Labor’s Beating Heart

“We need unions to make sure that working people have a legitimate and consistent voice.”

—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Business Week magazine, 5/9/94

“The boss’s brains are under the worker’s cap.”

—William “Big Bill” Haywood (founding member of the IWW)

One of life’s gross inequities is that the people who actually do the work receive relatively little in the way of credit or compensation, while the people in charge of the work—the ones who plan it, assign it, oversee and critique it—receive regular promotions and large paychecks.

This discrepancy wouldn’t be so objectionable if it could be shown that the planning and supervisory aspects of the job were what made all the difference—that it was the boss’s contributions, the efforts of the guys in the front office, and not those of the workers on the floor, that determined the success or failure of a venture, but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Take your average, garden variety paper mill, for example. Because big-time factories want to get all they can out of their investments, those huge, expensive paper machines run 24-hours a day, seven days a week, nonstop, producing tons of paper an hour.  Accordingly, workers adhere to a rotating schedule called the “southern swing,” a configuration invented approximately 90 years ago in the textile mills of North Carolina.

The southern swing consists of working seven days of graveyard shift, followed by a day and a half off, seven days of swing shift, followed by two days off, and seven days of day shift, followed by three and a half days off.  Then it’s back to graveyard, and you start over again.

The hours are crazy.  Moreover, if your relief calls in sick, you’re responsible for the vacancy.  When possible, twelve-hour shifts are scheduled; but when not possible, you can be forced to work a double-shift.  You never know until an hour before quitting time if you’re going home.

The hours are crazy and the pay rates are carved in stone.  There are no inducements, no piece-work, no bonuses for record runs, no extra pay for extra effort, no incentives or additional pay of any kind.  You get paid by the hour, whether the equipment is cranking out product like the Indy 500, or whether it’s broken down in the driveway.

Still, even with wages fixed and no chance of bonuses, you see people—men and women, on all three shifts—busting their humps trying to set production records.  It goes beyond simply performing the job they were hired to do.  It goes beyond a mere desire to fulfill an obligation.  For want of a better explanation, it’s a desire to excel.

And it has nothing to do with supervision and Brownie points.  Indeed, supervisors are largely extraneous to the work at hand; nobody even pays attention to them, much less fears them.  In fact, so superfluous are most shift supervisors, they were largely done away with during the last decade, replaced by “lead men”—hourly workers who filled the role of glorified administrative assistants.  In some industries, including the paper industry, the entire front-line supervisory rung was more or less removed, testimony to the reliability and resourcefulness of the hourly worker.

The reason factory work gets done is simple.  It gets done because employees are willing to perform the hundred “minor miracles” required to insure that it gets done.

Over the years I’ve seen plenty of examples of extraordinary resourcefulness and effort.  Things like people refusing to take their lunch break in order to nurse a temperamental machine, skipping breaks to help fellow workers who are swamped, mechanics and electricians rigging up ingenious devices on the fly to keep machinery operating, and maintenance crews spending sixteen straight hours trying to get a product line running.  I saw a 25-year old tissue packer sweat through two shirts on swing shift.

I saw a woman on graveyard, “Agnes” (a grandma, old enough to be my mother), frantically try to clear a plug-up before the conveyor backed up, which would have forced the feeder machine to shut down.  Mind you, Agnes wouldn’t have lost a nickel had the machine died.  It could have stayed down an hour—a day, a week—with no material loss to her (in fact, had it shut down, it would have given her a much needed breather).

But she was determined not to let that happen.  She struggled to keep it going because it was her job to keep it going, and because fellow workers on both ends of the production line depended on her.  Watching her flailing away like a madwoman—frantically and  erratically yanking product off the conveyor line—was both inspiring and, oddly, disturbing.

On those infrequent, self-pitying occasions when the union brought these minor heroics to the company’s attention, we were either summarily blown off or greeted with a self-aggrandizing sob story of their own about how many hours a week a manager has to work, along with the reminder that, as salaried employees, they don’t qualify for overtime pay.

The union’s response was always the same:  First, despite the hours, you’re still very well compensated; second, if you want to call sitting in an air-conditioned office noodling with a computer screen “work,” that’s your privilege; and third, the reason you agree to put in all these hours is because you expect to be rewarded with a promotion, so let’s be honest.

Given that union workers don’t get merit promotions or bonus pay, they like to think management would, at the very least, step up to the plate and acknowledge their work ethic. But praising the union isn’t in the company’s playbook.  For one thing, management is afraid they’ll ask for more money at the next contract negotiation; for another, they tend to view the world categorically:  Management is the ruling class and the hourly are hired help….all part of God’s plan.

And the sight of a 63-year old woman with hair matted to her forehead and sweat running down her back—toiling in the dust and noise of a paper mill at three o’clock in the goddamn morning—had no effect on them.  It left them unmoved.  As a young, up and coming manager once said to me, “If they don’t like it here, they can quit.”

Ah, yes.  They can quit.  Spoken like a true leader of men.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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