The Strange Cult of Factory Work in America

Nothing is more confusing or offensive in modern American intellectual life than the bizarre cult of factory work that has grown up among some segments of the national intelligentsia.

Almost every week it seems there is another piece of commentary by some think-tank intellectual, academic, journalist, or pundit extolling the joys and virtues of manufacturing and old-fashioned factory work. The authors are different but the mantra is always the same; factory work is real and fulfilling, and spiritual and manly. Modern office or retail work is empty, meaningless, and effeminate.

The latest and most confusing screed comes from American Conservative writer Teresa Mull who somehow equates turning a wrench on the production line with cowboys riding the range. I don’t even begin to understand Mull’s line of thought, but I can discern the sentiment.

It is the Money Americans Miss about Factory Work, not the Work

This commentary is utterly obnoxious; because it is almost always written by some desk-jockey that knows little or nothing about manufacturing. Worse it ignores the real problem about work, in modern America; a lot of people simply are not getting paid enough.

The belief is that there is something real about factory work that is not available in a big-box store, a fulfillment center or a modern office. That is utter nonsense; there is little difference between breaking your back on the Ford production line or in the Amazon warehouse. Both are dull, repetitive, backbreaking, and mind-numbing jobs.

The only difference between the two; was that in its heyday Ford paid, and still manages to pay, its workers a living wage. The value at Ford was not in the work, but in the amount of money, Henry and Edsel Ford paid their employers.

Henry Ford I famously more than doubled his workers’ wage from $2.38 ($58.71 in 2017) to $5 ($98.67 in 2017) a day on January 5, 1914. That move created the factory work a lot of Americans are nostalgic for. The nostalgia is for the good money the workers made, not the “spiritual fulfillment” on the factory floor.

Ford workers were earning enough to live a decent lifestyle. Many, Amazon and Walmart workers are not. Ford’s employees were making enough money to buy houses, and cars and go on vacations for the first time. Later on unions; or fear of unions, won them other benefits such as vacations, health insurance, overtime, etc.

The Sorry Reality of Factory Work in Modern America

When modern Americans go looking for factory work, or get nostalgic about manufacturing, what they are really seeking is the great wage that grandpa made at Ford or GM or wherever back in the day.

A lot of them quickly walk away from today’s factories; after they realize that they will make no more on the production line than they would at Walmart. Around one-third of today’s factory workers’ families are poor enough to qualify for Food Stamps and other benefits, the Labor Center at the University of California at Berkley discovered last year.

The sorry truth is that a lot a lot of the modern jobs are more interesting and more fulfilling than the old factory work. A retail worker at Walmart might do several tasks in a day, and interact with a wide number of people, and move around. Somebody at Ford back in the 1950s stood in the same place all day, saw the same people each day, and did the same things all day.

The only advantage the factory work held was the better benefits and the higher wages. The saddest part of all this is that is there no reason why companies like Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) could not double their workers’ wages like Ford did.

They have the money; Walmart reported revenues of $490.01 billion and a net income of $12.73 billion on July 30, 2017. Amazon revenues of $161.15 billion and an income of $1.926 billion on September 30, 2017, yet it pays some part-time workers around $10 an hour.

It is Unions and not Factories Workers should be Nostalgic for

My guess is the only thing that will force employers; like Amazon or Walmart, to start offering pay like Ford and GM did the heyday of American manufacturing is unionization.

Companies like Ford and GM only offered high wages because they were afraid of unions. Part of the reason Henry Ford offered that $5 a day wage was to keep unions out of his factories.

As FiveThirtyEight writer Ben Casselman noted last year what workers really miss; is unions, or rather their effects. In other words, it is not the jobs but the money, Americans miss.

This brings us to the worst part of the fantasy, spun by people like Mull. The old-fashioned factory work was so dreadful it often spurred terrible unrest and violence. The old-time manufacturing jobs only became desirable after generations of the struggle between labor and management, and the spilling of a lot of blood.

Only studying the real history of manufacturing in America will show us how to make the new industrial jobs desirable by paying a decent wage. Silly nostalgia will only offend both factory workers and those who understand history. If we want real progress we must kill the strange cult of factory work, and replace it with a new industrial order that offers good wages to all Americans.