Teacher's Guide: On the Line

In 1913 Henry Ford introduces the automated assembly line, a system that allows him to manufacture goods at a low cost. It also transforms workers' relationships with factory owners around the world -- fueling long and sometimes bloody struggles to form unions.

Unit Themes and Topics:
assembly-line technology
economic growth and decline
mass production
rise of consumer society
rise of labor unions
urban migration

Red Cole
(Ford autoworker, United States)

"Mr. Ford to me was like a god. He was like a god because he had the control of so many thousands of people and he had them in such order. . . . Everything was so clockwork that I was proud to be a part of it. I loved it."
photographic portrait of Red Cole


Before Watching

1. From Red Cole's quotation, what can you tell about life on the Ford factory assembly lines? What does it imply about how Henry Ford viewed the workers and how some assembly-line workers viewed him?

2. As students watch the program, have them write down people's views of work on the assembly line.

After Watching

1. How common was Red Cole's view of the assembly line? What were other views of it? How did their views change from the 1920s to the 1930s and why?

2. Did the assembly line give workers more or less power over their own lives? Explain. How did workers try to compensate for their feelings of powerlessness? How did unions affect workers' lives?

3. At the end of the program, union activist Jim Sullivan said, "I made history. I shut down the Ford Motor Company." Why was this moment especially memorable for him? What are some other ways that the people in this program made history?


Have students interview their parents or another adult to learn about the forces that shape work experiences today. Interview questions could include: What does your job involve? How did you develop the skills necessary to do your job? Do you belong to a union? If so, how does the union affect your work life? How has this kind of work changed since you first joined the work force and why? How has technology affected your work life? What similarities or differences do you see between your work life and your parents' or grandparents' work lives? With the interviewees' permission, have the students share their interviews with the class. Discuss similarities and differences.

Ask students to create a timeline of the history of the labor movement in the United States, from the late 1800s to the current day, featuring significant people and events. Have students keep the following questions in mind as they do their research: What were the concerns of the early labor movements? What are the concerns of labor today? How have unions changed? How have they remained the same? Ask each student to choose a person or event to focus on and present a more in-depth study. Orally or in writing, students can prepare a biography, poster, flyer, speech or other representation to present the person or event they have chosen.

FOCUS: The Assembly Line

The following lesson focuses on a program segment about the evolution of the assembly line. An apprentice explains how people manufactured cars by hand before the assembly line, and workers remember how the assembly line changed their lives at work and at home.

Program Segment
approximately 20 minutes

The beginning of the program

The narrator explains that mass production was feeding mass consumption.


Before Watching

1. Have students make two columns on a piece of paper: one column titled "workers" and one column titled "consumers." As students watch the program segment, have them list how mass production affected each group.

After Watching

1. Compare the apprentice's experience manufacturing cars by hand with the assembly-line workers' experiences on the first assembly lines. What changes occurred in the work environment? In particular jobs? What changes do you think occurred in workers' relationship to the work, to their employers, and to one another?

2. In addition to the automobile, what consumer goods were presented in the program segment? How did the combination of mass production and high wages build a foundation for a consumer society and foster urban migration? When and how are the goals of consumers and workers compatible? When and how do they conflict?


Have students read this Ford Motor Company advertisement and use the questions below to write an analysis of the ideas it promoted.

And because we make a motor for a Surrey man to drive, there are cotton hands in Rochdale who will keep their hopes alive. And because we make a tractor for a farmer down in Kent, there are jobs up there in Durham and there's money to be spent. There are women buying dresses, there are children being fed. There are mothers who can manage, there are lovers who can wed. There are hopes to be replenished, there are dreams to be restored. There are lives to reach fulfillment through the making of your Ford.
How did manufacturing cars accomplish the goals described in this advertisement? What do you think the hopes and dreams are in the last two lines? According to the advertisement, how did purchasing a Ford benefit society overall?

In the beginning of the program, the American worker is portrayed as strong and heroic. Divide the class in half. Have one group research the ways in which the American worker was portrayed -- through articles, songs, advertisements, etc. -- before the advent of the assembly line. Have the other group research how the American worker is portrayed today, through advertising, movies, television, songs, etc. Have students present their findings to create a class "then-and-now" chart, comparing and contrasting the image of the American worker. Discuss with the class why and how changes have occurred. (A good resource for this activity is Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America, by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, Simon & Schuster, 1985.)

Program Summary

The American working man; industrial progress; mass production, assembly lines, auto industry, wealth and alienation.

Use the following information to assist in finding specific segments within the program. The times listed on the left indicate minutes into the program.

04:00 Cars change the way people work.

07:00 1908: Henry Ford and the Model T. Frederick Tailor reorganizes work methods for efficiency.

10:00 1913: The assembly line and mass production.

13:00 1920: Ford builds the largest factory in the world. He employs 80,000.

17:50 1924: Mass production leads to mass consumption. The rise of popular music and radios.

20:00 Radio Factory in Philadelphia.

22:10 Mid 1920s: The sales of cars take off.

23:10 In Italy, Fiat tries to match Ford.

25:30 In Britain in 1912, Ford establishes a British factory.

28:40 Cookie factories.

32:30 During the late 1920s in Detroit, a new generation of workers are discontent.

37:00 Workers begin fighting for rights.

40:20 In France, workers strike for and get 40 hour weeks.

42:40 Italian and German workers cannot strike under Fascist rule.

44:30 Post-depression unemployment.

47:10 Beginnings of Unions.

50:20 Union recognized by General Motors and Chrysler.

51:00 Ford strike.

53:00 Healthcare and pensions in the 50s and 60s.

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