Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Labor During WWII

The United States had the highest percentage of its population working in the production of ordnance of all the nations involved in World War II, Allied or Axis. By the same token, other countries had higher percentages of their male populations serving in the military than did the U.S. While in the U.S. only 1 in 6 men served in the Armed Forces, 1 in 4.5 men in Germany and 1 in 5 men in Great Britain and Japan served in those countries' militaries. Even though the U.S. enlisted many of its citizens in armaments production during the war years, the government was nevertheless tolerant of labor strikes. Workers staged work stoppages in 3,000 separate instances across the country in 1942 and 1943. Although workers could strike in Britain as well. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union prevented such behavior. The situation at the Richmond Tank Depot reflected overall national conditions in many ways.

Labor was at least as scarce for Ford's Richmond plant during the war as it was at other factories around the country trying to meet the military's needs for weapons, ammunition, and equipment. Whereas many plants had high turnover rates, the Richmond plant evidently had a relatively stable workforce. In December 1942, A.B. Jewett of the Richmond branch employment department reported to Dearborn that the plant was experiencing a turnover rate of only 4 percent per month. This did not include men who entered military service, because the company did not classify them as having quit. Jewett reported that, in contrast, the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, where employment stood at 82,000, had a turnover of more than 14 percent each month. Jewett believed that two factors helped the turnover rate at Ford's Richmond plant: 1) the six-day week, and 2) women workers, who quit at a much lower rate than men did.

Ford's lack of turnover was short-lived, however. For example, there were about 1,500 workers on Ford's payroll at Richmond in 1944, with a peak number of 2,111 in August. To maintain that level of employment. Ford had hired 2,109 people during the course of the year, most of whom had never worked for Ford before. During the same year, 2,071 people quit the Richmond plant, only 4.3 percent of whom left to enter the military. Leading up to the August peak in employment, the Richmond plant had sometimes hired as many as 150 new people each week. Many of those summer employees were minors who returned to school in the fall. Reportedly, another reason that many workers left work at the Richmond Tank Depot in 1944 was rumors following the D-Day invasion that the war was essentially over. Some workers left Richmond altogether, returning to their homes elsewhere in the country. The following table shows the various durations of workers tenure at the Richmond branch in 1944:

Duration of Employment of Terminating Employees
30 days or less 49.2 percent 37.5 percent
60 days or less 13.4 8.6
90 days or less 9.7 3.8
120 days or less 8.2 3.8
150 days or less 5.2 5.8
180 days or less 5.9 10.6
200 days or more 8.2 29.8

At the beginning of 1944, the 284 women on the payroll comprised 19 percent of the workforce. At the end of the year, the 341 women constituted 22 percent of the payroll. The number of African American workers also increased during 1944, beginning with 103 black employees (6.4 percent of the workforce) in March, when Ford began keeping the statistics, and ending the year with 160 blacks on the payroll (10.5 percent). That number jumped to 327 African American workers (18.2 percent of the Ford employees) by the end of January 1945.

Ford also recorded other demographic data about its employees at the Richmond plant during various times. At the end of 1943, the company found that fourteen employees out of 1,310 claimed to have had no schooling whatsoever, 95 percent of them had completed the fifth grade, 80 percent had completed the eighth grade, and 30 percent had completed four years of high school. At the end of 1944, the Ford company surveyed the birthplaces of its employees, finding that only 15 percent were natives of California. As with the employees of other California companies producing in support of the war effort, many of Ford's employees at Richmond (31 percent) hailed from Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. A total of forty states were represented on Ford's payroll, along with Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands. People from China, India, Australia, and fifteen European countries worked at Ford, and among the Latin American countries natives of Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru were represented on the payroll.

One of the Richmond Tank Depot's labor problems was absenteeism, which Major Ball reported in late 1944 as averaging about 10 percent. It was especially high during the Christmas season, especially among women. One of the methods Ordnance used to try to inspire Ford workers to reduce absenteeism was to have battlefront veterans describe their experiences. One such event took place on 23 January 1945, the day George McFadden received the second of his cash awards for his idea for saving costs in transporting jeeps made at Richmond (see section on jeeps). Ordnance presented him the award during a program to which all depot employees and their families were invited. During the program, seven veterans of the European theatre (one officer and six enlisted men) gave accounts of their experiences in battle. Introduced as "personal emissaries of Gen. Eisenhower," they recounted the terrible hardships of war and appealed to the workers to continue Richmond's excellent record of production to help speed the end of the war. Captain Spiker reported that the program had no noticeable effect on absenteeism. The day of the program, 8.2 percent of the workers were absent; the following day, 7.2 percent were absent. That compared with an absenteeism rate of 7.2 percent and 6.8 percent for the same two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) the previous week. Workers were especially likely to skip work on Sundays, with 18.9 percent and 23.5 percent missing on 14 and 21 January, respectively. Therefore, the Richmond Tank Depot decided to discontinue Sunday work on 28 January.

