“How Will You Get Robots to Pay Union Dues?” “How Will You Get Robots to Buy Cars?”

Walter Reuther? Henry Ford II? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An article on the Economist website recently told an extraordinary anecdote about automation. The rivals in the tale were two titans in the world of automobile manufacturing who took a tour of a newly built and highly-automated factory. The forceful executive, Henry Ford II, and the leader of the automobile workers union, Walter Reuther, both saw many examples of advanced machinery operating at the plant. The words they exchanged brilliantly encapsulated the paradox of automation:

Henry Ford II: Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?

Walter Reuther: Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?

The Economist article expressed uncertainty about the tale by labeling it apocryphal. Can you determine if this conversation really took place?

Quote Investigator: Walter Reuther did claim that a comparable dialog actually occurred in the early 1950s. However, he did not claim he was speaking with Henry Ford II. Instead, his conversation partner was described using a phrase such as “one of the management people” or “a company official”.

The earliest evidence QI has located appeared in conjunction with a conference about automation held by the UAW-CIO union in November 1954. The conference report was published in January 1955, and one of the initial pages presented the following short stand-alone passage [WRUW]:


CIO President Walter Reuther was being shown through the Ford Motor plant in Cleveland recently.

A company official proudly pointed to some new automatically controlled machines and asked Reuther: “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?”

Reuther replied: “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”

In November 1956 Walter Reuther delivered a speech to a Council group of the National Education Association. The transcript of his talk was published as part of his “Selected Papers”, and it contained an extended description of this intriguing episode [WRNE]:

I went through this Ford engine plant about three years ago, when they first opened it. There are acres and acres of machines, and here and there you will find a worker standing at a master switchboard, just watching, green and yellow lights blinking off and on, which tell the worker what is happening in the machine. One of the management people, with a slightly gleeful tone in his voice said to me, “How are you going to collect union dues from all these machines?” And I replied, “You know, that is not what’s bothering me. I’m troubled by the problem of how to sell automobiles to these machines.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

According to the time-line given in Reuther’s presentation excerpted above the event occurred around November 1953. The Automation Conference of the UAW-CIO was held on November 12 and 13 of 1954. Later that month on the 28th of November the story was retold in a Connecticut newspaper [WRBC]:

This is one of those legendary stories that may not be true, but is nevertheless worth passing along:

CIO Pres. Walter Reuther was being shown the automatically controlled machines at the Ford plant in Cleveland when a company official, pointing to one of the robot-like devices, asked “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?”

Reuther is supposed to have answered with a question: “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”

The dialog is identical to that given in the 1954 Parable version of the tale. Nevertheless, even at this early date the newspaper used the adjective legendary and expressed doubt.

On January 7, 1955 the anecdote was printed in The Commonweal periodical. The dialog closely matched the words used in the Parable version [WRCW]. Later in the month on January 23rd the New York Times reported that Reuther himself presented the tale to an audience [WRNY]:

In a recent speech Walter Reuther told of a visit to the new automatically operated Ford plant in Cleveland. Pointing to the robots, his host asked him, “How are you going to collect union dues from those guys?” The C.I.O. president … returned an equally pertinent question: “And how are you going to get them to buy Fords?”

In March 1956 Time magazine printed a version of the dialog with somewhat different wording. The magazine also referred to the anecdote as a legend [WRTM]:

Though its history is brief, automation already has its own folklore. One of its most widely told legends concerns C.I.O. President Walter P. Reuther and a Ford executive who were touring Ford’s automated engine plant in Cleveland. As they strode past huge self-operating tools … the Ford executive wisecracked: “You know, not one of these machines pays dues to the U.A.W.” Retorted Reuther: “And not one of them buys new Ford cars, either.”

In November 1956 Walter Reuther spoke to a group of educators and told a version of the episode with a variant dialog. Although the phrasing was different the overall import was the same. The details for this citation were given earlier in this article. The collected papers containing this speech were published in 1961 [WRNE].

In January 1958 Walter Reuther gave testimony at a Senate subcommittee hearing, and he repeated the anecdote. However, the wording of the exchange was slightly altered again [WRSC]:

In 1951, the Ford Motor Co. opened up a new engine plant in Cleveland, Ohio, adjacent to the municipal airport. It was the first fully automated engine plant. … I went through that plant many years back…

So they said to me, “Aren’t you worried about how you are going to collect union dues from all of these machines?”

