It has been said that every industry breeds its own type of man. True though this is of the auto industry, it would still be a mistake to infer a “composite auto worker” or a “typical auto worker.” Anyone writing about the auto worker attitudes must keep in mind that (to cite only a few examples) an auto worker who has accumulated no more than two years’ seniority will feel differently about “security” that a man who has twenty years’ seniority; a tool and die maker with steady work all year and many hours of overtime is able to provide a different standard of living for himself and his family than a low-seniority assembly worker who gets laid off at the first curtailment of production; a worker who has to “buck production” on a moving assembly line, jumping in and out of automobile bodies all day long like a living screw driver, will take a different attitude toward his job than a cushion builder who is able to control his work pace so that he can get his eight hours of work out in six hours and spend the remaining two hours studying horse-racing forms or reading comic books.
Conditions in the auto industry affecting work and mode of living are so varied and so complex that anyone writing on the subject must constantly be on guard against the danger of generalizing too much. Not only do working conditions—and therefore also worker attitudes— differ as between one corporation or another, but even within any given corporation the picture changes from year to year. In this era of “people’s capitalism” and “social unionism,” liberals no less than conservatives tend to see the image of the auto worker in terms of a contented workman who earns well over two dollars an hour plus substantial fringe benefits; who is fortified in times of layoff by supplementary unemployment benefits; who enjoys a reasonable degree of status and security, thanks to the progressive collective bargaining patterns brain-trusted by Walter Reuther and his staff of able technicians. Unfortunately the image does not accurately reflect the actual life experience of the auto worker. This article is an attempt to convey a more concrete picture of the auto worker’s life and labor—how he reacts to his job and to his union; how much money he earns and how the earnings are spent; the kind of home he lives in and how the home is furnished; the quality of his life as a family man and as a member of his community; his leisure time activities; his hopes and fears for the future. Specifically, the article will try to focus attention on the following areas of the auto worker’s life situations: 1) work in the factory; 2) home and family living; 3) attitude toward the union; 4) quest for security; 5) participation in politics.