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Talking About Auto Work Means Talking About Constant, Brutal Violence

It's remembered as one of the best industrial jobs a worker could get in postwar America. Less remembered is how brutal life on the factory floor was – and still is.

The way we typically remember post–World War II industrial work like auto manufacturing might include it being repetitive, maybe unpleasant, but stable and well-paying, making decent lives possible for enormous numbers of workers in the United States. But that’s only part of the story. It also included incredible amounts of violence, as labor historian Jeremy Milloy chronicles in Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry, 1960-80.

Milloy argues that violence on the factory floor saturated the entire production process of American and Canadian auto manufacturing, both in the work itself and in the interpersonal relations among workers and between workers and managers. The book is a strong challenge to prevailing nostalgic notions about the placid conditions of work at the height of twentieth-century industrial America — and raises questions about the omnipresent nature of violence at work under capitalism in any era.

Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht interviewed Milloy for the Jacobin Radio podcast The Vast Majority. You can listen to the episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MU: Before I read this book, I shared the prevailing views of mid-century American auto work: good jobs, well paid; maybe monotonous, but stable and decent. I have been thoroughly disabused of at least the notion that these jobs were somewhere between pleasant and benign after reading your book.

JM: That’s a historian’s job. We’re the “well, actually”-ers of humanities and social sciences.

My book fits in with another recent book worth checking out, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, which argues that these jobs weren’t that well-paying. Many workers were laid off constantly. They were always doing other jobs. Work was precarious, in ways that workers today would recognize. The ideal is that you go and clock in at General Motors at age twenty, you work thirty years, you get that pension, you get the boat on the lake. It was a grind, but you put two kids through college, and it was worth it.

But it wasn’t worth it for a lot of people. These were violent workplaces. These were really terrible jobs, both in terms of monotony, being turned into a machine, being alienated from your job, but also for how dangerous they were. Your chance of being maimed or hurt, or having a heart attack on the job, or having a forklift flip over on you, or getting repetitive stress injuries — these were the different forms of violence workers had to deal with.

Researching the book, there were times when I was thinking about these workplaces and saying to myself, “How are people just letting this go on? How did people not decide to close these factories down to get a handle on these factories?” Because the levels of violence were so endemic.