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The 1984-1987 Battle Over Computer Classes at the Ford Rouge Factory: A Dossier

This is an historical account of the fight that developed over worker access to computer programming classes at a large auto company in Michigan in 1983-1987. This story contains valuable lessons about the problem US workers face in trying to obtain education in the workplace.

Editors of The Amateur Computerist

Issue #53, January 2001

This is an historical account of the fight that developed over worker access to computer programming classes at a large auto company in Michigan in 1983-1987. This story contains valuable lessons about the problem US workers face in trying to obtain education in the workplace. These events occurred at the Ford Motor Company's Dearborn Engine Plant.

Schoolhouse in the Factory

The story starts with the massive layoffs in the auto industry in the early 1970s. In response, workers determined that they would fight for shorter hours of work so that more workers could be employed. From 1973-1979 US auto workers won shorter working hours in their contracts in the form of individual days off, called 'paid personal days'. Together with the reduction in hours of work, the auto companies undertook major investment programs to update their technologies.

Describing this in a 1994 talk, one Ford management spokesperson explained:

By the end of 1983 the North American auto industry had spent an estimated $80 billion on retooling and renovating its manufacturing and assembly plants (more money, by the way, than it took to put a man on the moon).
   The Dearborn Engine Plant has participated fully in this industry-wide revolution. Over a two and one-half year period, 1978-1981, we spent more than $590 million to transform the plant from an antiquated producer of V-8 engines into one of the most modern four-cylinder engine manufacturers in the world. And the improvements continue. Last month we completed the conversion of our plant from a producer of 1.6 liter to 1.9 liter engines....In 1980, we installed state-of-the-art automation that was hard-line, or not easily adapted for new applications. Since 1980, we have increased dramatically our deployment of robots and flexible automation units. By 1990, we expect to have 70 such units...

Along with this new technology, the 1982 UAW-Ford contract included a paid education benefit for auto workers. Under what was called the Nickel Fund, workers gave up a raise of five cents per hour to contribute to an education fund. Describing this fund, the same Ford official explained:

At the Dearborn Engine Plant our education facility includes the UAW-Ford Employee Development Center, which teaches basic literacy skills and high school equivalency courses and the Learning Center, which provides basic and advanced technical training.

be yer own boss! A basic reference document for this and subsequent contracts was a University of Michigan evaluation report. The report described the creation and development of the Employee Development Center at the Dearborn Engine Plant, or what was called less officially the Schoolhouse in the Factory. The study explained that Ford workers desired "education" as opposed to "training", who distinguished between the two. Addressing workers' views on education, the report stated:

An analysis of their remarks reveals that no matter how stated, regardless of context, and despite specific topic of conversation, these individuals believe that education (as distinguished from "training") can liberate them, can enrich their lives, can be the vehicle which will allow them to do and accomplish things they believe are important to them. Education has an irresistible appeal. While many of the participants spoke of the "utilitarian" implications of education, what was most evident was how deeply they felt about the 'meaning' of education. Education represents an idea, a touchstone which literally has become a matter of faith.
   (...) In their remarks, these men displayed a very sophisticated ability to distinguish between "education" and "schooling"...The single statement which perhaps best conveys this message came from a man who is rapidly approaching retirement, "Overall, I just think it's one of the best things that's happened to Ford's and I've been here 15 have a set-up like this where you can — right here on the job — you can do anything."

The report suggests that workers enrolled for both practical reasons and broader purposes. It explains:

Participants describe their reasons for enrolling in such terms as "I wish to improve myself" ... "I'm looking ahead" ... At the same time the participants reported that education is essential for gaining insight into their lives and providing direction for the future. When discussing reasons for participation, the participants invariably indicated that the decision to enroll was a personal choice — an act taken independent of any consideration related to company or union interest in the EDC.

The fifty percent drop-out rate that occurred at the center was similar to what occurred in adult education across the U.S., but the report states "No one reported withdrawing because of unhappiness with the program or staff or because educational expectations were not being met."

Reasons given for choosing the DEP program were "the ease and convenience of continuing their education at an in-plant educational facility. Participants reiterated the theme constantly. Many participants acknowledged that they could have gone to their local public school program and received similar services but it was 'too much trouble.' Being able to go to the Center before or after work or during lunch "was a powerful inducement leading to enrollment."

The report also explained that "a clear orientation to learning is present among the participants. While this is not to deny the validity of utilitarian outcomes, most enrollees hold a broader view of the meaning of their participation in the program." Among the reasons for participating was helping children more readily with their homework. Also, "participants sense that enrollment in the program will help them become more flexible regarding future employment and they feel that education is necessary to help them keep up with the changing technology of their jobs." The report continues: "Participants constantly expressed concerns about the future, about the need to be prepared, to be able to cope with an increasingly complex society and a constantly changing work place. Education was viewed as the basic means for preparing for the future and for sustaining an orderly transition into the future."

Referring to the computer classes offered at the Schoolhouse in the Factory, the report explained that "participants in the computer classes are primarily skilled trades workers with at least a high school diploma, and usually some advanced training."

It said, "Participants in the computer classes, while commenting favorably on the class, frequently expressed the opinion that too many enrollees were admitted for the number of computers available...." Concerning the teaching staff, it found that "Participants believe that staff members view and treat them as self-reliant, autonomous adults, — an attitude they frequently contrasted with the way they were viewed and treated in their roles as workers...."

Among the study's conclusions were the following:

  • The response to the computer courses was enormous. It would make sense to have these courses ready to go when a center opens to attract attention....
  • More course offerings for workers with higher educational skills. Many of the skilled-trades people we interviewed expressed an interest in further educational programs though the EDC for the same reasons as production people enrolled —proximity, convenient hours, pleasant surroundings etc....

