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Friday, July 31, 2009

Still There (From 2007)

Ever work in a factory?

If you're reading this page, the answer is likely no. I remember reading that if you are at a gathering of college educated persons, not one of them will know personally anyone who is not. They can cast around for the name of the plumber or something to make their working class bona fides, but it's not the same thing. With a few exceptions, educated persons don't know people who are not, and vice versa.

I am not fixing to hold myself up as any sort of example of anything. I don't fit in anywhere and so am useless as any sort of ruler to measure such things. I drift along through many sets of people, and belong to none, really. Maybe I should be a writer. I have no fixed perspective.

I have worked in a factory. More than one. A big old brick building with tall windows and a punch clock and battered formica tables and two vending machines in a break room. Union, some of them, too. I know what it's like. A lot of people who have never known work talk about the loss of belching smokestack factories like it's a plague of locusts or something. If they ever worked in one they might feel differently. I can't properly describe the sensation of eating your lunch out of a paper sack and reading an inexpertly printed missive from personnel (they used to call it that without shame) telling me, just 19 years old, that all I had to do is work another 49 years putting the same tiny screws into some holes while looking at a gauge, and I could retire with a little pension.

They never understood why I left. My fellow workers, grown old and crabby in the traces, tried to get me to explain, which I could not do without insulting them, and then, frustrated, barked at me that I'd be sorry. I never was. The factory has been shuttered and dark for decades now, and they all lost their jobs. The world is a shark and must always swim. I recognize the charlatans that say the shark must stand still no matter how they tart up the presentation. Numbskull Canutes want to rule the world.

There can be dignity there, in a factory. If there is work that is not dignified I have not seen it. You must bring the dignity with you, as in all things. It will not be supplied to you. It cannot be taken from you if you will keep it.

That picture is taken in 1940. There is certainly dignity in that picture, along with hard work and danger and a wage, and it shines right through. Old Kenyon's Johnnycake Mill in Usquepaugh, Rhode Island. I used to visit the towns around there often in the summer. And the place is still there.

Kenyon's Corn Meal Company

It's marvelous it's still there after centuries. The shark must swim. It does not devour all its young, though.

24 comments:

westsoundmodern said...

Right out of high school I landed a job at the old Carnation Dairy ice cream manufacturing plant in Seattle. Union job, Teamsters local 66. I ran an enormous machine called a bar tank that spit out 20 perfectly formed and wrapped popcicles every three seconds. I say "ran" but it was more setting it up and watching it run itself for eight hours. Not what you would call brain work but it could get interesting when the machine went out of adjustment. To re-adjust you had to place fingers in a number of places where they shouldn't be during the three second interval between cycles when the machine fell silent and motionless.
It paid sixteen bucks an hour in 1975, no small wage, and came with the kind of Teamsters health insurance benefits that are now a distant memory for blue collar workers. Can't say it was a bad job at the time, like you say you bring your own dignity or lack there of to any job, but in hindsight it was a great day for me when they boarded the place up after I had been there four years. Turns out that paying semi skilled workers the equivalent of 150K a year in 2009 dollars was an unsustainable business model. Go figure.
Most of the older guys with seniority hired on with a competing dairy and are most likely still there, still making sixteen bucks an hour or so with the benefits watered down significantly I imagine. That job was a well camouflaged trap and I was lucky to have escaped it at the age of 22 without resorting to chewing my own leg off as would probably have been necessary if I'd been there at 32.

misterarthur said...

Dodge Main (now demolished). Still had DB for "Dodge Brothers on the Cast Iron gates. Worked from 4:30 pm 'til 2 am. About a car a minute. Inspected bare metal after body was welded up and washed. (I worked in a very long florescent tube tunnel). Put me through college.

Andy said...

I'm not as cool as you guys. I've washed dishes and sold movie tickets. Blew stuff up for a while, too.

What's a fact-ory, anyway? Is that some old fashioned term for the internet? Just like that other one I hear sometimes - library?

Apis Melliflora said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

I never worked in a factory, but I did get to see how the one my dad and uncles worked at operated.

Interesting, that.

But then I went off and was a a soldier for a while. Not a lot of people know what that's like anymore, either.

Gagdad Bob said...

12 years in a supermarket in Malibu, '76-'88. I'm quite sure I'll never have a more enjoyable job.

Tom said...

Tesco Signs in Roswell, New Mexico was a sheet metal and cement building which housed about 40 guys pounding it out daily in the paint, plastics, glass, welding and etc departments, with several radios tuned to different stations turned up to the hilt. After one year, I quit amidst a mild nervous breakdown. I think it was the conversations during break time, guys bragging about the 10 and 20 and 30 years they had worked there, that finally pushed me over the edge. I figured... all I need to do is get a telephone, so people could call ME up instead of my boss, and I could hand-letter signs and be on my own. I still am, 35 years later. Life is too short to be employed.

Nicole said...

