A Savage Factory: An Eyewitness Account of the Auto Industry’s Self-Destruction
“Clouds of blue-gray mist, laced with millions of minute metal particles hung in the air and brought to mind the movie about poisonous gas attacks in World War I… The factory floor was made of rectangular wood blocks, about the size of street bricks, saturated with filthy black oil that gave the plant an odor of sour rot as if the entire Industrial Revolution had died and was decaying right here in Sharonville… They were hard, resentful faces; unhappy miserable faces; dulled, stunned faces. Above all, hostile faces. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man glaring at me, and I could read his cursing lips.
Inside there were four dirty, dented gray metal desks. Ed herded me to the desk occupied by a man who looked like a fully clothed skeleton. His face was a mass of wrinkles, and his right eye was obviously false. A yellowish liquid like Elmer’s Glue, or the snot under a three-year-old’s nose seeped from the fake eye, which was tuned to the right even though his good eye was looking to the left.
The skeleton was aware that Ed and I were standing in front of his desk yet ignored us. Ed acted as if being ignored was normal etiquette at Ford Motor Company, and risked a long shot at the corner waste can. The tobacco juice fell short and ran down the side of the trash can over ageless stains of previous near misses.”
On the week of Christmas I took a trip to my local bookstore. On the new books table I saw this book – A Savage Factory: An Eyewitness Account of the Auto Industry’s Self-Destruction.
Since this was the week of Christmas I thought this would be an uplifting book for the holidays. I grabbed the book and headed for the bookstore coffee shop. With a Christmas Grande peppermint mocha in hand, and finding a nice overstuffed chair, I was ready to take a look-see at A Savage Factory.
Unlike a Dickens novel, there is no happy ending to this book. A Savage Factory has numerous descriptions of the Ford factory that would match that of a Victorian workhouse and stories of disdain for the working poor that Dickens so often attributes to some of his characters.
After about an hour of reading I decided that this book needed a much closer look than the time allotted by the grande mocha.
Many themes in this book
At the time of this writing, there are 33 reviews of this book at Amazon.com. You can read those reviews for yourself here.
There are many themes running through this book. The most prominent, of course, is the deplorable conditions at Ford’s largest transmission plant which was located in Sharonville Ohio. The deplorable conditions are not only the physical working environment of the plant but also the relationships among management, hourly employees, and the UAW (United Auto Workers). The relationship among these three entities could easily and accurately be described as an ongoing war.
The book is filled with profanity, racial insults, and grotesque descriptions of working-class people. The author apologizes for this in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book:
I want to explain to readers that the foul language and racial remarks were put in the book simply because I want A Savage Factory to be a true and accurate account of the degrading and demeaning way that Ford Motor Company talks to, and about employees and customers. This is the actual language used at the Sharonville Transmission Plant during my tenure as a first line supervisor, and paints an accurate picture of normal verbal communication between managers, foremen, hourly workers, and UAW. I apologize for any offense taken by my written account of actual conditions at the plant.
You can read the reviews of A Savage Factory at Amazon.com to get an idea of the primary content of this book . Less visible are some other themes running through the book. One overarching theme is that of “economic bondage”. None of the reviews at Amazon makes mention of this.
The book is 219 pages long in 14 chapters plus an Epilogue. As I was reading the book my opinion of the book and the author (Robert Dewar) changed as I read from chapter to chapter. Perhaps the book is not so much about Ford Motor Company and the Ford Transmission Plant in Sharonville as it is a subtle treatise on the Economic Bondage encompassing all the characters in the book. It is economic bondage of different types – but economic bondage nonetheless and everyone is caught up in it.
In the Prologue to the book:
I always believed, as I had been taught, that Americans are “free”. But schools do not teach us about economic bondage. Being free is more than a political concept. Independence from oppression is not cheap and they don’t teach that in school either.
My quest for economic freedom took me from a tar-paper shack in the bituminous coal fields of Western Pennsylvania to the largest transmission factory in the world. The story I share with you is true. Only the names of the people have been changed.