Ford received this evaluation in June 1984. A new contract incorporating these recommendations was prepared to govern the period of September 1984 - June 1985.

modern life The school established under this contract employed a full-time program specialist and three certified teachers assigned to the basic skills program, each working approximately 22 hours per week. Further, a computer programming teacher offered two courses: Computer Literacy I and II.

Although the course title emphasized 'literacy', these courses were at reasonably difficult levels. For example, after requiring familiarity with BASIC, the course description for Computer Literacy II read: "Topics covered will be...nested for/next loops, one and two dimension arrays, writing programs, on error statement, trace and no trace. bubble and binary sorts, flow charting, math functions, string functions and data types, sequential and random access files, hi resolution graphics and shape tables, an introduction to the Apple's Monitor Mode." Facilities were small, with one computer room equipped with several computers.

Rouge workers greeted the computer classes enthusiastically. There was much interest in computers, and especially in programming. Popularity was such that workers recommended classes to their fellow workers and the program grew. Interest was sufficient to open summer classes in 1985. Also, workers requested that additional advanced classes be offered, that there be a time when the computer classroom was open outside of class time, and that there be an instructor available in a lab setting so they could come outside of class or if they had to miss a class. Visitors from around the US and the world frequently visited the Schoolhouse in the Factory and the computer classes.

Decline, Resistance, and Shutdown

In Fall 1985 the conditions at the Schoolhouse in the Factory suddenly changed. At first, union and company officials wanted to know what was being taught in the computer classes. The Schoolhouse director showed them syllabi and the class text.

cut yer finger off! Then the director told staff that she would not be allowed to distribute a brochure she had prepared announcing the computer classes, along with the other course offerings, throughout the Rouge plants. This brochure, called "It's Your Nickel", was only to be distributed inside the Dearborn Engine Plant. She was to create a different brochure to distribute Rouge-wide that could not mention the days and hours when computer classes were to be offered. Further, the union newspaper would include the computer listings at the Dearborn Engine Plant when its new issue came out, at a date uncertain. But the union newspaper appeared with only a vague notice of the computer classes, and several classes were cancelled as a result.

From then on until classes ended in February 1987, there was a battle to continue the computer classes. On May 13, 1986, the following petition was sent to the UAW Chairperson at the Dearborn Engine Plant:

May 13, 1986
   We, the students of the computer training classes at the Dearborn Engine Plant training facility, have been informed there will be no summer classes and possibly no fall classes.
   There are at least 29 people interested in summer computer classes. And as many interested in fall classes.
   We, the students of this computer class, would like to know why it is so hard to continue education in computers. We have been experiencing for the past two or three semesters frustration in continuing education and advancement in computer training. When polled about advanced classes, we desire them, but then they are not offered.
   We would like to know why they are not offered because we want to continue and advance. (It was also printed in the union paper which led us to believe there were summer classes available to computer students.)
   We await your answer so that we may register for summer classes when they are offered.

   Concerned students of the computer classes,
      (signed by over 20 students)

Also, computer students wrote, passed out, and posted a leaflet at the Ford Rouge Plant. The leaflet said:

UAW members have been fighting for 1-1/2 years against attempts to cut out the classes in computer programming held at the D.E.P. UAW members contribute 17 cents an hour straight time and 50 cents an hour overtime to have these classes available. The most critical point for UAW members is to have training in high technology. How can UAW members be trained in high technology by cutting computer classes out?
   We contacted the Chairman in the Engine Plant, and he didn't give any result. We contacted the management officials in charge of training in the Engine Plant. We contacted the President of Local 600, and the officials in charge of the program at Ford Motor Co., and at the UAW. We sent letters everywhere. We are tired of being denied benefits we're entitled to. We're tired of being shuffled from one person to another so as to cover up who we're fighting. We don't know what classes are being offered from one course to the next. We ask for programming in BASIC and they offer PASCAL. We ask for PASCAL to be continued, they offer advanced BASIC. There are no rights to grievance how the monies are being spent. But the letter of Understanding (in the 1984 UAW-Ford Contract) says: 'In view of the Company's interest in affording maximum opportunity for employees to progress with advancing technology, the Company shall make available appropriate specialized training programs for employees.'
   But this is not being provided....

Despite the efforts of workers to make the problems known to Ford management and union officials, and despite efforts to protest the ever-worsening conditions via student and staff letters, those contacted refused to investigate the problem. Instead, students and staff faced retaliation threats and job harassment. By February 1987, no further computer classes were scheduled at the Schoolhouse in the Factory and classes ended.

Workers said that the classes were ended because they felt the company didn't want them to learn programming. Another possible reason that the classes were ended was that the classes were connected to a bargaining union fight. Some workers explained it was important to learn computers because they knew that their jobs or newly created jobs would be using computers. They wanted the jobs to be in the bargaining union so they could bid on them, rather than jobs that management could offer to workers who wouldn't be in the union.

Realizing that computer classes would no longer be available, several students and their teacher decided to work on a newsletter, the genesis of the Amateur Computerist. As our first issue in February 1988 explained:

This newsletter is to inform people of developments in an effort to advance computer education. Workers at the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, MI were denied computer programming classes. There was an effort by administrators of the UAW-Ford program at the Dearborn Engine Plant to kill interest in computers and computer programming. We want to keep interest alive because computers are the future. We want to disperse information to users about computers. Since the computer is still in the early stage of development, the ideas and experiences of the users need to be shared and built on if this technology is to advance. To this end, this newsletter is dedicated to all people interested in learning about computers.

The Amateur Computerist began publishing on Usenet on September 1, 1992. It continues to be published online.

Copyright © 2001 by The Amateur Computerist. Original drawing by Mike Mosher. Ads in Popular Science circa 1975. All rights reserved.