I worked in a plastics manufacturing and printing plant for about a year when I was around 22 years old - putting ink in presses, inspecting printed lids for errors as they came down the conveyor belt, and the hot side of the factory, boxing up the butter tubs and lids as they came off the belts from the extruder/former dealie. I have eaten lunch from paper sacks in those bare bones break rooms while listening to the workers who had been there 20+ years talking about still scraping out a living and going paycheck to paycheck. Every job has dignity if you bring it with you, you are quite right. But nothing inspired me more to go back to college and finish than working there for a year and listening to the lifers.

Thud said...

Degree in politics and philosophy and then straight into construction and security (well bouncer!)....never looked back and never worked with another college educated person again as architects don't count.

NKVD said...

Worked in several factories - have made everything from apple cider to cassette tapes. Worked in foundries, whice were nice in the winter because it was warm. Worked in a door factory, which was very cold in winter when we opened the doors to load the trucks. I had 50 jobs before I was 40, and was glad to leave all of them. I then went to work for a computer manufacturer and moved on to various software and design jobs.

Now I make wooden objects in my own factory. That is better.

TmjUtah said...

There were no surveying jobs to be had in Utah at the tail end of the 91 recession, so I signed up with a temp agency right after we moved here to my wife's job.

I worked for a table manufacturing outfit for almost six months. They used me in trim and general grunt work for a few weeks but I ended up running the wood shop for about four months. In that time we reorganized the layout of the machines to get the wood running through the shop, not just into and out of it, and thus cut down material handling time by about half. We went from two hundred units finished to over four hundred daily while I was there.

Those Italians made some wicked machines. We had two monster saws - a power fed table with (if I remember correctly) a twenty four inch blade and a fourteen inch rising chop saw. There was also a band saw for cutting curved components, and a router/shaper with its own power feed.

I made extra money by coming in on Saturdays to work with the product development guys, or just assist the plant engineer with maintaining the machines.

The experience certainly changed the way I look at tables.

I don't miss it. They tried to counter-offer the engineering company that finally hired me... but that stint at the table factory was the longest running employment working under a roof I've had since high school.

I consider my current employment factory work. Major construction in concrete is all about production, precision, and schedule. I am grateful for the employment.

But it's definitely BYOD. Indeed.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Factory work? I've donea bit. I've made everything form engine parts to frozen pizza. Hottest place? The cast-iron foundry. Coldest? Frozen pizza.

I was a machist for 15 years before I became 'educated', and now that I have a sit on my ass office job I sometimes miss teh shop floor. I always got a thrill when I would load a raw hunk of iron into a machine and pull a usable one out.

There is a certain magic in manufacturing that you can't get anywhere else. Knowing that it was my talent and skill that created something tangible.

I don't miss the dirt, the heat or cold, or the back breaking labor. Oddly enough, I do miss the smells. Machining metal has a smell that brings back all of the good times for me, even though I can't put my finger on exactly what makes that smell unique.

Hot metal is a part; so is machining coolant and an electric motor ozone.

Maybe the last part is the incense of pride in the job.

Anwyn said...

Two summers: #1 in a mirror plant in North Carolina, day shift with 4:30 a.m. overtime. Only got cut a couple times. #2 in an American Stationery plant in Indiana, night shift, where I stamped the names of the bride & groom onto their reception napkins. I don't know how it's done now, but back then, and with that company, we each ran a big machine that stamped the names onto the napkins one ... THUMP ... at ... THUMP ... a ... THUMP ... time. We got lead forms with the names and date and design, and we gouged at the lead with a razor blade until the little wayward lumps were off the pristine design. Then we put the lead type into the machine at the appropriate place, swiped a napkin onto the machine's apron, and reached out with both arms to two big buttons on either side of the machine. I suppose this was so that we'd have to have both hands occupied so that we couldn't bring the stamper down with a hand where it shouldn't have been. THUMP. Oops, there's a stray thread of silver running off a silver letter. Take out the lead, gouge at it again--don't shave off the letters, idiot!--put it back in the machine. THUMP. And so on. We took home the piles of test napkins. My family used them for years.

Good times ... now that they're over. :)

Knucklehead said...

Yeah, I worked in one of those for a couple years while finishing school. Making printed circuit boards. Nasty, nasty chemicals involved in that.

Cleaned toilets, mopped floors, emptied trash cans, ran a machine that used ammonia to create blueprints from the sepias.

Loaded trucks, picked orders to be loaded on trucks.

And yeah, to whomever it was who asked, I've been a soldier. I've been so deep in mud that I wasn't certain I'd get myself out of it. And I guess that's true both literally and figuratively.

With the possible exception of that job loading trucks I can't recall any of those jobs where I didn't meet some interesting people, learn something, and laugh a lot. Odd how that works.

Then came many years in the computer world. No complaints. I stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer and I've supported my family well enough.

My latest gig is with a smaller outfit where it is sometimes all able bodies on deck and sometimes that includes physical labor. When that is the case I generally find myself marveling at how "intelligent" those who do physical labor are about doing it. We who are the "information" workers are generally pretty darned inefficient, and not nearly so clever as we fancy ourselves, when it comes to labor.

BTW, SippicanCottage, that was a heckuva a good read. Thank you, Sir.

SippicanCottage said...

