Frederick Taylor- the biggest bastard ever
At the turn of the century many historians wrote cute-sy fluff pieces in the media about who had been the most influential person of the 20th century. Many names were floated: Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Einstein, Ghandi, etc. One name that didn’t appear on many lists was Frederick Taylor. While Taylor is a common name in labor history circles, his name is unfamiliar to most. Yet Taylor’s impact on the 20th century was profound, so profound that his ideas continue to shape the day-to-day lived experience of most people today.
Taylor was a management theorist- a theorist of the labor process. In an era where the capitalist firm was becoming larger and larger, employing more and more workers, a fundamental problem was emerging: How do we get workers to work more? Of course this had always been a problem for capitalists. But the rapidly expanding size of the factory was demanding more nuanced control over workers to ensure maximum output.
(When the length of the working day can’t be extended then one must turn to the labor process itself. One must find a way of increasing the intensity of labor so that it produces more per hour. Remember that the capitalist doesn’t buy labor. He buys labor power- the ability of the worker to labor. How long and hard those workers work is an issue to be struggled over. )
During the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s Frederick Taylor studied, experimented with, and wrote about the theory of work. His goal was to find ways of controlling the motions of workers so as to attain the highest possible output for every dollar spent on wages. His writings are an incredibly lucid and frank distillation of the capitalist perspective on class struggle. Very rarely do we see the capitalist class engaging in such open discussions about how to control and exploit a labor force. The frankness of his writings almost eliminates the need for interpretation- thus much of this video will just be excerpts of his writings.
For Frederick Taylor there was an enormous problem afflicting modern society: workers didn’t work hard enough. He called such laziness “soldiering”.
“We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste…. The end of our coal and iron is in sight. But the larger wastes of human effort, which go on everyday through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed or inefficient are less-visible, less tangible and are but vaguely appreciated…. And for this reason, even though our daily loss from this source are greater,… the one has stirred us deeply while the other has moved us but little.” (Taylor, iii)
Taylor is shocked that the inefficiency of workers hasn’t created a national outcry: “As yet there has been no public agitation for ‘greater national efficiency’, no meetings have been called….” (Taylor, iii)
Taylor was often upset that others around him didn’t share his obsession with efficiency- and it was an obsession. Taylor was obsessive-compulsive. As a child he counted his steps and timed all of his actions so as to make his motions as efficient as possible. In his adult life he sought to impose his obsessive compulsions on all those around him and eventually the entire capitalist world. And the capitalist world was ready for a Taylor. In the late 19th century capitalism was growing fast, competition was accelerating, the firm was growing in size and with it the number of workers employed on a single shop-floor. The need for increased control over this mass of workers was growing as was the need for them to work more efficiently to stay competitive.
“…in a majority of cases the man deliberately plans to do as little as he possibly can- to turn out far less work than he is well able to do- in many instances to do not more than one-third to one-half of a proper day’s work…. This constitutes the greatest evil with which the working people of England and America are now afflicted.” (Taylor, p.3)
For Taylor a “proper days work” meant the maximum level of output humanly possible. He often called it “a fair days work”. When workers were not physically capable or unwilling to work “a fair days work” he fired them.
Why did workers soldier? Taylor never was able to give an answer to this question. To him it represented one big misunderstanding between capitalists and workers. Actually, Taylor argued, there was no fundamental antagonism between workers and capitalists.
“The majority of these men believe that the fundamental interests of employees and employers are necessarily antagonistic. Scientific management, on the contrary, has for its very foundation the firm conviction that the true interests of the two are one and the same.”(Taylor, page 1)
Soldiering was made possible because management didn’t even know how much work it was possible to extract from workers.
“The greater part of the systematic soldiering is done… by the men with the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.” (Taylor, page.7)
Taylor’s goal was to seize this knowledge of the labor process from the worker and put it in the hands of management to be used as a tool for control. He called this “scientific management”. As a science management could refine the labor process to a point of efficiency far greater than any worker could achieve on their own.
“..the science which underlies each workman’s act is so great and amounts to so much that the workman who is best suited to actually doing the work is incapable, either through lack of education or through insufficient mental capacity, of understanding this science.”
Note the wording “the workman who is best suited.” Who were these workers who were best suited for particular jobs? Workers who were too intelligent, too strong-willed, or incapable of working at maximum speeds were not best suited.
Taylor envisioned a perfectly harmonious social order where all workers were employed in occupations where they could work most efficiently. They would be accompanied by a strata of scientific managers who analyzed their motions and reorganized them for maximum output. Anyone one who didn’t fit into this perfect vision of the world would be fired.
