Free Fordism Essay Sample

This case study is based on Stephen Edgell's presentation of Fordism in The Sociology of Work. In chapter five, Stephen Edgell details there-in the rise, development and demise of Fordism. This concept furthers on chapter two and three where an in-depth analysis of how organization in production has undergone changes over time to delineate all the unskilled workers. Fordism is extensively described as an industrial capitalism production process that started in the late 19th Century and fell in the mid 20th Century though some of its doctrines were still evident at the onset of the 21st Century. It largely insisted on the use of mechanization to produce cheaper mass consumption products, in this case, cars, by employing a highly motivated labor. The sociological history of production and the various systems such as Fordism, which conceptualizes on the production labor process, its rise and demise by replacement by neo-Fordism and Post-Fordism, are considered critically in the book. Stephen Edgell is however cautious in noting that other theories which attempt to provide an analysis of the dynamism in production processes such as Taylorism, neo and post-Taylorism which have a sound basis and concept cannot be overlooked.

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Edgell clearly elaborates the rise of Fordism in the pre-Fordism era in the 19th Century Britain whereby production was either through machines or by hand. Highly skilled workers used general purpose machines while the rest of production either took place through a one-man job in the entire process or non-standardized parts were used in production of few though highly skilled products that were expensive not only in production but also to the consumer. This reflects the analysis carried out by Womack (1990). In the Ford production labor system, workers who had been working for more than 6 months and were 21 years of age or older were automatically awarded a double wage to $5 a day and worked for eight hours which were far much less than those worked for prior to 1914. This was however awarded to those who conformed to 'societal norms' such as no drinking, smoking or gambling. Edgell clearly states that this was aimed at achieving a higher labor turnover; reduce absenteeism, worker dissatisfaction and most of all to avoid the ever looming threat of unionism. This was a double edged strategy that not only aimed at reducing workplace dissent but also enhanced publicity and generated more customers.

It is imperative that Edgell further recognizes the impact of Taylorism on Fordism. In this chapter, he illustrates that Fordism was defined by its 'fragmentation and simplification of work via 'Taylorized tasks', the influence of management over the pace of work as in the assembly line and the use of highly specialized machines in production of standardized parts which was an entire overhaul of the pre-Ford state. The success of the Ford system was clearly shown by the increased production, profits and loyalty by both workers and customers.  The Model T was most notable which rose from 14,000 to 600,000 units in seven years while the markets share in the cheap car industry was over 90% and profits rose from $ 3 million to $ 60 million. This method was not only rapidly adopted by other car dealers but also by the housing, furniture and general consumer production processes. However, it led to wide-spread loss of jobs as mechanization set in. For instance, 60,000 men lost their jobs in 1913. However, car prices fell from $950 to $360 in eight years and hit an impressive low of $ 240 by 1924. This was a good enough stimulus that led to higher consumption after being combined with advertisement and installment buying.

However, the complexities that accompanied Fordism are not lost to Edgell. First, he depicts the Oldsmobile cars as having fallen victim to the Ford advertising system which contrasted it to the horse, whereby the carriage system was its predecessor. Veblen (1968, pg. 128) feels the company fell victim to the theory advanced in Taylorism as the 'penalty for being the leader.' This alludes to the demise of Fordism as having taken the penalty for leading in the latter day. Secondly, debate has been advanced as to the division between Fordism and Taylorism. Hounshell (1984) attempts to address this by stating that Ford had a time study department and there was further a division between management and the employees who performed duties that were delegated to them whereas Taylorism aimed at maximizing efficiency by laying off workers through mechanization  and the 'con-comittant re-organization of work.' However, it is apparent that Taylorist principles are very apparent in Fordism. Thirdly, the extent of diffusion of Fordism has been questioned as to its spread in other countries such as America and Europe. At first, with the production of cheaper cars, demand escalated to newer heights though consumption declined with time, a theory at times advanced as to the fall of Fordism. However, this has been conversely countered by the pride of Ford's achievements enhanced by the positive publicity which not only led to its adoption by American engineers but also by Russia. Therefore, Fordism can be said to have been diffused by the body of technical knowledge via the publicity posed on Ford as a multi-national corporation which was depicted as the desired standard production process under standard machinery by standard methods and labor.

In his analysis of Ford, the development of Fordism and its peak in production have been well depicted by Edgell. For employees to qualify for higher pay, bonuses and credit certain conditions had to be met that further facilitated mass consumption. This necessitated the Ford Sociological Department the predecessor to the Ford Services Department which was chiefly responsible in monitoring employees on and off the job.  In-factory assessment entailed punctuality, workplace output, and appropriate non-work behavior while out-of -the -factory behavior such as gambling and drinking was closely monitored. As Lewchuk (1995, pg.228) puts it, Ford promoted the view of full-time male workers as 'responsible house-hold heads. This department further administered the 8 hour $ 5 a day pay whereby 30 investigators were recruited to ensure this benefits accrued only to those employees that toed the line as to company policy. This was characteristic of 19th century capitalism which Ford has up-to-date not discarded of. For instance, Ford, in the onset of the 21st century, offered each employee a personal computer with free internet access for only $ 5 a month. This is strategic in that it not only creates customer loyalty but also creates a direct access to employees even at home which may promote productivity and sales.

