An Instance of Costly Cause and Effect Which Detroiters Should Weigh Soberly

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An Instance of Costly Cause and Effect Which Detroiters Should Weigh Soberly  (1954) 
by Royce Howes

This editorial, published in the Detroit Free Press on July 26, 1954, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing and the National Headliner Award for editorial writing. Some sources refer to it as being entitled, "The Cause of a Strike".

In auto shops the strip which frames the insides of your car's windows is called garnish molding. Screws hold it in place, and of course there must be holes for the screws.

How many of those holes can reasonably be drilled in eight hours by Dodge assembly line men was the seed of the disagreement which last week made almost 45,000 Chrysler Corp. workers idle and payless.

The insignificance of the little hole in contrast to the immensity of loss to all whom the strike touched reminds of nothing so much as the old nursery rhyme that tells how what began with the loss of a horseshoe nail ended with the loss of a kingdom.

The question we want to examine here is whether Detroit can afford that kind of cause-and-effect sequence.

We are not thinking of just the pay which the strike cost Chrysler workers who participated or whose jobs stopped temporarily because of the strike. Nor are we considering primarily the cost to the corporation in production and dislocation. And while we are not forgetting all the merchants of goods and services whose cash registers rang up less money because so many were out of work, that isn't the cause of our primary concern, either.

What troubles us most gravely is the long-term damage to Detroit as a place to prosper, whether you are a production worker, management man or merchant. Accumulatively, affairs such as last week's strike hurt Detroit's reputation. And when its reputation goes, hope of an ever-building prosperity goes with it.

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Industries do not like to locate, or even continue, in a place where the trivial can cost so much. Workmen don't like to establish where instability is so great that a triviality can cost them a week's pay—or more.

We would not attempt to allocate the degrees of responsibility for the Chrysler Corporation stoppage last week.

Nor do we contend that either union or management should have shrugged off everything as trivial that occurred between the disagreement over drilling little holes and the idling of nearly 45,000.

After all, between loss of the horseshoe nail and loss of the kingdom events became increasingly less trivial. So with the progress of the dispute at Dodge.

What happened was this, and here we relate the company's story and then the Dodge local's version:

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Until June 28, there were 26 men installing garnish moldings. Each accomplished the entire process. The molding was adjusted, clamped in place, holes drilled, screws driven and clamp removed by the individual man.

On that day, following an efficiency study, engineers changed the operation. A man did just one thing in the installation process. Those who fitted didn't clamp, those who clamped didn't drill, and so on.

One thing this did was to enable a man to work more or less in place as the car passed him. Formerly he rode down the line in the car and walked as much as 100 feet back to resume his station. In time, it was anticipated, the new way would reduce the garnish molding crew to 18 men and permit transfer of the other eight to new work.

The system, according to the engineers, has been used for some time in almost all—and perhaps all—other auto plants. They say it involves no speed-up, but a greater production proficiency.

Under this plan at Dodge, four men were assigned the drilling job. July 12, one of them was warned he was not keeping pace and causing other drillers to lose position. The next day he was sent home, and the three other drillers were warned that they were not keeping up to standard. At the same time, extra drillers were assigned.

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July 14, the drillers again lost position, extra ones were added and supervisors demonstrated how the job could be done without losing position. But the next day the other three original drillers lost position so rapidly that they fell 15 cars behind.

They were sent home and warned that they would be discharged if their work wasn't satisfactory when they came back. This brought a resentment among other workers, the line became jammed, it had to be shut down and 5,000 men were sent home.

The next day two of the drillers returned, failed to turn in the work required of them and were fired. That was a Friday. Nearly 100 men didn't return from lunch, the line had to be stopped once more and the next Monday the strike was called—so improperly, it now turns out, that it had no legality in the eyes of not only management but of the UAW.

Officials of the Dodge local say that with the change of procedure in the matter of garnish molding there was no chance for a "rest break"—possible formerly because a man could get his immediate job done by working fast and finishing it in less than the required time. Now, the local says the next job is constantly waiting and a 10-minute relief can be had only when the foreman grants it.

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No time study, says the union, has been made, though in early July a grievance was filed and such a study requested. The management asked that the study be postponed 30 days to give men opportunity to accustom themselves to the new system. That would be necessary, it was explained, to determine actually what the method should call for in work output.

