April 28, 2014

Henry J. Kaiser takes a page from Henry Ford's book

Concept of welding rather than riveting in ship production borrowed from Henry Ford's manufacturing process

Kaiser-Frazer Willow Run plant, circa 1951. The "arched eyebrow" split windshield indicates that these are likely Kaiser Deluxes.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

General-Layout-Richmond-Shipyards-med Richmond, California — Ford Assembly plant surrounded by four Kaiser shipyards, 1944

Henry J. Kaiser had admired the mass-production advances that allowed Henry Ford to make cars more efficiently.

In late 1940, before Kaiser embarked on the largest shipbuilding project in world history, he sent a close associate to survey a Ford assembly plant.

Results of that visit opened Kaiser's eyes to the advantages of welding over riveting. That insight, along with the pre-assembly of ship parts and streamlining the flow of materials, was crucial to the breathtaking output of Kaiser's new shipyards.

Kaiser wasted little time maintaining his momentum as a major American industrialist after the end of World War II.

With his massive West Coast shipyards closing down, and his nascent health care program that would eventually blossom as Kaiser Permanente just beginning, he turned his attention to automobiles.

Henry Ford II, wife Anne Ford, Henry J. Kaiser, wife Bess Kaiser; Oakland train station, 1946

On Aug. 9, 1945, Kaiser formally announced a partnership with veteran automobile industry executive Joseph Frazer to form the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.

Kaiser was particularly interested in producing affordable transportation for the American public. Kaiser-Frazer leased the Willow Run manufacturing plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, built by Ford in 1942 to build World War II bombers. Within nine months workers in the plant were breaking records for the number of newly built cars.

K-F's labor relations were good, which helped them to pump out cars in 1946 during the GM strike and the stalled Ford and Chrysler contract negotiations. And in 1949, Kaiser and Ford were on opposite sides of labor law regarding a Taft-Hartley Act representation interpretation.

The National Labor Relations Board’s first decision under Taft-Hartley in 1947 excluded foremen from collective bargaining rights. This ruling was challenged: Kaiser felt that foremen should be included in bargaining units; Ford did not. But the Senate-revised 1949 Labor-Management Relations Act affirmed that foremen could not have collective bargaining rights.

While Henry J. Kaiser and Henry Ford II (president of the Ford Motor Company from 1945 to 1960) may have been business rivals, their relationship was not antagonistic. Newspaper photos of the two with their spouses projected a message of collegiality.

By the late 1950s Kaiser’s automobile venture was grinding to a halt, and all that remained were overseas plants and the Jeep line of rugged vehicles (under Kaiser from 1953–1969). Ford bought out Kaiser-Frazer's operations in Brazil in 1967, the year Henry Kaiser died.