I said, “the thought never occurred to me. The thought that occurred to me was how are you going to sell cars to these machines?” You know you can make automobiles, but consumers are still made in the good old fashioned way.” [Laughter.]

Eventually a flashier variant of the anecdote was created in which Reuther’s dialog took place with Henry Ford II instead of an anonymous executive. Here is an example from a Canadian newspaper in 1979 [WRCH]:

Unlike people robots don’t collect wages, demand medical insurance, pensions, paid vacations. “And they don’t buy cars either” is the way the late U.A.W. leader Walter Reuther responded some years ago when Henry Ford showed him banks of new labor-saving machines.

The general incident was retold many times over the decades. Here is an example of a version mentioning “union cards” reported in 1983 [WRSJ]:

The management man, marveling over the robots’ performance, asked Reuther “How are you going to get them to take out union cards, Walter?”

Without hesitation, Reuther replied “How are you going to get them to buy cars?”

In conclusion, QI believes that Walter Reuther is the source of this anecdote. He told the tale first around 1954, and he told it multiple times in speeches and testimony in later years. The words he used to describe the dialog varied, but the thrust of the exchange was preserved in his retellings.

QI was unable to find any persuasive evidence that Reuther was speaking with Henry Ford II during the anecdote. This may be a later embellishment added by some intermediate storyteller and repeated by some thereafter.

Image Notes: KUKA robots building automobile. Author: KUKA Systems GmbH. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia Commons. Walter P. Reuther portrait from United States Department of Labor.

[ECAI] 2011 November 4, The Economist website, Babbage: Science and Technology blog, Artificial intelligence: Difference Engine: Luddite legacy, The Economist Group, London. (Accessed economist.com 2011 November 15) link

[WRUW] 1955 January, Automation: A Report to the UAW-CIO Economic and Collective Bargaining Conference, Held in Detroit, Michigan, the 12th and 13th of November 1954, Parable, Page 6, UAW-CIO Education Department, Detroit, Michigan. (HathiTrust) link  link

[WRNE] 1961, Walter P. Reuther Selected Papers, Edited by Henry M. Christman, [The Future of American Education–A Labor View, Address before the National Council for Social Studies of the National Education Association in Cleveland, Ohio on November 23, 1956], Start Page 176, Quote Page 180, Macmillan Company, New York.  (Questia)

[WRBC] 1954 November 28, Sunday Herald, Labor Front: Neat Touche, Page 2, Column 1, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Google News Archive)

[WRCW] 1955 January 7, The Commonweal, The Last CIO Convention? by John C. Cort, Start Page 378, Quote Page 380, Commonweal Publishing Co., New York. (Verified on paper)

[WRNY] 1955 January 23, New York Times, The Brain Is Not Outmoded by Robert Berdiner, Start Page SM13, Quote Page SM31, New York. (ProQuest)

[WRTM] 1956 March 19, Time, Automation: Robot Machines Are Cutting Costs, Section: Business, Page 98, Time Inc., New York. (Time magazine online archive; Accessed time.com 2011 November 14)

[WRSC] 1958, Administered Prices: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Fifth Congress, Second Session, Pursuant to S. Res. 57 and S. Res. 231, [Testimony by Walter P. Reuther on January 28, 1958], Quote Page 2207, Government Printing Office. (HathiTrust) link  link

[WRCH] 1979 November 12, Calgary Herald, Will Chrysler Loan Benefit Workers? by Bogdan Kipling. Page A6, Column 6, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Google News Archive)

[WRSJ] 1983 January 7, St. Joseph News-Press, Time Marches Backwards, Page 4A, Column 6, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Google News Archive)

2 replies on ““How Will You Get Robots to Pay Union Dues?” “How Will You Get Robots to Buy Cars?””

  1. I have a song on you tube called, Robots don’t buy cars, that brings up the same issues you are writing about in your article. Could you tell your friends on face book and twitter about this song. I know you will like it. It also has a slide show. I would appreciate your feedback.

    [Garson O’Toole says: Here is a link to the presentation on youtube of Robots don’t buy cars Thanks for sharing this entertaining song.]

  2. Simply put, loose the unions and over paid auto workers, and install more robots.

    If the unions were not so greedy and the workers took a lower wage they would be no need for all the machinery and robots.

    When your company freezes wages or wants you to take pay cuts, “take them”, or you’ll be soon out of work. A job is a privlage not a right, and be happy with what you have or you will wake up onde day and it will be all gone….

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