“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.

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