What has happened, says the local, is that production line manpower is set up to handle an even flow of 75 cars an hour, but frequently must handle 85 cars an hour. This occurs, it is explained, because unavoidable stoppages of the line (break-downs, absence of materials, etc.) are compensated for by increasing speed so that the day's output averages 75 cars an hour.

The local's version of the discharge of the two men, which touched off the strike, parallels that of the company—except that the company says the firing was "for deliberate refusal to put out a fair day's work and refusing to do what they were told."

First the matter of how and by whom the holes, five in each molding, were to be drilled. Then two men fired. After that close to 45,000 idled.

We don't think very many people will see any necessity for the drastic consequence of so little. Nor do we think when the cause is analyzed it can do anything but bring harm to the whole city.

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We remarked that we would not attempt to assess degrees of responsibility—not exact degrees.

But it seems apparent that the Dodge local was anything but free of fault. In fact that much was ruled Friday when the parent UAW ordered the strike called off and said that the vote under which it was called was improper.

Under UAW rules a strike vote must be taken on a specific grievance, and any subsequent strike actually called can only relate to that grievance. The vote taken several months ago under which the Dodge local's leadership acted concerned a matter having nothing to do with how a garnish molding shall be installed.

Perhaps management let dissatisfaction run too far and get out of hand. It seems to us there could have, for instance, been a tentative time study. Its results need not have been final, but at least some guidance might be had from it and the workers who thought there should be one somewhat mollified.

The UAW, at the international level, might have been better advised had it stepped in sooner instead of giving the Dodge local so much time to work its way out of an untenable position.

In any event, somewhere there should have been more statesmanship, more regard for proper procedure and more sense of proportion. No such blow to the whole economy of Detroit should be struck over such a microscopic issue.

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The weakness and danger in the union position, as we see it, is that it endeavors to assume management prerogatives in trying to say how a plant shall run; what production methods shall be employed; how much patience must be shown employes who cannot or will not do the same job which has been demonstrated as reasonable elsewhere.

Names need not be named, but anyone casually acquainted with Detroit's latter day industrial picture knows that just such relinquishments of management function have had a prominent part in the departure from this region of certain industries, and the abolishment of thousands of jobs forever.

It is the condition which drives industry from a place. It is prominent among the reasons why some industries have not been able to meet the challenge of competition.

What labor shall receive in wages, what hours it will work, what benefits it will receive are properly matters for the union in collective bargaining. So are working conditions free from avoidable hazard to safety. Other items proper to union bargaining can be named.

But assumption of the right to manage is not one of them, and assumption of that right is inevitably destructive. It can only lead to fewer jobs.

Firm retention by management of the right to manage, on the other hand, makes more jobs. The plants where work is steady and employment high are those where management—even at the cost of riding out strikes—has kept a firm grip on its right to say how things shall be done and what standards those who ask employment will be expected to meet.

We believe that realization of this fact of life is extremely essential to Detroit.

Ours is a tremendous industrial fcity, its might and prosperity rest on the payrolls of industry in very great part. There is every reason to believe that unless unnecessary discouragements to industrial growth are presented it will attract more industrial wealth, offer more jobs and increased security.

But what is reflected in the strike and compelled shutdown which put almost 45,000 men and women on the street is a definite and emphatic discouragement. Such exhibitions can turn enterprise from Detroit despite a great many factors here which normally would attract it—as they have attracted it in the past.

Our purpose in discussing the incident of the Dodge strike is not to castigate any individuals or groups as such. But we do believe it represents something which Detroit can ill afford. And our interest in this city's welfare requires that we cite to Free Press readers the implications and the portents involved.

What they point to is something neither Detroit nor any other community can afford if its people and its institutions want to maintain a competitive position—and we are thinking of men and women who must compete for jobs just as much as we are of industries which compete for markets.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) before 1964, and copyright was not renewed.

Works published in 1954 would have had to renew their copyright in either 1981 or 1982, i.e. at least 27 years after it was first published / registered but not later than in the 28th year. As it was not renewed, it entered the public domain on 1 January 1983.


The author died in 1973, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 30 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.