“the greatest prosperity can exist only when that individual has reached his highest state of efficiency; that is when he is turning out his largest daily output.” (p2)
“The search for better more competent men… was never more vigorous than it is now…. It is only when we fully realize that our duty as well as our opportunity lies in systematically cooperating to train and to make this competent man… that we shall be on the road to national efficiency.” (iii)
The entire structure of production and society would revolve around the creation of this new efficient human. “In the past man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” “The fundamental principles of scientific management are applicable to all kinds of human activities, from our simplest individual acts to the works of our great corporations…. the same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesman, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities and our governmental departments.” (iv)
We can just imagine how satisfying such a rationalized fantasy-world must have seemed to his obsessive-compulsive mind. A big part of this fantasy world was Taylor’s concept of harmony between classes. Taylor believed that all the workers he was retraining to work harder were his friends and that he had their best interest at heart even if they didn’t know that. He persisted in this fantasy even when workers threatened to kill him (p.24)
“…the men who were under [me] were [my] personal friends…. [I ] used every expedient to make them do a fair day’s work, such as discharging or lowering the wages of the more stubborn men who refused to make any improvement….” (p.23)
Midvale Steel- testimony before Special Committee of the US House of Representatives:
Taylor started his management career at the Midvale Steel Company outside Philadelphia.
“As soon as I became gang boss the men who were working under me and who, of course, knew that I was onto the whole game of soldiering or deliberately restricted output, came to me at once and said, “Now Fred, you are not going to be a damn piecework hog, are you?”
“I said ‘If you fellows mean you are afraid I am going to try to get a larger output from these lathes,’ I said ‘Yes; I do propose to get more work out.’ I said ‘You must remember I have been square with you fellows up to now and worked with you…. I have been on your side of the fence. But now I have accepted a job under the management of this company and I am on the other side of the fence, and I will tell you perfectly frankly that I am going to try to get a bigger output from those lathes.’ They answered ‘Then you are going to be a damned hog.'”
“I said ‘Well if you want to put it that way, all right.’ They said, ‘We warn you Fred, if you try to bust any of these rates, we will have you over the fence in six weeks.’ I said, ‘That is alright; I will tell you fellows frankly that I propose to try to get a bigger output off these machines.'”
“Now that was the beginning of a piecework fight that lasted for nearly three years, as I remember it… in which I was doing everything in my power to increase the output of the shop, while the men were absolutely determined that the output should not be increased….”
“I began, of course, by directing some one man to do more work than he had done before, and then I got on the lathe myself and showed him that it could be done. In spite of this, he went ahead and turned out exactly the same old output and refused to adopt better methods or to work quicker until finally I laid him off and got another man in his place. This new man- I could not blame him in the least of circumstances- turned right around and joined the other fellows and refused to do any more work than the rest.”
Notice that Taylor says he couldn’t blame this man for not wanting to work harder. In several accounts of his battle at Midvale Steel Taylor does admits to some sort of fundamental antagonism between management and workers.
“As a truthful man, [I] had to tell them that if [I] were in their place [I] would fight against turning out any more work, just as they were doing, because under the piecework system they would be allowed to earn no more wages than they had been earning, and yet they would be made to work harder.” (p.24)
Taylor was convinced that workers needed a material reward for working harder. A fundamental part of his theory of scientific management was the permanent raising of wages for workers who conformed to this new scientific work ethic. Taylor thought that capitalists would consent to higher wages because the increased cost of higher wages would be compensated for by the increased size in output and by the diminished size of the workforce(increased efficiency and “scientific selection of workers” meant massive layoffs for many of the firms Taylor laid his hands on.) But, to Taylor’s great dismay, once new levels of efficiency had been reached most employers chose to slash rates and wages returned to normal or even lower. In fact, the effect of scientific management was to reduce the skill-set of the working class as a whole which in turn reduced labor’s bargaining power and lowered wages. It seemed there were fundamental class antagonisms immune to Taylor’s utopian philosophy.
But back to Midvale…
Taylor decided to take the next step:
“I hunted up some especially intelligent laborers who were competent men… and I deliberately taught these men how to run a lathe and how to work right and fast. …and every solitary man, when I had taught them their trade, one after another turned right around and joined the rest of the fellows and refused to work one bit faster.”
Frustrated Taylor decided to take the next step. He said to the men, “Now, I am going to cut your rate in two tomorrow and you are going to work for half price from now on. But all you have to do is to turn out a fair day’s work and you can work better wages….”
Eventually the men caved in and production rose at the Midvale Steel factory.
“After that we were good friends, but it took three years of hard fighting to bring this about.”
Emboldened by this success Taylor went on to become a highly sought-after and influential management consultant. Over the years he perfected his system of “scientific management.” Here’s how the system worked.
First Taylor would observe the labor process as it existed. He cataloged all the motions of the workers and timed them. He then set about, through trial and error, devising the most efficient flow of motions possible.
“…there are many different ways in common use for doing the same thing…. there is always one method and one implement which is better than any of the rest. And this one best method and best implement can only be discovered or developed through a scientific study and analysis of all the methods and implements in use, together with accurate, minute, motion and time study.” (p.9)
No job was too simple or complex. Taylor famously spent 26 years studying the best way to cut metal. (The task seemed impossible to rationalize as there were too many variables. Even famous mathematicians told him it couldn’t be done. But Taylor’s obsessive compulsive genius prevailed.) But simple work could be rationalized as well.