A related problem concerned overtime. In October 1944, all workers at the Richmond Tank Depot, both Ordnance and Ford employees, went from three eight-hour shifts per day to two, with the day shift operating from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm and the swing shift from 3:30 pm to midnight. In January 1945, as shipping orders increased, production workers went on an overtime schedule, working ten-hour shifts, with the day shift running from 6:30 am to 5:00 pm and the night shift from 5:30 pm to 4:00 am. Workers on the night shift did not like that new schedule, so on January 9th, 221 of 367 production workers walked off the job at midnight. The next day, management and union leaders met with the shift. Jewett appealed to the workers' patriotism. Bill Williams, one of the union leaders, reminded the workers that there was a grievance procedure in the union contract for such complaints, and he asked them to follow that procedure, rather than walking off the job. The appeals worked, and night-shift production workers abided by the overtime schedule. By March, however, a new problem arose affecting both shifts: workers who did not want the overtime hours left work after eight hours. By mid-March, as many as 196 men were leaving work early. Captain Spiker appealed to the workers, asking them to be conscientious about the need to maintain production to supply soldiers fighting overseas. The numbers of workers leaving early thereafter declined markedly, but the problem persisted.

In February, the army and navy mounted a publicity campaign called "Man the Battle Stations," aimed at recruiting workers necessary to maintain industrial production through the end of the war. Radio station KSFO broadcast a special program, sponsored by Lucky Lager Beer, growing out of the military's campaign. The program emphasized the work being done at the Richmond Tank Depot. Captain Spiker, commanding officer of the Richmond Tank Depot, took part in a ten-minute interview on station KRE, again stressing the importance of the work being done at Richmond and saying the depot had an immediate need for 100 workers with training in automobile manufacture.

During the course of the war. Ford maintained a permanent training program at the Richmond branch to ensure that workers and supervisors had the necessary skills. For example, during 1944 and 1945, Ford hired a total of 4,958 new employees, both men and women, of whom 432 (9 percent) received on-the-job-training in the skills necessary to become electricians, carpenters, draftsmen, engine mechanics, machinists, millwrights, painters, plumbers, radio technicians, steam fitters, tinsmiths, and welders.

Ford was not willing to fill all of its openings, however, by training individuals without the requisite skills. This was demonstrated in February 1945, when Bay Area newspapers picked up on the above-described "Man the Battle Stations" publicity campaign and published articles suggesting that the Richmond Tank Depot was willing to hire untrained women. Women applicants who flooded Ford's employment office were turned away, leading Ford employment manager A.B. Jewett, UAW-CIO representative Frank Slaby, and two representatives of Local 560 to call a meeting with Captain Spiker to register their complaints concerning the publicity. Both Jewett and the union representatives told Spiker that they needed male applicants, not female. The reason, however, was not simple prejudice but rather the limits California law placed on the kinds of work employers could ask women to do, such as lift heavy weights. Spiker responded that the newspapers had run the articles without his knowledge, and he promised ask the San Francisco Ordnance District to try to get newspapers to check their facts before publishing such articles.

Nevertheless, the Richmond Tank Depot continued to have difficulty finding enough workers during the closing months of the war in 1945, as many who had migrated to California for work in wartime industries headed home to other parts of the country. Because of the labor shortage. Ford hired ever greater percentages of blacks and women. Observing the overall trend in July 1945, Captain Spiker wrote:
"Before the war, women and negro employees were no problem at the Ford Motor Company for the reason that they were practically non-existent on the employment records. While they present no problems of a serious nature, it is expected that they will be released when the Contract terminates."
The percentage of women working at the Richmond Tank Depot peaked in October 1944, and the percentage of blacks peaked in February 1945.

During the ensuing months, demands on production at the Richmond plant declined as did employment levels, but Ford still experienced a labor shortage until June, when schools let out and the company was able to hire boys aged 16 to 18 for the summer. Despite a slight increase in the number of Ford employees at the plant during the summer, workers processing combat vehicles nevertheless had to work considerable overtime because of the orders for production the U.S. Army made during the final push toward victory against Japan. In mid-July 1945, the depot went on twelve-hour shifts for five days and worked ten-hour shifts an additional eight days. The governor of California even authorized the depot to have women work ten-hour days and sixty-hour weeks because of the emergency. Despite the grueling schedule, absenteeism during the week of twelve-hour shifts was the lowest of the month. Immediately after the announcement of Japan's unconditional surrender, demand for production declined, as the only Ordnance work remaining was to prepare vehicles being stored at Richmond for shipment to storage facilities elsewhere. When Richmond got the news of the Japanese surrender. Ford had 1,138 production workers processing combat vehicles; by the end of the month, the number was down to 899. Ford dismissed all of the high-school boys to assure work for men supporting families. The company transferred some of the production workers to work on reconverting the plant to civilian production, and more than 170 production workers quit, either to resume peacetime jobs or to move back to their homes in other parts of the country. Because of CIO seniority rules, the percentages of blacks and women working on the Ordnance contract remained relatively high through the end of October. Some of the workers at the Richmond Tank Depot toward the end of the war were men who had received medical discharges from the armed forces after being wounded in battle.