On the Line

Full Program Description

On the Line
Mass production forever alters the lives of workers and consumers
Original broadcast: Monday, May 25 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)


Picture: Workers in a factory When Henry Ford's Model T motors onto the scene in 1908, it is inconceivable that it will ever be anything more than a plaything for the rich. But mass production and, later, Ford's remarkable moving assembly line will not only revolutionize the automobile industry, it will change everything, transforming economies and societies around the globe.

On the Line travels across the century and around the world, following in the tracks of mass production, from the days of master craftsmen to the pressures and benefits of assembly-line work to the growing strength of labor unions as factory bosses and workers struggle to control the speed of the line.

The program opens at the turn of the century before mass production takes the industrial world by storm. In the early 1900s, automobiles were built in small workshops, where craftsmen painstakingly assembled cars by hand. Charles Hill started work at fourteen as an apprentice in Britain's Vulcan Motor Company, where it took ten days to make a single car: "Everybody seemed to be busy doing something. You were amazed that every man is in one sense a specialist in his own particular job. There were men, skilled men, when I went there. They were there all their life to their dying day." Craftsmen controlled the pace and the quality of their own work -- and took a great deal of pride in what they turned out.

Picture: Ford Model T When Henry Ford launched the Model T in 1908, he meant it to be the simplest car ever assembled, designed for a new mass market. To make it affordable, Ford would have to change the way it was made. Every aspect of construction was broken down into discrete stages that anyone could master. Soon, there would be no need for skilled craftsmen with years of apprenticeship; workers could learn to do any job, quickly mastering a single, repetitive step. Pushing for even greater productivity, Ford introduced the moving assembly line five years later. His innovation allowed more cars to be made even more cheaply -- and much faster. The moving assembly line cut production costs dramatically, raising workers' wages, and giving them unprecedented buying power.

"Red" Cole, a Ford production worker, liked the job: "The thing about Mr. Ford that stuck in my mind mostly was that he started to pay five dollars a day. Mr. Ford to me was like a God. He was like a God because he had them in such order, the lines, the production lines, the comings and the goings. . . . And everything to me was so clockwork that I was so proud to be part of it. I loved it."

On the Line follows the assembly line as it spread to all areas of manufacturing. New products and consumer goods came within the reach of ordinary men and women as factories could mass produce gramophones, vacuum cleaners, radios, ready-made clothes. Luxuries that would have been the strict preserve of the wealthy would now be within reach of the populace.

Other nations hoped the assembly line could boost their citizens' prosperity and quality of life as well. But Ford's innovation brought with it a new pressure of work -- at home and abroad. Paul Boatin was one of 80,000 men working at Ford's River Rouge plant in Detroit: "You had become an animal. Worse than a plain chunk of meat. You felt a complete frustration and isolation." And Haydn Evans, who moved from the mines in South Wales to a job in the Morris Car works in 1933, remembers: "My first impression was, what a terrible racket, what a terrible din. Gracious me, how can I possibly stick this?"

In the 1930s, "Fordism" spurred clashes between workers and managers over the control of the line and its speed. Felice Gentile worked in the new Fiat factory in Turin: "On the job we worked, how we'd work! You couldn't go for a smoke. Even when a man went to the toilet they'd check to see if he was genuine."

Arthur Herbeaux tried to keep up at a Renault plant outside Paris: "We had a certain number of parts we had to assemble each hour. You had to do it. No sooner had you finished one part then another one arrived. No stopping allowed. The worker was just like a machine. . . . At one time we were assembling 100 parts an hour. Then the management decided to up the pace and we had to do 110. Then 120. Inevitably things snapped. We'd had enough. We weren't machines."

In early 1932, Ford's River Rouge workers shut down the plant completely -- with chilling results: In the ensuing demonstration, four striking workers were shot dead. Paul Boatin remembers: "Instead of getting jobs, we got lead, we got bullets, blood." Ford would continue to deal with its employees in the old authoritarian way -- until 1941. In the urgent atmosphere of world war, the showdown came.

After a fight broke out between a Ford foreman and a worker, union activist Jim Sullivan felt the moment had arrived: "I went back and made my call, I dropped my equipment and said 'It's now or never.' One of my first acts was to go and push a red button, stop the line. I had a foreman named Jim Barberey, he rushed over 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' So everyone went to hollering, 'Strike, strike, strike.'"

The world's largest automobile plant ground to a halt. Sullivan remembers: "I felt real good, I said boy I really done a job, you know, I was dancing the jig. I made history. I shut down the Ford Motor Company!" Following the strike, the union negotiated a legal contract with Ford which would become a model for the rest of American industry.

Elsewhere in the world the battles over union recognition and a fair share of profits were still to come. And there was a global battle of a different nature -- World War II -- still left to fight.

But with the arrival of peace in 1945, the United States would see a consumer boom unknown since the birth of the assembly line -- and by the 1950s and '60s, the American Dream of unlimited goods and the money with which to buy them seemed to make up for life on the line.


On the Line is produced by Kathleen Couril; the narrator is Alfre Woodard. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.



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