Robert Dewar started out as a kid working in the coal mines, went to college to earn a BS and MBA then worked at Procter and Gamble (P&G) as a manager. Dewar went through the full P&G management training at P&G and ran the Duncan Hines operation. So how did he end up at the Ford Motor Company Transmission Plant?
Dewar ended up at Ford after “being separated” from P&G by mutual agreement. Dewar spends more than a few pages describing the “bondage” at P&G. The bondage at P&G was nothing like the factory floor experience of hourly workers at Ford but a different kind of bondage.
You won’t find out about this P&G bondage until Dewar gets to the section where he describes his trip to Rollmans Psychiatric Hospital. Dewar drove them – checked himself in – after an escalation of the war among management, hourly, and the UAW where he suffered a sort of mental and physical breakdown. Dewar calls P&G folks “Proctoids” when he describers his past work experience to the psychiatrist at Rollmans”
A Proctoid is a man who turns his entire life over to the company to mold and shape like a wood carver tuns a block of wood into a piece that he wants it to become. He lets P&G control his entire existence. He is America’s version of Soviet Man. His career path is not determined by how much he knows or how hard he works; its determined by how good a Proctoid he becomes.
A Proctoid always wears the P&G uniform. He has closely cropped hair, perfectly in place. He always wears a white shirt, never a colored shirt. He has a a narrow tie. He may or may not wear a vest, but he most certainly wears an expensive suit, always dark and never light, usually pin stripe. He always wears expensive wing tip shoes, always shined.
The corporation has interned you in economic bondage. They control your live life every bit as much as the Soviets controlled the lives of their bureaucrats. Their method of control is money, not terror. The higher you climb, the tighter the grip they have on you. Economic bondage is as brutal as political bondage, but we don’t know it because we think we are moving up.
Dewar spends 3 pages with a vivid description of Proctoids. It goes on and on.
Arbeit Macht Frei (“Freedom Through Labor”)
The real key to the underlying theme of “economic bondage” within A Savage Factory are the pages devoted to the conversation of Dewar and the psychiatrist at Rollmans. This section consumes all of chapter 8 (p 115-127). Although it seems contrived, the psychiatrist at Rollmans agrees with Dewar and takes it up a notch.
Dr. Weinstein slowly shook his head, as though he was beginning to understand me. Then he rubbed his chin and said, “Ford Motor company reminds me of another place where people were treated like cattle and controlled by fear. It was a place much worse than Sharonville. Yet it shared a disturbing number of characteristics with Ford. Do you know what place it was?”
I shook my head no, and Dr. Wwinstein continued.
Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Of course Ford is not throwing people into gas ovens, and you can walk out any time you want. Yet the method used to control people have uncanny similarities to methods Ford uses. Also, the physical environment of a Ford plant is , in many ways, no better than the facilities at Auschwitz.
Let’s look at the tormentors at Ford. I am speaking of your managers. Are they inherently evil men? The answer is, like the SS at Auschwitz, some are and some are not. But they are all caught up in the system. Like the SS men, they do as they are told and that is how they survive. Now lets look at the hourly workers. Who are they? Do they not share some of the similarities with the inmates in a concentration camp? Of course they do. They have families to support. They want to earn as much money as they can for their families. They do not risk death, as the people at Auschwitz did, yet they risk a kind of death. That is, their economic security can be taken from them, and that can be as emotionally devastating as a death. So, they allow themselves to be controlled, even degraded, and no doubt, hate every minute of it.
Comparing the Ford Plant at Sharonville to a Nazi death camp seems a bit much. Read more about Arbeit macht frei
Again, Freedom Though Labor
So why is Dewar at the Ford Transmission Plant at Sharonville working at a job he detests? Dewar is at Ford after being separated from P&G in order to make enough money to start his own business and have the freedom to call his own shots and control his own paycheck. When asked about his intentions by upper management at Ford, he tells them straight out that he took the job at Ford because Ford paid the highest wages for the position he sought and that he would leave after earning enough money to start a business.
