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Henry Ford, Social Responsibility, and Progress

As a young man Henry Ford pursued his dream (ambition) of producing an internal-combustion-engine driven auto in large numbers. He did this, and turned immediately to the impact his car, its production, and labor management would have on society. Robert Lacey's account of Ford is about as negative in respect to the early Henry Ford as one can find; yet even he gives considerable space to Ford's responsibility to his workers: hiring blacks and handicapped in large numbers, decent pay, and the modern and airy work place. Henry Ford II's program of minority hiring and frank recognition of the union, too, was far ahead of the times and a shock to some of his industrial colleagues.

Economic progress spelt out by the assembly line and mass production made the Ford's billionaires, but it also meant progress in the quality of life for the common man. It allowed him to drive away from the city to the green of the country. Ford believed that was progress. A family-owned corporation, it put 60 percent of the voting power into common stock in 1955. These apparently socially responsible moves are fully documented in biographies of Ford and accounts of the Ford empire and need no further description here.

Ford believed that progress meant a decent work place. He also wished for a machine that could take the hard work out of farming. These attitudes were recorded on the day after his death in April 1947 when F.F. Bulliett, Service Stock, at Ford Long Beach was interviewed. Said Bulliett,
"I worked at the old tractor plant in Dearborn from 1917 to 1921, and I used to see Mr. Ford nearly every day. The tractor plant was his pet, and although the men got to work at 6:15, Mr. Ford was always there before them. He would wave a greeting when he saw you coming. Mr. Ford would go through the plant, stopping here and there, ask how a man was getting along,"

"I didn't know this when I first worked there, and one day I said to the man next to me, "Where is that Mr. Ford? Why doesn't he come around some time?" ‘Come around,' said the man, 'Why you've talked to him a half dozen times.' After that I discovered what he looked like, and I can see him now: slender, grey-haired, wearing an old pair of pants, and boots and standing with one foot propped up on something, chewing the end of a straw, and talking to one of the workmen."

Bulliett was among the many workmen who had worked at Ford plants most of their lives, moving out west to work at the coastal plant. He had completed 30 years with the company when he gave the interview. Completing 30 and 35 years of work at Ford plants was a common occurrence as may be seen by the many pictures of awards in the company newspaper. An editorial In the Los Angeles Times on the day of Ford's death claimed, "He changed the world. Southern Californians can testify...without the automobile their spacious civilization would not exist." The editor apparently gave Ford's breakthroughs in mass production credit for progress as we know it in California. In spite of grievances, Ford's social responsibility created for him a reliable work force, created a car for the common man here, and brought industrial progress.