USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

A Portrait of Work

There are two sets of heroes in Detroit Industry: the machines and the workers. While it is hard to judge which set of heroes comes out the more heroic, it is clear that Rivera intends to pay homage to industrial labor. The North Panel is the more dramatic of the two great industrial scenes. Here, the workers harness the tremendous power of the furnace, which seems to set the entire productive process in motion. The workers are featured as healthy, strong, muscular men (though there are some women in the background on the South Wall) straining under the pressure of the work, but in no way defeated by it, in no way unequal to the tasks they are undertaking. Muscles flex, eyes focus—all physical and intellectual power is channeled into the accomplishment of a common goal. And this goal is, above all, common. There are no selfish individuals here, all work together, no matter what one’s age or race or ethnicity. The skin colors of the workers run the spectrum from pale white to deep brown—and it is clear that not a single worker is concerned with the race of the others pushing, pulling, and straining next to him. While society might be characterized by racial tensions, divisions, and violence, in Ford's River Rouge plant, according to the mural, all workers are equally vital to the production process. If one worker fails, the process fails. This view of workers and race was by no means the common one, even in the 1930s. Representatives of anti-labor movements and socialists often divided the workers' community along racial lines. Labor leader Eugene Debs took on this precise issue already in his 1903 essay "The Negro in the Class Struggle."

The theme of workers’ equality extends not only horizontally among the workers, regardless of race. It also moves vertically. It is striking that in the two great industrial scenes on the North and South Panels, there are very few depictions of factory foremen or other representatives of corporate management or white collar work, though there are some. One example of a supervisory presence comes on the left side of the main scene on South Wall. But this figure, wearing a suite and tie, a hat and glasses, stands among the crowd. Nobody pays him much attention. In other scene on the South Wall an accountant works among female laborers. One gets the impression that the same work would be occurring with or without these members of management in attendance—of course, workers without management, or perhaps management as another (and equal) form of work, is the communist ideal.

In sum, with Detroit Industry Rivera presents a heroic worker in what approaches a utopia of industrial efficiency. Through the synergy of man and machine, raw material is transformed into the modern marvel of the automobile—and this one is powered by the strongest engine on the market, the Ford V8. The workers are strong, healthy. The workforce is harmonious, despite the racial diversity. Relations between workers and management are peaceful. The beauty of this stagecraft is emphasized on the South Wall by an audience of the public looking on at the finished cars rolling off the line.

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