Tuesday, September 1, 2009


A self-important man is giving the six of us- newly hired second shift line workers at AO Smith- very detailed instructions. Dangerous-seeming machines and apparatuses whiz and percolate along a conveyor belt in a space the size of a couple football fields. Scowling, bored piece-workers are deployed strategically, it would seem, to somehow rein in these machines. They appear to be failing.

The man is using lots of gestures along with his verbal instructions because the deafening racket makes it impossible to hear a word he’s saying. We try to ask questions, but his sign language responses are only more confusing, and he's hard to see through our smeared plastic goggles. Not wanting to appear stupid on our first day, we are simultaneously trying to disguise our incomprehension, while hoping to glean some decipherable clue about what we are supposed to do next. He’s getting frustrated. He can’t really hear our screamed questions, and he screams back answers to questions we didn’t ask. We don’t hear these either.

At one point, his face light bulbs. He disappears for a moment, and returns with an "I am a genius" look and a handful of what he obviously thinks is the solution to a problem: earplugs. They look filthy and used, but we dutifully insert them into our ears. The machine roar is instantly reduced to a muffled hum. But his instructions are just as unintelligible as before, and we desperately try to read his lips, and each other’s, to figure out what’s going on.

Still, progress: as we work our way through the foundry, our small group dwindles as we are deposited, one by one, at the machine that will be ours for the night. Each is loud, greasy and massive, but there are a variety of shapes and apparent functions. Though the factory as a whole is manufacturing auto parts, no single piece of metal being processed by these machines seems to have any obvious relation to a car.

As the first few recruits are left at their stations, it becomes clear that not hearing a word the foreman said was not such a handicap after all. Within moments, our new co-workers on the piece work line wordlessly demonstrate the couple mindless, repetitive, back-breaking steps that will be our contribution to the finished automobile for the next eight hours. Minus twenty minutes for lunch, and two six minute breaks for the bathroom, which is a two minute walk from the line.

I am last. My machine is a very tall punch press, one of a long line of machines strewn along the line. Oddly shaped pieces of metal are moving slowly down the belt- though the lazy pace proves to be an illusion once I begin lifting them. My task is to pick up the object- eight crooked feet long, weighing about 30 pounds- and to insert it into the jaws of the behemoth. After pressing two large buttons, the only apparent controls, the giant mouth clamps shut and two new holes appear in the metal slab. (It used to take just one button but too many hands had been snapped off, so the union won this safety concession.) The final challenge is to replace the piece on the belt in a standing position, so that the next worker up the line can lift it with the least possible strain.

Nobody needs to know anything beyond how to work their particular piece- in fact, the less we know the better. Since we are paid by the piece, it seems obvious to us virgin industrial proletarians that the faster we work, the better for everyone. But within a couple hours, each of us is taken aside and given a short but firm seminar in the long term dangers of “speeding up the line.” This is the most important thing I learn in my AO Smith career.

At any rate, working too fast is not my problem. I never master the challenge of making those pieces stand up for the next guy. After six weeks of coming home after midnight, exhausted, ragged, like some escapee from Dante’s inferno, I quit. But I keep the steel-toed boots I’d been issued, a gift from AO Smith Corporation, and wear them to picket lines for the next ten years.

No comments: