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“But the prosperity was not all it seemed:” the downside of Henry Ford’s $5 a day offer

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Henry Ford, undoubtedly, helped to shape the automobile industry and the peoplescape of southeast Michigan with his offer of a $5 per day wage in 1914. It more than doubled the existing wages and led workers from all over the country – all over the world, even – to his Highland Park plant in Dearborn. It helped Ford continue to boost production of the Model T and streamline production. It became a major factor in the Model T’s legacy of putting the world on wheels.

But, as this 1993 episode of the PBS docuseries “The Great Depression” explores, it also had a dark side. The work, for one, was rapid, tough, dangerous, ever-faster, and dehumanizing. The offer itself came with strings, making the full pay scale dependent on Ford’s patrimony and on intrusive inspections of the workers’ home lives. And prior to the unionization of the auto industry, the workers who took the offer often had little recourse against the company’s actions, particularly when the Depression hit a decade and a half later.

Archival footage, interviews with Ford employees, and other oral histories tell the tale of that time and discuss whether the $5 a day offer was worth it and what role Ford had to play in the coming Depression and labor strife.