No matter what the enterprise, most employees know who the hard workers are, even though it’s not their job to know. They know who hustles, pitches in and lends a hand, who goofs off and avoids work, and who strives to keep the operation going by performing those thankless little tasks that don’t necessarily get noticed by management.
Everyone in the Folded Products department knew that Helen T. was an exemplary worker. She was a non-complainer, a trooper, a genuine “team player” (in the truest sense of that term, not in the bastardized, seminar-generated sense that management used it). But it wasn’t until a graveyard shift in the spring of 1992 that they realized what a mensch she was.
Early one Friday morning, at about 1:00 AM, the #1 Kleenex multifolder machine suddenly shut down with a horrific, clanking thud. Even before the maintenance guys were called out to diagnose the problem (a broken drive shaft), the crews had already concluded, by the alarming sound it made, that it was a major calamity.
Although #2 machine was located barely 15 feet across the aisle, the breakdown had no effect on the #2 multifolder crew. They continued cranking out Kleenex without so much as flinching.
Minutes after the breakdown, Ned Blake, the shift supervisor, told the machine crew that it was going to require several hours to repair the damage—probably not until well after the end of shift (7:30 AM)—and instructed them to prepare for cleanup.
Ned was a recent University of Wisconsin graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, followed by an MBA. He was known in the department for going around and telling everyone that the combination of a technical degree, coupled with an MBA, was the “key to success.” Clearly, Ned was a young man with a dream.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t what you would call a “born leader.” As hard as Ned tried to project the image of a calm and relaxed manager whenever major equipment broke down, he couldn’t quite pull it off. Although he endeavored to remain poised, the knowledge that he’d have to explain the subsequent down-time to his bosses—who would take the news badly—was tearing him up inside.
He tried to fake it; he tried to fake it by smiling broadly and confidently whenever there was any trouble. And while he undoubtedly thought he was grinning good-naturedly, even ironically, what the crews saw was the twisted grimace of a profoundly worried man, and this look unnerved them. Ned had no idea how grotesque he appeared.
The crews hated mechanical breakdowns because it interrupted their rhythm. A breakdown meant that they were going to be taken off their regular jobs and assigned to some shit detail, either something that would be excruciatingly boring and cause the night to drag by interminably, or something that was going to get them very, very dirty.
Because Ned was new to the facility, he wasn’t familiar with the protocol. So instead of assigning the usual cleanup chores, grim and filthy as they were, he decided to treat the down-time as an opportunity to conduct a major cleanup, the kind of cleanup that gets scheduled every year or two, but requires considerable planning and preparation.
Ned didn’t realize that you don’t do a big-time cleanup just because a drive shaft broke. Not only had #1’s guards, shields and housings been removed, exposing the machine’s sensitive innards, but there were mechanics already busily working inside the machine, and these guys were going to go ape-shit when pressurized air hoses began blowing paper dust all over the place.
After being told of this, Ned reluctantly changed plans. Although he wasn’t entirely certain that the crew wasn’t gaming him—lying to him to get out of additional work—he made another command decision. He decided that one of the jobs he needed done was having the glue build-up under the #1 glue deck removed. He had no idea what he was asking.
Sealing glue had been accumulating under the #1 deck, drop by inexorable drop, for at least a decade, creating a mound of rock-hard glue resembling a stalagmite in a cavern. The problem with removing it was one of access. The mound was located directly under the glue deck, which meant you had to crawl several feet under the platform just to reach it.
And with barely two-feet of clearance, you not only had to shimmy your way under the platform, but there was no room to utilize the power equipment necessary to break the mound loose or chip it away. Because the glue mound was just sitting there, inert, doing no harm (other than aesthetically), and couldn’t be reached effectively, the area had come to be regarded as no-man’s land.
But Ned insisted the glue be removed. When he asked whose job it was, no one answered. No one answered because, for one thing, no one wanted to do it, and for another—since no one had ever done it—no one actually knew whose job it was. When he persisted, one of the utility men candidly told him that the glue mound was more or less a permanent fixture, that removing was, in fact, “no one’s job.”
Ned grinned awkwardly, unnerving the crew. Then he shocked everyone by informing them that he had just issued a formal work directive, and that he considered their wise-ass response to be a case of “insubordination,” for which they could be written up. Ned was obviously angry. The crew was obviously frustrated. It was a very bad moment. And that’s when Helen came to the rescue, volunteering to do the job herself.
She crawled under the console at about 1:30 AM, armed with a one-inch wide chisel, and she didn’t crawl out again until two hours later, sweating like a proverbial pig. Sweat was pouring off her. There’s something heartbreakingly poignant about a husky, 57-year old grandma with sweat-drenched gray hair plastered to the side of her face at three o’clock in the morning, slithering out from under a two-foot high metal platform.
Remarkably, through hard work and determination, Helen had managed to make a dent—a discernible dent—in that ungodly mound of glue. It was no small feat. As stocky and low-centered as Helen was, it was amazing that she could even fit in so small a space, much less maneuver within it.
The reason she crawled out was because the relief man had shouted to her that it was time for her lunch break. And, oddly, when she returned from lunch, Ned casually assigned her another job—asking her to assist in cleaning the #1 casepacker. Either he was satisfied with the progress she’d made with the glue or he now had other priorities.
But when the day shift reported for work, Ned got frisky again. He took the union shop steward aside and told him he was contemplating writing up the crew for insubordination. Even though Helen had stepped up to the plate, Ned knew she’d done it as a goodwill gesture, and the belief that the crew had openly defied his authority was still gnawing at his insides.
The steward, Mike Avila, was old enough to be Ned’s father. When Mike hired in, fourteen years earlier, Ned was still a pimply-faced eight-grader, playing grab-ass with his pimply-faced buddies in the boys’ locker room, with not the remotest idea of what working people went through in the course of a day. Alas, fourteen years later, he still had no idea.
Mike reminded Ned that the graveyard folks were recognized as one of the best crews in the mill. These graveyard denizens—working while the world slept—performed heroically, doing everything in their power to keep the production line running, knowing that spitting out boxes of Kleenex was sacrosanct.
Ultimately, he was able to persuade Ned to forget about the reprimand by appealing to his vanity and sense of self-preservation, convincing him that the union would automatically grieve the write-up and that, given the crew’s exemplary work history, the grievance would likely be upheld, which would cause Ned to look foolish and vindictive.
Our story ends the way all union stories do. Ned got promoted, and the crews kept working. He got promoted off the backs of union people who supplied the production numbers that were the basis for that promotion. A symbiotic relationship where only one of the organisms actually prospers.
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 email@example.com