Monday, April 12, 2010

Brief Review of Ben Hamper's Rivethead -- Proabably the best book I have ever assigned students

By the end of the twentieth century, the power of the unions was severely diminished. Several reasons exist for the union’s contemporary impotence. The 1979 Oil Shock prompted a consumer shift from gas guzzling autos to smaller, more efficient vehicles. Global competition ended both management and worker’s era of the “American Dream,” and foreign competition encroached on the industry’s profits and worker’s jobs. Global events, combined with advances in robotics and the advent of the “team concept” also eliminated positions. “By 1985, the auto industry had eliminated half its jobs.” In addition, a conservative political atmosphere – evinced by Ronald Reagan’s immediate firing of striking air traffickers – abolished the dwindling clout of the labor bloc. Most importantly, both labor and capital enjoyed the gluttony of postwar American prosperity. The days of conflict had passed, and unions began to tacitly accept the dictates of management. Steven Jeffreys noted, “The UAW was now a junior partner with Chrysler management. It shared the same goal as Iacocca – the economic survival of the company – and was committed to cooperation to attain it.”7 Perhaps more poignant was the prescience of a worker interviewed in Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me, who stated, “the union is getting weaker, we are losing power. Too many union guys are friends with management.”8 He chided the auto industry and stated, “some people know what time it is, some don’t.”9 By the 1980s the union had lost its clout, and the impotence continues as it enters the twenty-first century. When the Flint, Michigan, Fisher Body plant, famous for sit-down strike of 1937, was shut down in 1983, the UAW promised to stage a major demonstration. Rather, it was a pathetic gathering – only four workers showed up, and they were relegated by security to the sidewalk. Dodge Main also quietly closed in 1980. As Emma Rothschild suggested a decade before all this happened, the auto industry auto industry was now Paradise Lost.

The Rivethead and the Quality Cat

Certainly paradise was hard to find for those working the line. In 1991, Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line was published, a memoir of his time toiling at the General Motors Flint Truck and Bus factory. Hamper was a factory worker with a remarkable ability to write with humor and sensitivity. His partnership with muckraker Michael Moore earned him a national reputation as a cutting edge blue-collar writer.10 Hamper was a third-generation “shop rat.” His grandfather had moved from Springfield, Illinois to Detroit in 1925 and worked at Chevrolet. During World War II, his grandmother built machine guns at the AC Spark Plug factory, and then worked in an aircraft factory. His uncle worked for 45 years at the Buick Engine Plant. Hamper’s father, a womanizer and drunk, floated in and out of the factories. An early memory recounts the day that the Hamper family visited the father while he was working on the line. Ben watched his father install car windshields over and over. That night he observed, “Car, windshield. Car, windshield,” and thought, “Do something else!”11

Yet Hamper sees his life as largely predetermined, and for him, that unfortunately meant the same assembly line work that his father had detested. Hamper grew up in a broken home and a sense of inevitability hung over his future. After a drug-ridden high school experience, and an unplanned pregnancy, Hamper painted apartments. When the recession of the 1970s began to lift, his sister-in-law scored him an application to work at General Motors. Claiming his “birthright,” Hamper was ushered to the Cab Shop, known by workers as “the Jungle,” and “began to install splash shields with a noisy air gun in the rear ends of Chevy Blazers and Suburbans.”12 Within a shift and a half, Hamper had conquered his assignment.

For leftist intellectuals, the degradation of labor is lamentable; for Hamper, the degradation of labor is something to revel in. To Hamper, labor in the automobile industry was enjoyable because it was mindless, and at $12.82 an hour, lucrative. After he mastered his initial job, Bud, a linemate, convinced Hamper to ‘double-up.’ This setup required that one worker do two jobs at the same time, while the other worker rested. Hamper read novels, newspapers, drank at local watering hole, and occasionally wandered through the factory. When Bud left, Hamper convinced Dale, a new worker, to double-up. Hamper’s pen revealed the insanity created by the line as many workers drank and took hard drugs. A worker named Roy took acid and vomited all over the line. A few nights later, Roy incinerated a pet mouse with a brazing torch, of which Hamper wrote, “The money was right, even if we weren’t.”

Even with the layoffs of 1979, Hamper continued to receive money – a comfortable $268 a week. When his grandfather commented that he was getting a free ride, Hamper thought, “indeed I owed a tremendous debt to my grandfathers and uncles and to all those who bravely took part in the historic sit down strikes of 1937 . . . but hold on, we worked damn hard also,” Hamper continued, “some things never did change . . . the factory was still a shithole, comparisons be damned.” Hamper concluded that the generations of shoprats could not relate to each other’s era.

