A Brief History of The Auto Mechanic’s Trade

Before the Great War, the wealthy tried to treat the mechanic / chauffers like servants rather than employees

Prior to the introduction of the car, the options for transportation were horse, horse drawn carriage, train, ship and walking. When automobiles became available just before the beginning of the 20th Century, there were a myriad of manufacturers making hand-fitted vehicles. Production runs were low and spare parts difficult to obtain.

For the early car owner, there were no auto repair businesses. If the owner himself maintained his vehicles, he would seek out a bicycle mechanic, machinist, plumber or blacksmith to repair or fabricate parts.

Wealthier car owners employed chauffeur-mechanics as servants who would drive and maintain their vehicles. These employees were much more independent than the carriage drivers and footmen they superseded and, rather than adopting a servile relationship, used their specialized knowledge to lever better pay and privileges from their top hat wearing employers.

Without an auto repair industry, car owners had to maintain their own vehicles

The Ford Motor Corporation perfected mass production in the period before the First World War. The price of vehicles plummeted as the hours to assemble a Model T fell from 12 to 1 ½. With the raising of Ford worker wages to $5 a day, the employees began to buy cars themselves. By 1915, Ford was selling half a million vehicles a year. The Great War gave great impetus to motorized vehicle use and, after the war, thousands of war surplus trucks were dumped onto the market in 1919 and 1920.

By the twenties, motorized vehicles were common place and, as manufacturers like Ford used standard interchangeable parts, it was possible for the vehicle repair industry to grow, either as independent companies or as dealerships for a specific automotive maker. Mechanics were paid by the hour or day and repairs were billed for the actual time taken. Repair shops with good mechanics had a big advantage as repairs were quicker and therefore cheaper. Even within the same shop which mechanic was assigned to a job could

With standardized parts, auto repair shops could fix most cars without custom fabrication of replacement components

make a big difference in the cost. To introduce some stability to the market, standard times for set repair jobs started to be used for billing.

As the 1930′s started, the amount of auto repair work contracted like the rest of the economy, putting businesses in a financial squeeze. Rather than paying a guaranteed daily wage, employers split any labour charges 50% / 50% with their mechanics. Mechanics spent their time sitting on work benches, waiting and hoping for work. The problems of the slow economy were downloaded onto the auto mechanic who, many days, would go home with little or no pay. In the largest industrial concerns, Trade Unions started to successfully organize to protect and advance workers wages, but in the fragmented world of auto repair, dominated by small companies with only a few employees, the workers remained unprotected.

New technology such as wheel alignment machines increased the need for technically trained mechanics

After World War Two, the economy boomed and the Flat Rate system became dominate. A hybrid of the shared receipts of the Depression and standard repair times of the 1920′s, Flat Rate is a piece work system where worker’s time is not compensated, only his billable hours. As workers had little control over the accounting procedures that determined their pay, the system was open to abuse by employers. Unscrupulous mechanics also learned how to manipulate the system for extra pay at the expense of the customer.

Automotive service enterprises like the Flat Rate system because it maximizes profits while passing on losses for slack times to the Auto Mechanic. The system encourages unnecessary work to be performed , rushed and incomplete repairs and manipulation of “book times” to the detriment of customers, mechanics and sometimes the dealers. It is a food chain where the auto manufacturers squeeze the dealers and the dealers squeeze the mechanic. The customer ends up paying as well, either in the quality of a job done or in the price billed.

The image of automotive mechanics changed as they became 'automotive technicians'

“Book Times” have two problems. First, the customer may pay double the actual cost of a repair that has a generous book time. Secondly, the auto mechanic may be jammed by book times that are unrealistic or do not account for diagnosis time. The Flat Rate Mechanic can be forced to work with little or no compensation. The car makers are infamous for reducing book times when a recall is required, often by half or more. The Flat Rate mechanic, and to a lesser extent their employers, have to bear the cost for defective design or manufacture of new vehicles.

When an Auto Mechanic is paid only based on billable hours, any inefficiency or problems

A young Union apprentice learns how to service increasingly complex computer controlled vehicles

with workplace organization will directly impact on their earnings. The employer has less incentive to address any shortcomings as they will bear only a portion of the losses. And the employer can load up the shop with extra Mechanics, knowing that while it may reduce incomes of all Mechanics during slack periods, but when the shop is busy, profits will be maximized.

The increasing sophistication and complexity of modern autos has made the Automotive Technician one of the most technically demanding trades. Not only do modern mechanics have to diagnose sensor and computer glitches but the manufacturers continually introduce new technology which has to be learned and mastered on the fly. Originally manufacturers thought computerization would reduce the need for skill as black boxes outputted problems to computer printouts. The reality has been the opposite. Auto repair has become more demanding and requires greater skill across a host of new disciplines such as computer trouble shooting, variable valve timing and fuel injection.

Machinists Union automotive technicians enjoy guaranteed weekly pay when work is slow

The Machinists Union has represented auto mechanics since the formation of the first automotive Local Lodge in 1912 in New York City. Unlike other skilled trades, Auto Mechanics had no idea what their pay would be at the end of the week and they were tired of management manoeuvres to reduce their income. Working conditions and pay is significantly better at Union shops and, through hard struggle; Auto Mechanics were again paid by the hour in BC, like virtually every other employee in Canada, with an added bonus for productivity. Where employer resistance has made replacing the Flat Rate System difficult, Machinists Collective Agreement guarantee minimum paid hours and ensure fair distribution of the good paying jobs.

Some employers have bonus systems but all our Union mechanics are guaranteed a set wage per week, usually equal to 36 hours pay. This allows our Members to undertake major financial commitments, like house purchases, without fear of default.

Union Membership allows Auto Technicians in BC to have a say in their workplace and to influence the shape of their working and personal lives.

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