We Do the Work

Whenever Labor Day rolls around I get filled with subversive thoughts about the unfairness of it all. While it’s the workers who keep the operation going, it’s management who gets the credit.  It’s management who gets the credit, the glory, the promotions, and, ultimately, the compensation. Management crawls up the corporate ladder on the backs of the workers.

This economic arrangement has been in existence, more or less, since the pharaohs had the pyramids built, so we’re not trying to rediscover America here.  Still, given how skewed and topsy-turvy and fundamentally unjust the arrangement is, it’s amazing that people continue to work so hard.

We’re a country of workers.  Instead of raising the black flag and setting out looking for throats to slit, people simply put their shoulders to the wheel and work all the harder.  It’s astonishing.  But when it comes time for contract negotiations, and the workers ask for a commensurate raise, management forgets all the hard work and loyalty and, instead, regards these people as greedy bastards.  The less these managers pay their workers, the sooner they’ll earn that next promotion.

The following anecdotes are true.  They took place at the Kimberly-Clark paper mill in Fullerton, California, during the 1980s and 1990s.  The hourly workers were affiliated with Local 672, AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers)

*  * *

Rotating shifts were arduous.  You worked 7 consecutive days of dayshift, then 7 days of swingshift, then 7 days of graveyard (then started all over again).  And when you were on swingshift, and there were vacancies to fill, you got moved around a lot.  Typically, this became your new week:  Two 12-hour dayshifts, followed by two days of straight swingshift, followed by two days of 12-hour graveyards, followed (eight hours later) by one last night of swingshift.  Believe me, you didn’t know if you were coming or going.

The crews drolly referred to this hellish configuration as the “terrible twos.”  For spry young men in their twenties or thirties (especially single guys with no family obligations), the terrible twos were little more than an inconvenience, nothing they couldn’t handle.  Their bodies recovered quickly and they bounced back.  In truth, their main complaint was that this bizarre scheduling cut into their social lives.

However, the terrible twos weren’t confined to young men.  There were 61-year old women, like Maria Gomez (a single woman with a disabled daughter living with her), who were hit with the same punishing schedule.  And even though Maria wasn’t in the best physical shape, she never shirked, and you never heard her complain.  She came in carrying her lunchbox, performed her job conscientiously, then returned home to grab a few hours sleep.  A real trooper.

And this was factory work we’re talking about, not some cushy job in an air-conditioned office where all you did was shuffle papers and try to look ironic.  Yet, the engineers—men who worked straight days and never knew what it meant to double back on 4 hours sleep, and were young enough to be Maria’s grandsons—complained about her.  They grumbled behind Maria’s back about how “old ladies” like her were “dragging down the operation.”

* * *

There was an Asset Leader whom I’ll call Kevin, a manager right out Hollywood Central Casting.  The robo-executive.  He was tall, well-built, good-looking, a former football player at Kent State University, and, supposedly, an ex-Navy SEAL.  Kevin’s problem (besides being a world-class bullshitter) was that he not only knew nothing about working people, he held working people in contempt.

It’s true.  He had zero respect for workers.  No matter how good the production numbers were, Kevin always had the nagging feeling that the crews were holding something back, that they were dogging it, that they were capable of working much harder, and that they were somehow faking their effort, which meant, in effect, that they were lying to him.  And, as he continually reminded people, if there was anything he hated, it was a liar.

A unitizer driver, Ted, asked Kevin for a day off without pay.  He’d been trying to set up a dental appointment for two weeks, but because they kept changing his schedule, had been unsuccessful.  Every time he set up an appointment, either his shift was changed or he was forced to stay over to fill a vacancy.  Ted had finally reached the point where he was willing to lose a day’s pay to see the dentist.  With his sparkling attendance record, he could have just called in sick and been done with it, but he wanted to be up front about it and not have to lie.

Ted was one of the most respected men on the floor.  He never missed work, never dogged it, never played mind games.  He had run for shop steward some years earlier and been elected by a landslide.  Naturally, Kevin assumed Ted was lying to him, and denied his request.  When Ted reminded him that management guys were able to leave work whenever they wished—to run errands, get haircuts, fulfill dental appointments, etc—Kevin bristled.  He told him that what management did was none of his damn business.  Then he said to Ted, “We went to college, and you didn’t.”

The story had a happy ending.  Kevin was later fired.  Although the company rarely shared its reasons for terminating management employees, the Kevin episode was kept especially hush-hush.  The union really had to dig to find out the reason.  We eventually found out that Kevin was fired for lying to Human Resources about something important.  The man who hated liars was fired for lying.

*  * *

The first Fullerton crew to produce 200,000 Huggie disposable diapers during one shift was Crew 3.  It happened on a graveyard shift.  Machine #6, Crew #3.  Hitting that 200K was a landmark achievement.  Even though it all paid the same—good runs paid the same as bad runs—people were always trying to break production records.  And that 200K, given the prevailing machine speeds, was the granddaddy of all records.

Even without the hope of promotion or extra compensation, the crews were driven to excel.  Whether it was pride, the joy of competition, whatever, these people wanted to show the bosses they could hit big numbers.  Of course, when production records were broken, the management team was absolutely thrilled because it meant recognition and promotions for them.  Though they had little to do with it, they were the ones rewarded.

The night of the record run started out like any other night.  Then, at about 2:00 AM, Brenda, the machine operator, casually checked the count and realized we had a realistic shot at hitting 200,000.  For the remainder of the shift Brenda refused to take her regularly scheduled breaks.  Charlie, her normally low-key Fluff Assistant, forfeited his break as well, now consumed by production fever.  Hitting 200K was their sole concern.  Happily, the final count came in at a shade under 201,500 diapers.

When the numbers were confirmed, management proudly announced that they would be making a plaque to commemorate the event, that this plaque would be hung on the wall of the main corridor, and would have the names of the 5-person production crew, the names of the shift mechanics and shift electrician, and the name of the shift supervisor.

That last item turned out to be the fly in the ointment.  The supervisor, Neil, an ex-hourly worker and, God help us, ex-union officer, who’d been promoted to management, was an idiot.  His petulance and child-like simplicity drove people nuts.  The way the machine crew saw it, the record run was achieved in spite of Neil, not because of him, and the thought of his name appearing on the plaque made them ill.  In truth, Neil (cruelly nicknamed Rex the Wonder Dog by a mechanic) had no idea we were even close to a big number until Brenda told him….45 minutes before the shift ended.

I was union president at the time.  The crew asked if I would meet with the plant manager and formally request that the plaque not include Neil’s name.  I knew this would cause heartburn, but I reluctantly agreed.  For one thing, the crew was dead serious in their request, and it was hard to turn them down; for another, I personally shared their low opinion of Neil, having had some previous run-ins with the stubborn son of a bitch.

After hearing the request, the plant manager more or less pleaded with me to reconsider.  While he acknowledged that Neil had contributed little or nothing, he made it clear that not including his name would be a terrible precedent as well as an insult—an insult not only to Neil but to the supervisory staff as a whole.  Privately, I agreed with him.

While I’d been willing to pass on the request, I didn’t like the idea.  Keeping Neil’s name off the plaque seemed like a waste of time, serving no real purpose other than, perhaps, further alienating Neil, who already felt persecuted.

I went back to the crew and passed on what the plant manager had told me.  After considering it, they graciously withdrew their objection.  The plaque was made, hung on the wall, and Rex the Wonder Dog got credit for the record.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that, years (years!) afterward, Neil’s name on that plaque still annoyed the hell out of some people.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. 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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