In the Financial Post, Philip Cross explains the myth and reality of Ford’s famous wage-doubling ploy:
Start with the premise that Ford raised wages to increase purchasing power. As the Fortune article documents, before raising wages, Ford already had doubled output of the Model T with his innovative use of the moving assembly line, without adding to employment. The moving assembly line is what Ford deserves accolades for. To get an idea of how revolutionary it was, Ford built just over a quarter of a million cars in 1914, as much as the rest of the industry combined, but with 80% fewer workers. In other words, productivity already had doubled, allowing Ford to double wages without increasing labour costs.
And he needed to raise wages. Employee turnover at the Highland Park Model T assembly plant hit 370% in the year before the wage increase, clearly symptomatic of a dysfunctional internal labour market. That means Ford incurred the cost of hiring 52,000 people in 1913 to fill 14,000 jobs. The real reason Ford hiked wages was to reduce the cost of this turnover, not a soft-hearted desire to transfer purchasing power from management Scrooges to the Cratchits of the world.
The plan worked like a charm, as turnover plunged to 16% after wages were doubled, reducing labour costs despite the wage hike. Saying he did it to raise purchasing power was just good public relations. Who wants to advertise that their workplace was so disagreeable they could not keep workers for more than a few weeks at a time?
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Ford is still reaping good publicity from the notion its founder spread joy and good cheer in the workplace by raising wages. Its website marvels that “newspapers from all the world reported the story as an extraordinary gesture of goodwill.” The universal appeal of this fable, repeated today by gullible journalists like those at Fortune, is probably because it feeds everyone’s fantasy that one day you’ll show up at work and get that long overdue raise, without your firm compromising its competitive position.