The comments surpass the subject material.

Knucklehead- Thanks for reading and commenting.

NKVD said...

I had forgotten about my time in the printed wiring board shop. I was the material handler, which means I used large shears to cut the raw copper plated sheet fiberglass material to size before it got silkscreened, drilled and etched.

The chemicals were brutal - the guy in the gold plating room suffered from dermititus from contact with the arsenic gold solution. The old guy who ran the degreaser liked to huff the carbon tetraflouride. One guy drank and smoked dope like there was no tomorrow. One day a stoner dropped a 5 gallon glass carboy of hydrocloric acid - that cleared out the building. This was all before the EPA and whatnot, so when the smell was diminished and the acid hosed into the sewer, back to work we went.

But I did learn how printed wiring boards were made and went from cutting materials to make double sided boards to designing 10 layer boards and then integrated circuits. All because I paid attention and stayed out of the plating shop.

Knucklehead said...

NKVD,

The chemicals, as you mention, were often disposed of straight down the drain. Rotted out the sewer pipe outside the building so that, a few years after I'd left there, a tractor-trailer rig collapsed the entire road. Needless to say the company was soon out of business.

I thing we used tricloroethane or some such for the degreaser. Brutal is appropriate.

It was quite a crew that worked there. I spent my time screening.

The police used to stop by several times per week. They were generally on one of two missions: 1) to at least speak to and quite probably arrest a worker, 2) to have a worker fabricate a tool from a slice of that copper-laminated fiberglass board. They basically cut a properly oriented notch near one end of a foot and a half or so long, roughly two-inch wide, strip of the laminate.

The tool was used to open locked cars. Took less than three seconds. As I recall the technique (been a while)... slide it down along a door window, roughly centerline, until you had just enough left to hang on to, then slide it toward the door lock side of the door until it bumped up against a mechanism, then pull it out and the lock would be opened.

Those were the days. Between the GI Bill and Pell grants, My Better-Two-Thirds and I needed jobs paying just a bit more than minimum for maybe 30 or so hours a week and we could afford a roof, Our Little Rattletrap of an auto, and two squares a day while finishing school. Heck, we could even splurge on a trip to the local tavern for a beer each once in a while.

Having lived like that - and live we did - has served us well many times over the years. What a woman!

Knucklehead said...

Oh, and Sippican, thank you for the kids words. A pleasure to drop by here and visit from time to time. Your friends at Maggie's often point folks in this direction.

Knucklehead said...

Yikes! "Kind words", not "Kids words". Funky new keyboard of some oddly curved and tilted sort. Feels OK on the hands but the keys seem to get lost under my fingers. I'll give it another few days and them probably smash it and find an old fashioned one.

NKVD said...

The tool of choice on the crating line in the door factory was the hatchet. There was a crazy guy on that line who was prone to stomping through the factory, ranting and raving, carrying his hatchet in his hand. That was disconcerting. He invoked various dieties and was thought to be "colorful". He was an armed psychopath in my opinion.

The guys who ran power tools had all sawed off at least one finger. One guy managed to saw off all 4 on one hand. They called him "Dog Paw". They were cruel, but they were stupid.

One guy blew his arm off while resting it on the muzzle of his rifle - it discharged and took his arm off. He fit right in with the rest of the stumpy idiots.

There was limited onsite parking - you had to crawl up the senority ladder to get to park in the company parking lot. The guy who had the best spot had been there for 45 years. Needless to say, I parked blocks away and hiked. I don't think I lasted more than 3 months in that hell hole.

And they still make doors, which can be seen in stores near you.

NKVD said...

I worked in a millwork shop in the deep south one summer. We had to unload a boxcar of bags of cement in the blazing heat. The guys I worked with thought it would be better if we could carry two 96 pound bags at once. When they saw that I could hang with that (I was a 165 pound 16 year old) they upped the ante to 3 bags at once. I did that, then we went back to one bag at a time. They were some strong mofos.

NKVD said...

Oh yeah, the job in the printed wiring board shop paid $2.25 an hour. I went to work for a mainframe manufacturer next and got $2.75 an hour - big time.

Rob De Witt said...

In 1963 I got a job working on an assembly line at Allis Chalmers, installing drawbars on bulldozers for 90 dollars a week. Along with frycooking, chasing cows and cleaning up after them in a livestock auction, cutting down trees for a gypsy moth eradication project in California, kid jobs delivering newspapers, caddying on a golf course and being a soda jerk, I've been a singer/musician, a computer programmer and a software trainer.

It's all been an education. Great essay, Sippican, and thanks.

NKVD said...

High rise concrete construction was brutal.

Pouring concrete in the Rockies when it was 4 degrees was brutal.

Hauling squares of shingle up to the roof of a new two story house in 8 degree weather was brutal.

Felling trees in the forests of NC was and remains dangerous. But I keep my saw sharp and so far, in 40 years of sawing, am still gettin' after it.

I think I have framed my last building - the last one I did, this past winter, was brutal.

Today I cleaned out the shop and milled a couple of signs on my CNC - that was not brutal. I like it when my machines work well.