motor Company in October 1908. Of these, 519 worked in manufacturing and 90 were salaried workers, including managers, engineers, salespeople, accountants, clerks, and other office staff. Only twelve foremen supervised the manufacturing work force, suggesting that most of the workers were skilled craftsmen who worked with a good deal of independence. Although Ford had achieved quantity production, he still depended on highly-skilled mechanics to perform most of the manufacturing and assembly operations.
There is little published research on the labor history of the Ford Motor Company before it moved to Highland Park. Henry Ford personally opposed paying workers "by the piece" and always paid them a day rate. Ford workers initially worked a ten-hour day and six days a week at the Mack Avenue Plant and during the first year at the Piquette Avenue Plant. They worked a nine-hour day from 1905 until 1910, when the company reimposed the ten-hour day. Starting in March 1908, Ford ran a day shift and a night shift at the Piquette Avenue Plant and continued the practice during the rest of the company's tenure at Piquette Avenue.
Henry Ford operated all of his plants on an "open shop basis," i.e., with no recognition of labor unions, until 1941. This is not to suggest that there were no union members present in the plant. Charles Sorensen, Ford's production manager at the Piquette plant, recalled one small labor disturbance. The men who painted the wheels for the Ford Model N, a skilled job that involved painting stripes on the spokes, demanded higher pay and went on strike to win their demands. Ford Motor Company solved the dispute and saved production costs by eliminating the striping.
Ford Motor Company was a member of a powerful association of Detroit manufacturers, the Employers' Association of Detroit (E.A.D.), established in 1902 to prevent unionization of factories in the city. Using a combination of tactics, including blacklists and labor spies, the E.A.D. began an assault on organized labor in Detroit in 1903 and drove unions from most Detroit factories within three years. The Employers Association kept Detroit industry union-free until the 1930s. The Ford Motor Company became a member of this association shortly after opening the Piquette Avenue plant.
Henry Ford's revolutionary vision of the organization of work, his increasingly repressive labor relations, and his explicit paternalism become evident after his move to his Highland Park plant in 1910 and continued there through the late 1920s. As Ford introduced the moving assembly line in 1910-1913, work in the plant was characterized by the extreme division of labor and the speeding up of production. Two results of Fordist production were extremely high rates of turnover and absenteeism among his workers. Ford introduced the revolutionary Five Dollar A Day Wage in January 1914 to counteract these costly trends. He also introduced two paternalistic elements into his relationship with labor-the Ford Sociological Department and the Ford English School. In order to qualify for the Five Dollar A Day Wage, Ford workers had to prove themselves "worthy" by undergoing an examination by Sociological Department investigators. Ford workers who were not U.S. citizens were required to attend the Ford English School and to apply for citizenship. Henry Ford abandoned his paternalistic programs at Highland Park by 1920, largely because of their costs.
By any definition, the Model T was an enormous success in the market and with its success, the Ford Motor Company had outgrown the Piquette Avenue Plant. The overwhelming success of the Model T Ford in the automobile market and Ford's inability to satisfy demand at the same time forced and emboldened Henry Ford to take the next "giant step" and build an enormous new factory in nearby Highland Park. After moving to its Highland Park Plant in January 1910, the Ford Motor Company could rapidly expand the production of the Model T Ford and begin the slow process of developing the moving assembly line, which revolutionized automobile production and made possible the mass consumption of automobiles in the United States.