- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

Doing volunteer work recently at a Detroit home for boys on the inaptly named Joy Road, I noticed a handsome little church next door. Curious, I went to investigate.

It was St. Martha’s Episcopal Church, and like much else in Detroit, it had fallen on hard times: the nice man who showed me around explained the parish, in what has become an urban wasteland, now has only 13 families and no full-time priest.

But St. Martha’s retains its chief claim to fame: It’s the final resting spot, under a plain granite headstone in a small graveyard in the front yard, of none other than Henry Ford, the man who put the world on wheels. Alas, the little graveyard was empty on the sunny Saturday when I visited — as it is most of the time, according to the caretaker. The Ford name may still be iconic, but the actual Henry Ford seems both out of sight and out of mind.

I found myself thinking of this recently while reading a letter to the editor of the Detroit News from a Ford employee, no less. Ziad Ojakli, group vice president of corporate affairs for Ford Motor Co., had written to express “surprise” that former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill recently blamed the American auto industry’s troubles on a lack of appealing cars rather than such supposed externalities as “runaway health-care costs.”

Mr. Ojakli admitted “some might argue that we dug our own hole … by providing high-quality health care.” But, he added, “just as we have invested billions in our nation’s economy, we have always believed in investing in our greatest resource — our work force. Like his great-grandfather Henry Ford, [current Chairman] Bill Ford believes in doing the right thing for the people who are the backbone of our business.”

One wonders, however, if Henry Ford would keep on making an “investment” that didn’t seem to pay off. True, when Ford called a press conference in early 1914 to announce he planned to double the minimum wage paid by his company, he stunned the industrial world. Other captains of industry complained it was unrealistic and that Ford, always a bit eccentric, had gone clean off his rocker.

But if Ford was crazy, he was crazy like a fox. The much-vaunted assembly line in Highland Park had suffered from debilitating turnover among low-skilled employees bored by the work. The $5 Day caused near riots in the street among job-seekers. Absenteeism plummeted, productivity increased and Model T sales soared.

“The $5 Day was the greatest cost-cutting move I ever made,” Ford would later say, according to historian Alan Brinkley’s 2003 biography, “Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company and a Century of Progress.”

What also needs to be remembered is that the $5 Day had a dark side: In return for their bonuses, workers would not only be expected to become more productive but had to agree to submit to intrusive investigations of their private lives. The announcement of the $5 Day included the disclosure that, in the name of scientific management, Ford would establish a “sociological department” to make sure workers met the standards — thrift, concern for family, a clean house, a healthy lifestyle — Ford believed necessary for a productive workforce.

The investigations became so onerous they would be cited in the 1930s as a prime reason workers wanted union protection.

A relic of a bygone era? Perhaps, but those who blithely advocate ever-deeper involvement of the government in health care should beware. How long would it be before Washington starts sending investigators to your front door demanding to know whether you deserved Uncle Sam’s very expensive “investment” in your health care?

Henry Ford could be consigned to an out-of-the-way graveyard. It might not be so easy to get the federal government off the front lawn.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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