 Finally, Edgell looks at the lengthy objection by Ford to trade unionism. This was only resolved in 1941 via a compromise normally referred to as the 'Fordist Compromise' in which terms under which workers can join trade unions are detailed whereby both employers and unions recognize the legitimacy of each other. In this mutual understanding, productivity gains accruing from extreme rationalization in work was to be shared. Further, the state was a key player in the compromise in which the legal framework was instituted whereby the worker's right to join unions was established. Under the union, the workers could get representation, the provision of minimal income earnable was declared and welfare services were assured. In the welfare compromise, the policies developed there-in were to be compatible to mass production and consumption economic policies.

These three way agreement provided recognition of Ford as the private company, the trade union and the capitalist state. Therefore, Fordism can be said as a standard set of production, lifestyle, politics and consumption. This was a new era in the American's working lifestyle. Hence, Fordism was viewed as the height of the dominant conception which propagated the employment of the male worker. Fordism is also credited as resulting in the creation of standardized production work; the standard worker and a standard employment contract though this has been highly controversial.  This entailed a full-time 8 hour a day contract which was permanent under the Fordist Compromise which served to stabilize the bargain between capital and labor.

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However, the Fordist approach has generated criticism in that it propagated gender imbalance not only in the male-dominated car industry but also in the sectors it spread into. For instance, prior to the spread of Fordist doctrines into the food industry, the food, clothing and electrical industries were dominated by women who were not married. However, with the widening view that Fordism was a better production technique, women were continuously restricted to the production sectors that were associated with domestic work while men were excused from such sectors.

Nevertheless, this famous production system declined in the 1970s as advanced by various theories as detailed by Edgell. Among the key theories is the regulation theory, mainly attributed to the dissatisfaction by workers due to their limited social lifestyle and the flexible specialization theory attributed to consumer dissatisfaction. The regulation theory was first developed in France and claimed that entails alienation and the loss of vital skills. Its core argument was that the alienation and deskilling of workers resulted in the long-term dissent in workers even under a well-paid situation such as Ford's. This discontentment ultimately resulted in loss of productivity implying loss in profits. The theory of flexible specialization was developed in America and argued that Ford was unable to respond to the variable demand especially after the market was saturated after consumers' tastes changed towards more customized, individuality and high- quality needs. The change in flexibility had enabled lesser alienation and more skilled production ensured by skilled and more flexible workers due to the break-up of mass markets. This therefore led to loss of profitability in Ford which still relied on mass production and hence the need to change its production methods.

The overall fall of the Fordist production technique can however be viewed as depicted by regulationists who feel that the alienation and loss of skills in workers led to multiple increase in work place issues such as accidents, production of defective products, absenteeism and workplace conflicts. This resulted in lower productivity that led to lower profits by for instance by forcing employers to spend more time and resources in quality control. The impact of the decline in the Ford system resulted in the labor capital crisis that further led to a recession that the government had to fund out of the declining taxable income which led to reduced welfare benefits. This led to a vicious cycle that ultimately led to the phasing out of this industrial capitalism.

However, the theory of flexible specializations approaches the fall of Fordism as resultant from the dominance of mass production at the expense of craft production in the face of decline in Ford products that were largely not individualized in the late 1960s. As Piore and Sabel (1984) put it, most American homes already had a wide range of goods in electrical such as television sets, fridges and radios, therefore, the clamor to have a diversity in cars led to a market saturation since these needs were not being addressed by Ford. Further, Piore view the 1970 as the onset of the 'Second Industrial revolution' via computers that brought about the production of highly flexible products which further led the consumers to have a need for a diversity of cars.

However, all theories having been examined, the clamor for change brought about by dynamism in the labor and consumer market ultimately resulted in a profitability crisis that brought about its downfall. The regulation approach views problems as emanating from the supply side in which workers experienced dissatisfaction that ultimately resulted in low production. The theory of flexible specialization states that Ford's problems started from the demand -side where the market was saturated and needed more individualized products which ultimately led to lower sales hence less profits. Though the approaches may be differing in origin in concept, they lead to the same problem statement conclusion.

These two theories have not been without criticism. The regulation theory has been pointed out to be limiting in its problem definition. Labor dissatisfaction cannot have resulted only from the Fordist approach but rather from the entire market forces such as the economic and political factors prevailing at the time coupled with further mechanization and consequent displacement.  The theory of flexible specialization has been criticized in that new products and replacement demands are more than sufficient in avoiding saturation in any market. Further, the break-up in mass production for individualized products has been found not to have any proper empirical analysis. However, the regulation approach, as defined from the supply side, has gained more acceptance given that Ford always ensured a degree of product differentiation.  In conclusion, the era of Ford production process cannot have been described in any better sense than in Edgell's book.


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