Friday, February 15, 2008

Blue collar buyout

[News references] I was really sad to hear about the Automaker buyouts that are set to take place soon. The car companies have long been suffering under the weight of providing benefits, especially with rising health care costs, to current workers and retirees. They want to "buy out" as many workers as they can, offer early retirement or other incentives to voluntary termination/severence -- then replace the workers with a new generation who receive much lower pay and weaker benefits. This has been coming for many years.

I was hired on the GM assembly line back in 1976. It was a huge factory complex that was composed of Corvette, the truck line, and the passenger line which produced Impala and Caprice coupes, sedans and station wagons. That's the one I worked on (although I worked on the truck line for a couple weeks as a fill-in). Prior to being hired there, I had 2 years of studying Fine Art at the Community College under my belt, and discovered that I did not really have any job skills. Part of the Fine Art training was to avoid demeaning yourself by acquiring Commercial Art skills, and to never create Art that is not for Art's Sake... we were above that, thought we were on a higher plane... so after asking a couple of prospective employers "what's paste-up?" (and they were really uninterested in seeing my nude figure drawings in charcoal), I got a job bartending in a real low-class dive paying $15 cash for 9 hours of work daily. The place was not far from the GM plant, so I got acquainted with a couple of foremen, and one of them gave my job application the short-cut.

They were adding a night shift, so there were a couple thousand of us that started at the same time. We were getting our orientation, and after observing how slowly the workers moved and that it looked like they did their jobs with ease, I remarked to the Foreman "that doesn't look too hard." "HHGMFF", He snorted, "Oh yeah?" Well before I knew it, I was assigned to attaching windshield post mouldings... that piece of plastic that runs from the dash up to the roof. Once a minute I had to see look at the upcoming car and pull the right color stock, open the door, sit on the seat with my legs braced against the bottom edge of it for balance, snap the part in place (which by itself took all my strength, and required a couple of good hard whacks with my palm), then drive the screws in place with a heavy drill positioned over my head and at an angle.

I had to spend some time in the company clinic each day after my shift, sitting there with my swollen hands in ice. Other new workers were in there going through the same sort of thing. It wasn't just the hands... it was every inch of my body. Where it wasn't bruised or swelled up it was just plain sore. After about a week or so, the Foreman moved me to something that was slightly easier for me. I did quite a lot of different jobs in there, and they were mostly all really hard, although there is "light duty". Driving screws, throwing heavy things, swinging a mallet, shoving, crimping, squeezing, whacking, high noise levels, fumes from machines and forklifts, HOT (my work area got up to 125 deg. in summer) plus lots and lots and walking on the job and on your breaks. We worked our first 90 days without UAW protection, and during that time we got to see what it would be like to work in a place like that with no Union. Management used the time to weed out people they didn't like. They'd assign a 100 lb. woman the job of lifting something that weighed as much as she did, short people assigned to reach high, tall people made to work in cramped spaces, a minute late clocking in? you're gone. Too sick to work? same thing.

Most of us were unskilled workers who were finally fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to make a decent wage and have good benefits, so we were willing to work ourselves nearly to death if necessary to get through the 90 days, and then we were IN. We had certain rights then, such as requesting to be reassigned to a task within our capabilities. Under the Union umbrella it was all negotiation. They had the right to work us 9 hours a day and 3 out of 4 Saturdays. It was mandatory. In return we were paid for the overtime and they weren't allowed to work us more than that. We got used to the hard work, and before long we were pacing ourselves. We had rhythm. We could do the jobs in our sleep.

This job was life-changing. It enabled me to be able to purchase the tumbledown building I lived in, buy a new economy car, pay my bills, start taking classes again... classes that would help me start a career. I had been on my own for several years, but the job enabled me to become independant and able to take care of myself, and my mother as well. She needed all kinds of help which I could now help provide. It provided a bootstrap where I had none.

Lots of issues hit the auto industry and/or its workers: plants would be moved to right-to-work states (Union not required), then came the trend for moving plants out of the USA, automation increasingly replaced human jobs, the quality of the products was poor, health care and benefit costs kept rising.

We were laid-off during a company slump and eventually our plant closed. I was thrown back into the pit of minimum wage jobs with no benefits until I managed to get enough schooling to be hired for my skills, which took several more years.

I am sad because the prospect of being able to make a good honest living with steady wages and good benefits -- without having a college education, being an entrepreneur or entering the military -- seems to be gone. The Middle Class is shrinking and these workers were a big part of it. We've come to the end of an era in this country. I'm not a fan of trying to go backwards, I just want "progress" to mean good things for human beings who are trying to get by.

Here's a video that's part of a short film about a Plymouth assembly line in 1955. Things were actually still very much like this when I hired on. In 1976 our plant, which was not really state-of-the-art, had some robots but they had only a few functions, mainly in welding. They had just changed the policies regarding women as well, to respond to demands for equal rights. Previously, women were given easier jobs, got longer breaks, and there may have been pay discrepancies (not 100% sure about that one), but when they brought us in, all those things were done away with -- which was a good thing. This is part 6 of a series:

The rest of it:


Ellie said...

I know what you mean about the shrinking middle class. I was a fan of Hubert Humphrey. He was a champion for the middle class and predicted it's evaporation back in mid 70's just before he died.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

A return to the days when workers had rights and decent jobs like the one you had would not be going backwards, it would be a continuation of the foward momentum that we all had that was stopped by greedy companies and shortsighted politicians.

Mando Mama said...

I agree with the Monkey. There need to be options for workers at all levels of skill and training, not just the ones who want, or can afford, four year degrees. At the same time, with manufacturing jobs evaporating like they are, we all need to be taught better how to understand our skills, market ourselves, and think creatively and entrepreneurially about work. We all need to understand business better, and where each of us fits best into the economy, and how we can help drive the economy. You are an entrepreneur and from what I've read you've reinvented yourself many times (and may be in the process of doing so yet again). You're the new business model. It's time to leave the business school drones behind.