When Hamper came back from his layoff, he was in the cab shop, this time with a scheme to produce tailgates faster than they came off the feeder line. For his efficiency, he earned 45 minutes of free time. This glory quickly ended with another set of layoffs. After a few weeks of debauchery, Hamper was back at GM, this time on the rivet line.13 Hamper began working the ‘pin-up’ job. This position riveted a cross bar, a four-wheel drive spring casting, a muffler hanger, and another cross bar to the vehicle’s underbelly. The worker aligned the holes and then drove the rivet in with a gun. Compared to his earlier placement in the cab shop, the rivet line was in constant motion and Hamper was in relative solitude. He used a myriad of strategies to conquer the monotony of the assembly line:

Desperation led me to all the usual dreary tactics used to fight back the clock. Boring excursions like racing to the water fountain and back, chain-smoking, feeding Chee-tos to mice, skeet shooting Milk Duds with rubber bands, punting washers into the rafters high above the train depot, spitting contests . . . [and ] pretend that my job was an Olympic event.14

After a few weeks, Hamper was laid off and then called back. Both Hamper and General Motors indulged in the gluttony of the postwar automobile industry. Both the machines and the workers were interchangeable. Hamper recalled an incident where a woman was knocked unconscious by a rivet gun, and a fellow line member shut down the line. Hamper wrote, “within thirty seconds, every tie within a 300-yard radius was on the scene,” and they wanted to know who turned the line off. The line was immediately turned back on and Hamper thought, “It was all so typical of General Motors. . . . It was perfectly fine for a foreman to the line and chew on your ass about some minor detail, but it was practically an act of treason for a worker to top the line in order to extricate an unconscious old lady out of harm’s way.”15 Hamper lamented about the relationship between production and safety. In the 1980s, Japanese competition began to take bites out of American automobile manufacturing hegemony. General Motor’s answer, as exposed by Ben Hamper, was a mascot named Howie Makem. Howie was a life-sized cat who encouraged workers to build quality automobiles. Hamper wrote, “Howie was to become the messianic embodiment of the Company’s new Quality drive. A livin’ breathin’ propaganda vessel assigned to spur on the troops.”16 The mascot became a company-wide joke. A few weeks later, Hamper was again laid off.17

Hamper was unemployed for nearly a year until GM landed a contract with the U.S. Army to build trucks, which Hamper referred to as “Ronnie’s death wagons.” Hamper managed to politic his way back to a position on the rivet line. Hamper then met a worker he called the ‘steering gear man,’ who worked a job at the end of the line. The steering gear man worked so hard that sweat poured from his chin. Hamper wondered how “the apportionment of duty in the plant so inconsistent that you would have half of the work force breaking their backs and chugging the work load while the other half were off playing cards.”18 Hamper observed his surroundings and found free time to write articles.19 Meanwhile, the steering gear man found the bottle. He began to drink so much that he talked to himself, and other workers on the line had to compensate for his negligence. The macabre episode reached a climax when the steering gear man, Hamper’s words, “turded in his skivvies,” and was sent home. A few days later the steering gear man was back on the line, working next to Hamper. Hamper worked with a crew that invented games like Rivet Hockey and Dumpster Ball to pass time. The cadre included a Black man named Eddie who could match Hamper drink-for-drink. Also in the crew was Janice, a woman who conquered the rivet gun. Finally, there was Jerry, who Ben nicknamed “the Polish Sex God” for his ability to court women. Alcohol played a central role in the lives of the workers. Hamper and his coworkers would drink before work, during breaks, at lunch, and after work. Hamper’s account exposed the naïveté of General Motors. Management had placed a massive electronic message board directly across from Hamper and used it to transmit messages like QUALITY IS THE BACKBONE OF GOOD WORKMANSHIP, A WINNER NEVER QUITS & A QUITTER NEVER WINS, SAFETY IS SAFE, and SQUEEZING RIVETS IS FUN!20 To the last of which Hamper replied:

I had several definitions of fun. Riveting was nowhere on the list. Taking in a Tiger’s game from the right field overhand was fun. Listening to Angry Samoans records while getting’ sloshed was fun. The episode of Bewitched where Endora hexed Dick York with elephant ears was fun. Dozing past noon with the phone off the hook was fun. Having sex in a Subaru was difficult – however, that was fun too. Squeezing rivets was not fun.21

Ben Hamper did not consider squeezing rivets fun, but he did consider it his specialty. When General Motors eliminated 30,000 jobs from factories in Flint, Hamper’s job at the Truck and Bus Plant was moved to a new facility in Pontiac, Michigan. Hamper had two years to make the move, during which time he continued work on the assembly line. Then on July 12, 1986, Hamper thought he was having a stroke, but in actuality it was an intense episode of panic attack syndrome.22 He ended up at a mental hospital.23 He attempted to work at the new plant in Pontiac, but the attacks returned. The plant at Pontiac went beyond what Hamper had experienced in Flint. Hamper wrote, “Everything in this plant reeked of science gone too far.”24 After his second day at Pontiac East, Hamper had another panic attack on the way home. Finally, after one more try, the hospital nurse sent him home. He never returned to General Motors. Hamper described the work:

The jobs were timed out to make sure workers wouldn’t be allowed a moment’s intermission. Anyone caught reading a newspaper or a paperback would be penalized. The union was nothing more than a powerless puppet show groveling in the muck.25

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