In 1914, Henry Ford made a big announcement that shocked the country. It caused the financial editor at The New York Times to stagger into the newsroom and ask his staff in a stunned whisper, “He’s crazy, isn’t he? Don’t you think he’s crazy?”
That morning, Ford would begin paying his employees $5.00 a day, over twice the average wage for automakers in 1914.
In addition, he was reducing the work day from 9 hours to 8 hours, a significant drop from the 60-hour work week that was the standard in American manufacturing.
According to an article (above) in the Post sponsored by the automaker, Ford arrived at the new wage scale during a meeting with his managers.
He wrote on the board the Ford wage standards: minimum pay of $2.34 for a nine-hour day. He tossed down the chalk and said: “Figure out how much more we can give our men.”
The Ford executives worked all day, cautiously adding 25¢ an hour, and then another 25¢. Every so often Ford walked back in, said: “Not enough,” and walked out.
Finally they had doubled the basic pay—up to $4.80 a day. One man snapped, “Why don’t you make it $5 a day and bust the company right?”
“Fine,” said Henry Ford. “We’ll do that.”
A young reporter from the Times travelled to Detroit to learn more about this revolutionary move. His name was Edward Peter Garrett, but he wrote under the name Garet Garrett, which was how Post readers knew him when he was the magazine’s financial writer between 1922 and 1942.
Arriving in Detroit, Garrett found the city’s manufacturers panicking and predicting various disasters. The higher wages would cause other employers to leave the city, they said. Carmakers who remained and tried to match Ford’s wages would go bankrupt. Ford employees would be “demoralized by this sudden affluence,” and, of course, Ford Motor Company would soon be bankrupt.
Fortunately, Garrett was able to get an audience with Henry Ford and, over the course of two days, discuss the company’s revolutionary changes. He wrote of his extended interview with Ford in a 1952 book, The Wild Wheel. He recalled asking Ford why he raised wages when every other manufacturer was trying to reduce wages to the lowest acceptable figure. Ford believed he was buying higher quality work from all his employees. “If the floor sweeper’s heart is in his job he can save us five dollars a day by picking up small tools instead of sweeping them out.”
Higher wages were necessary, Ford realized, to retain workers who could handle the pressure and the monotony of his assembly line. In January of 1914, his continuous-motion system reduced the time to build a car from 12 and a half hours to 93 minutes. But the pace and repetitiveness of the jobs was so demanding, many workers found themselves unable to withstand it for eight hours a day, no matter how much they were paid.
But Ford had an even bigger reason for raising his wages, which he noted in a 1926 book, Today and Tomorrow. It’s as a challenging a statement today as it as 100 years ago. “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same, and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.”
It might have been just another of Ford’s wild ideas, except that it proved successful. In 1914, the company sold 308,000 of its Model Ts—more than all other carmakers combined. By 1915, sales had climbed to 501,000. By 1920, Ford was selling a million cars a year.
“We increased the buying power of our own people, and they increased the buying power of other people, and so on and on,” Ford wrote. “It is this thought of enlarging buying power by paying high wages and selling at low prices that is behind the prosperity of this country.”
In 1919, Ford raised his minimum wage again, this time to $6.00 a day. Again, the wage hike produced higher production numbers. Ford told Garrett, “The payment of five dollars a day for an eight-hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made, and the six-dollar-a-day wage is cheaper than the five. How far this will go we do not know.”
He learned how far in 1929. In the aftermath of the stock market crash, he raised wages to $7.00 a day, hoping it would spark an economic recovery. But this time, it didn’t work. Orders fell, production slowed, hours were reduced. But Ford didn’t blame the workers for the sluggish economy. The fault lay in business leaders who were “continually putting the profit motive over what he called the wage motive.” Ford told Garrett, “When business thought only of profit for the owners ‘instead of providing goods for all,’ then it frequently broke down.”
While it worked, though, Ford’s $5.00-a-day policy helped the company achieve record profits. It made its cars affordable to its workers (who could purchase a Model T with four months’ wages.) It helped put 15 million Americans behind the wheel of an automobile. And it set a standard for wages that, despite all the predictions of doom for the Ford Motor Company, every other car company eventually adopted.