In a famous example Taylor sought to come up with a more efficient method for loading pig-iron into a train car. Men had to pick up a piece of pig-iron, walk up a plank and drop the pig-iron into a train car. On average a worker could load about 12 1/2 tons of pig iron a day. After careful study Taylor “discovered” that 47 tons a day was a “proper day’s work”. He did this by analyzing the tiring effect of physical labor on muscle. He discovered that a man’s muscles require a certain percentage of rest for an amount of work exerted. The trick was to time the ratio of work to rest for each worker so that they could work the hardest without tiring out.
The second step was to pick the right worker. Any old worker wouldn’t do. In fact only about one in eight men could load 47 tons of pig iron a day.
“With the very best of intentions’ the other seven out of eight men were physically unable to work at this pace. Now the one man in eight who was able to do this work was in no sense superior to the other men who were working on the gang. He merely happened to be a man of the type of the ox, — no rare specimen of humanity, difficult to find and therefore very highly prized. On the contrary, he was a man so stupid that he was unfitted to do most kinds of laboring work, even.”
Taylor started with just one man: a large Pennsylvania Dutchman named Schmidt. These were his instructions to Schmidt:
“…you will do exactly as this man tells you to-morrow, from morning till night. When he tells you to pick up a pig and walk, you pick it up and you walk, and when he tells you to sit down and rest, you sit down. You do that right straight through the day. And what’s more, no back talk. Now a high-priced man does just what he’s told to do, and no back talk. Do you understand that? When this man tells you to walk, you walk; when he tells you to sit down, you sit down, and you don’t talk back at him.” (p.21)
Taylor’s next comments tell us more about the “scientific selection of workers”:
“This seems to be rather rough talk. And indeed it would be if applied to an educated mechanic, or even an intelligent laborer. With a man of the mentally sluggish type of Schmidt it is appropriate and not unkind, since it is effective in fixing his attention on the high wages which he wants and away from what, if it were called to his attention, he probably would consider impossibly hard work.” (p.21)
Throughout his writing Taylor stresses the idea of selecting only workers who are able to work at the very highest level of efficiency. This always meant firing all of the other workers. Taylor had no sympathy for these displaced workers.
“And indeed it should be understood that the removal of these men from pig-iron handling, for which they were unfit, was really a kindness to themselves, because it was the first step toward finding them work for which they were peculiarly fitted…” (p.31)
The result was a drastic reduction in the number of workers employed and at the same time a rise in output. Workers were given raises though, as mentioned earlier, these raises usually did not stay in effect. Meanwhile the size of management grew. There was an office where labor was planned out. When workers came to work in the morning they were given a set of written instructions as to how exactly to work. Time-study men patrolled the factory floor timing motions. There was a proliferation of managers all dedicated to different aspects of labor control.
Divorced from the knowledge of the labor process, the worker became less and less skilled. Work was more repetitive and it was harder to bargain for higher wages when it was so easy for employers to replace a workforce.
Taylorism was also fiercely resisted. It produced much shopfloor conflict and militant strikes. Taylor consistently left this detail out in his own versions of his successes claiming that: “…during the thirty years that we have been engaged in introducing scientific management there has not been a single strike from those who were working in accordance with its principles….” Such blatant omissions were typical of a man who could not tolerate anything the interfered with his utopian vision of a planned, rational universe.
While Taylor’s perfect world- a world free of class conflict, where worker and capitalists worked toward a common goal of perfect efficiency- never came into being, his ideas about the labor process became part of the basic fabric of working life. The planning of motion in work and management’s monopoly over the knowledge of work are a basic fact of the way we experience much of modern work. Scientific management is still taught in industrial engineering schools and its concepts still inform the way workplaces are built and the way jobs are structured.
While some of management theory has moved on since Taylor the basic questions he was grappling with are still crucial. As the productive powers of labor increased rapidly over the course of the 20th century there was much thinking about how production and society were to be organized and how the worker would be habituated to the demands of capital. As we begin to look at the history of capitalist crisis it will be important to keep these basic questions in mind.
“The Principles of Scientific Management” Frederick Winslow Taylor; Dover Publications 1998; originally published in 1911. I have condensed some sentences/paragraphs to make some quotes more You-tube friendly. This is indicated by the traditional “…”. (I have not in any way changed the meaning of the text. See my comment below.) “Principles” can be read online at the marxist internet archive: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/taylor/principles/index.htm
Taylor’s narration of the Midvale battle comes from Taylor’s testimony before “A Special Committee of the House of Representatives to investigate the Taylor and other Systems of Shop Management” as quoted in Harry Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, 1998 Monthly Review Press
I also enjoyed “Frederick Taylor: A Study in Personality and Innovation” by Sudhir Kakar. MIT Press 1970