Who Does Make Cars?


An opening statement may forever determine the direction of a following discussion. If I use the term workers and imply that the executives don't work, if I speak of those who make the cars and limit the definition to only those who touch the parts with their bare hands, then the emotional content and rational implication are severely narrowed.

The "workers" that beat the steel into the shape of a ploughshare have been accorded a special place in the socialist system of values. The "worker" that puts the bolt in a hole and draws it tight, fastening the fender to the frame of a car, is the "builder" in socialist society. The idea that the man riding the fork truck, tending the assembly line, tamping sand in the foundry, poking bolts in holes, or taking stampings out of a punch press actually builds cars, television sets, or widgets is at the very center of all of the dogma of the socialist.

Who does make cars? Perhaps we can see best by this little scenario.

Several years ago Ford Motor Company built a new manufacturing plant in Indianapolis. A plant of this size and nature usually takes years of planning and several approvals at levels at or just below the president and the board of directors.

Cost analysis, amortization of investment, profitability, social problems of the area, labor supply, and many other things were discussed, written up in reports, signed, approved or rewritten, maybe disapproved. Meanwhile, engineers developed the manufacturing process concepts. Architects made preliminary building designs. Transportation specialists analyzed how this fit into the total manufacturing capability of the corporation. And money was obtained and allocated.

It was finally decided that, among other things, bolts and steering gear-steering column-steering wheel assemblies would be manufactured at the Indianapolis plant. The plant was ordered designed and built, and purchasing ordered some fifteen bolt-making machines to be delivered as the building was finished—two years away.

The bolt-making machine, once installed, sucks in long coils of steel, like some boor gulping a long spaghetti pasta. Wire, it is called. But it may be 1,500 feet long and even ¾ of an inch in diameter, although most are smaller. The machine chops a length of steel off of the coil of wire. With a solid thunk, it squashes one end down into a hexagonal head. It then sends this blank around to the other end. Here it is automatically fed between a couple of flat dies with deep angular grooves cut in their faces. The bolt goes through those dies much like a small piece of modeling clay in a child's hands.

Imagine the child pressing his hands hard on the lump of clay and stroking his hands, one against the other, until the clay—now in a long roll—pops out at the end of his fingers. So it is with the bolt, only now it has threads on it.

The machines, 15 of them, sit all day spitting out finished bolts with a satisfying kachunk, kachunk. Perhaps a bolt a second per machine. The bolts fall in bins and are hauled away by fork trucks. Hundreds of different bins of bolts of different lengths and diameters and thread types, made from many different steel alloys, are stored separately for future use.

At other places at other times a car was planned, a steering gear was designed, parts were ordered made, production started, and parts shipped to Indianapolis—each part having a long complex history of design, test, scheduling, manufacturing, and shipment.

The engineers decided that the cover plate of the steering gear required bolts of a certain length, diameter, thread type, steel alloy, and that it should be tightened to a prescribed torque. A production line was designed, assembly sequences worked out, and work stations arranged. Personnel was ordered to hire a workforce to man the production line. All of the parts were ordered brought to the line. The foreman was briefed by the production bosses and the engineers. An air-driven wrench was hung above a station to tighten the four bolts that hold the cover plate on the gear box.

The morning finally arrives; the new employees are herded up to the line and assigned stations. Joe Smith is told that as the nearly finished assembly nears his station, Sam Jones on his right will place the cover on. When it gets to Smith, Smith is to take four bolts out of the bin on his left, put them in those holes, take that wrench hanging there in front of him, put it on the bolts, and pull the trigger. When the wrench rattles like crazy, take it off the bolt, for the bolt is properly tight.

The line is started slowly. The foreman frets, checking this and that. The engineers eagerly grab the first assembly off the line to see if it will work. Quality control checks bolt torque and adjusts Joe's wrench. And Joe becomes a trained and effective unit at the very bottom of our productive enterprise.

Joe puts bolts in holes. Not cruel, not callous, but factual. Joe puts bolts that he does not understand, into parts that he does not understand, with a wrench that he does not understand, in an infinitely complex productive system that is incomprehensible to him.

The moral of this little story? Does Joe build cars? No! Absolutely not!

Does any one of the participants of this story build cars? No, again! They run fork trucks; they organize assembly lines; they design gear boxes, order bolt machines, make cost reports.

Who does build cars? It must be obvious. Henry Ford II, his vice-presidents, the chairman of the board, and the board of directors can't build a car any better than the bolt-putter-inner. They can and do, though, build millions of cars. It can only be properly said of this small group that "they build cars."

There is an old story about three men working on a cathedral. The first was asked what he was doing. He said, "I'm laying brick." The second was asked what he was doing. He said, "I'm plastering the wall." The third, who was carrying hod, was asked what he was doing. He said, "I'm building a cathedral."

The third man's answer is a useful adjustment that most of us find satisfying and meaningful in our daily work. The story is used in sermons, speeches, and conversations invariably to teach men the "value" of the labor and laborer in the grand process of creation, the daily lot of most of us. The story lends meaning and purpose to lives and labor which may be humdrum and on which, since very common, the law of supply and demand sets a low dollar value.

The third man's answer is not an economic, social, or organizational reality. In fact, the third man does nothing more than carry hod from the mixing box to the masons on the north wall, then the east wall, then the south, in an endless cycle. He does not build the cathedral any more than he who put the bolt in the hole built a car. The cardinal, the bishop, or a building committee builds the cathedral. Seldom does even the architect have the freedom and authority to be possessive about "his" creation.

The sentimental, mystical, and more than a little deviant love affair the socialist has with the "workers" is at the root of so very much of the thinking today. And it does determine the direction, and the end, of the line of reasoning.

Does objection to the sentimental fiction make one some sort of an elitist? I answer that obliquely, that I fancy I'm not nearly as quick to trample on that "workman's" right to live by his own lights as is any socialist I know or have read.

That workman has the right to decide whether he will fasten his own seat belt.

James Yoke is a mechanical engineer and has worked in the architectural and construction industry tor many years.