A Savage Factory is a great book. You will read about the Red Dog Saloon – a hidden makeshift bar setup by the hourly workers among the cavernous stacks of rejected transmission parts. There is the trailer in the Ford parking lot that “gives comfort” to the hourly workers – Grace’s bordello. And of course, the Coffee Pot wars – Big Mo selling coffee to 5,000 workers on the midnight shift on the qt until management found out and used a hilo to transport Big Mo’s stand into the the dumpster dousing his magazines with gasoline and setting them ablaze. Dewar was threatened with an “industrial accident” by one worker and another worker brought a gun to work to “blow him away”.
Certainly the central theme of A Savage Factory is the Ford Factory. Equally interesting is the authors own personal journey out of “economic bondage” from the coal mines to an MBA education, through a self-described “corporate bondage” at P&G, to Ford Motor Company, and finally the end goal of owning his own business.
One could ask, has Dewar really achieved “freedom” by owning his own business or has he just exchanged one type of economic bondage for another type of economic bondage? Dewar wants to own his own business to “call the shots” – to be in control – to have “freedom” – and control his own paycheck. Will he ever be in control? Or, is it an illusion of control of your own destiny?
Do people who own their own business really have freedom? Owning a business one may have just as much freedom as the hourly workers at Ford. For a small business similar to that which Dewar owns, it’s the environment that “calls the shots”; the competitors call the shots; his suppliers call the shots; as do the customers and a host of other factors. One is free only to react – not free to determine a destiny. (Read Porters Five Forces Model)
Arbeit macht frei
The phrase Arbeit macht frei translated “work makes you free” has an interesting history. This phrase appeared over the gates of some of the Nazi death camps. At Auschwitz it was placed there by Major Rudolf Hoss, commandant of the camp. ( See http://www.spectacle.org and http://www.spectacle.org/695/arbeit.html )
He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.
For all those that work endless hours at their own business is it really “freedom” to own your own business rather than working for corporate America? Or has this particular form of economic bondage (business ownership) brought about a different form of freedom? A freedom that can only be had by continued work to make Arbeit macht frei the most accurate phrase ever uttered. If so, then what is meant by labor and freedom have become transformed into their polar opposites.
A Savage Factory. Highly recommended. While you are attending to the primary story of the Ford Sharonville Plant don’t ignore the equally interesting story of the authors personal journey out of economic bondage – as far as freedom of economic bondage is possible.
From the authors web site – http://asavagefactory.com
Why I wrote “A Savage Factory”
I worked at a Ford Motor Company transmission factory in Cincinnati when auto plants were a cross between an insane asylum and a battlefield, and the quality of American cars was an international disgrace. I have an MBA and simply could not believe the incompetence of management in the auto plants. I soon began to feel that the days of the U.S. auto industry were numbered, because Ford cannot run a factory like it is still 1930, the auto industry cannot treat employees and customers with disrespect and insensitivity, and the Big 3 cannot sell poor quality cars in a competitive global auto market.
I wanted to give people a long, hard look behind the dirty gray walls of auto factories so they could see, up close, the conditions in the plants where their cars were built, and the kind of management that was destroying an industry. So I kept a daily journal of my experiences. I made copies of telltale internal documents. I made an extensive collection of defective parts that were routinely assembled into Ford C-4 automatic transmissions. Later, as defective parts began to fail, 200 people would be killed, 1400 injured, and Ford Motor Company would become the only corporation in American History to be charged with reckless homicide. Ford would also receive the largest recall in automotive history – 23,000,000 vehicles with defective transmissions. The only thing that saved Ford from bankruptcy over this massive recall was the Reagan Administration removing the authority of the government to order mandatory recalls.
When I wrote this memoir of my years as an auto plant foreman and general foreman, my intent was not to do harm to the automobile industry. The last thing that I want to see is a collapse of the Big 3 and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. So why did I write this personal memoir?
I wrote it because I do not believe anything will change until we look closely at what we are doing wrong. Only then can we change and do things better. I believe stongly that the current troubles in the automobile industry have little to do with the villains identified in the nightly news: poor fuel efficiency, poor design, or unfair competition from foreign imports. I believe that we are losing the global auto war in the factories where the cars are built.