Tommy and the Division of Labour
In the window factory we had two routers, the machines that bored holes into the window frames for the moving parts and for the pieces that secured the glass in place. Routering was a simple process for the operator. All the operator had to do was insert one corner of the frame into an opening in the machine about waist level, where it would line up with the bore bit as it drilled upward, and then step on a pedal to activate the machine. After the first corner was bored out, the operator simply rotated the window frame and repeated the process. Once all four corners were finished, he or she set down the frame near the machine and started working on the next frame. Then the operator did another frame, and another frame, and another frame.
For two hours the operator stood at the machine and rotated frames and stepped on a pedal, and after a 12 minute break came back to the machine and carried on for another two hours before lunch break. Following lunch, the worker returned to the machine again and continued to rotate frames and step on a pedal for four more hours, interrupted only by one more 12 minute break. How could anything go wrong? The whole process had been made as simple and as efficient as possible. Anybody could do it, and one person was supposed to be able to process approximately 120 frames in one shift.
One day however something did go wrong with the process. Some of the window frames coming down the production line were damaged. There were gouges around the bore holes in the corners, and also gouges and scratches on the face of the frames. The frames were rendered useless, and new frames would have to be cut. It seemed that the operator, a man named Tommy, was not placing the frames into the router machines correctly. Instead of carefully lining up the corner of each frame with the bore bit – frame after frame, day after day, week after week, and month after month - he was just recklessly jamming the frames into the machine. It was almost as if Tommy was angry, and deliberately damaging the frames with the aim of costing the company money.
Certainly that was what the company argued when they suspended him for one week without pay; though after filing a grievance through the union, the suspension was reduced to three days. Of course he was angry, and deliberately wrecking the window frames. What else could any human being do in response to a job that not only produced windows for our homes and other buildings, but turned a person insane? Tommy was not at fault for the damaged window frames. The real fault was in a system of manufacturing that expected a human being to function with all the intellect and soul of a machine.
I knew exactly how Tommy felt. Just up the floor from the routers was the cleaning station. The welding process created an edge of vinyl on the face and the inside of the frame. Cleaning involved trimming off the edges at all four corners with a chisel. You braced the corner of the frame against an edge on the table, and chiselled from the inside to the outside of the corner until the surface was flush. When a corner was done, you rotated the frame and chiselled the next, and the next corner, and the next, and then again for the inside. All day long you rotated and flipped over window frames and chiselled corners. You did nothing else.
For nine months I worked at cleaning, standing still and performing the same simple movements endlessly. I remember driving into work in the morning and feeling this sense of dread engulf me. “My God”, I would think to myself, “I have to do this same shit all day again”. I would look around behind me at the stack of frames that I had to clean, or look at the clock at any time before the last 15 minutes of my shift, and my heart would sink. By the time business slowed down I just begged to be laid off. Even trying to survive on pogey - only $175 per week for me - was better than cleaning more window frames.
Another fellow that understood how Tommy felt was Junior. When I returned to work after my first layoff, I came up to ask Junior how he was doing. While I had escaped the grind for four months, he had remained behind doing the same task over and over again. “Still stuck in this hell hole”, he said. He placed springs into the window frames all day long. Pat seemed even more frustrated than Junior when I spoke with him around the same time. On some of our models, a piece of extrusion was overlaid on either the face or the back of the window frame. Pat and another fellow would screw on one piece with electric screw drivers, then flip the window over on the table, and do it again, and again.
Screwing down vinyl was their only function, and I was not surprised to hear Pat say that he felt like hitting people who talked with him, or that he was taking anti-depressant medication. Then there was Andy, who worked in the screen department. Now Andy seemed a little crazy to begin with, but this condition was not helped by a job that consisted of installing the mesh into countless window screens all day. On some occasions he could be seen talking to himself, and a few times throwing window screens at people who would ask him a question.
The whole production process consisted of the same simplified and repetitive tasks carried out by Tommy and the other guys. In the saw department, some guy pushed one end of a window frame insert into a spinning bore bit, and then the other end. He did nothing else all day. Two other workers in the saw department pushed strips of rubber tubing into the back side of the frame all day. Over in the glass department somebody attached two sheets of glass together with a heavy-duty caulking gun. All day he would fill in one edge with a rubber compound, and then step on a pedal to rotate the pane and fill in the next edge.
Somebody else in the glass department trimmed the excess rubber off the window pane and stacked it onto a moveable cart. Two other people did nothing but attach strips of white metal together in the shape of a cross, which was inserted in between the glass on some panes. Another, on the assembly line, placed strips of padding inside the frame to cushion and hold the glass in place, while the guy next to him sealed off the frame with regular caulking. In all of these tasks there was no teamwork, no moving around or beneficial exercise, and no thought. By the end of the first week you thought that you were going to walk off the job.
So the staff rebelled, constantly. A loud buzzer was the only way that the company could ensure that we did not leave early for our breaks, or return late. Half of the staff in the plant lined up early to punch out. No doubt the other half of the staff would have lined up early as well if they were situated closer to the punch clock. It got so regular that the plant foreman finally called a meeting and said he would turn the clock back 10 minutes if the problem continued. Periodically the plant foreman called us all together and said that “Absenteeism was becoming a problem again.” Practically everyday, and certainly every week, we were missing staff across all work areas in the plant.
They did not even bother to fake being sick, just skipped work for the day, or days. Again the foreman called us all together and threatened to fire people if they did not call into work to explain their absence. Then there was the staff turnover at the plant. Every week I saw new faces among the employees. Sometimes people would disappear after only a few hours on the job. They would make it to first break or lunch, and then walk out of the plant without even bothering to inform the supervisor. If the company was going to be miserable to us, then we were going to be miserable to them.
Beyond the drudgery, this system of manufacturing caused still other problems for the worker, such as mistakes on the job. During the first half hour of the shift your eye and hand coordination was sure as you worked with your tool, or operated your machine, or installed a part. Then your mind drifted, and your attention became divided between the task at hand and a whole other imaginary world. Soon you inhabited this imaginary world entirely, and your body was just mechanically going through the motions. In my case, I would think about past events and change my defeat into victory, or dream up scenarios in which I was the hero. More fun still was imagining telling the boss to go to hell.
A short time later I would dig the chisel into the face of the frame and be jolted back into reality. To the foreman, this sort of mistake was always worker incompetence. At least that is what he told me when Todd, a guy working next to me, dug the chisel into his hand one day and required stitches. Moreover, the company required us to sign each frame as a way to track our individual mistakes and take any disciplinary action. To us, this sort of mistake was inevitable in performing a task that did not even remotely engage your brain. The very simplicity of the task did not make the work easier, it made the work harder.
Injury was another problem for the workers in this system of production. One push of a chisel along the corner of a window frame is hardly a strain on the muscles or joints of a worker. But when you multiply this one motion by approximately twenty-four to clean one full frame front and back, and multiply it again by one hundred and twenty frames, which was our daily quota, you were chiselling two thousand eight hundred and eighty times in one day. Moreover, that count was for a skilled worker. In the first two months at least, I struggled with my lack of manual dexterity and went well beyond only twenty- four motions per frame.
Shortly after I arrived in the cleaning department, two out of six cleaners had gone out on Worker’s Compensation for wrist injuries, and a third person had so severely aggravated pre-existing injuries that he developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both of his wrists. Al was his name, and his doctor told him that he would have to get surgery to repair the damage. As for myself, I faired little better than the others. An injury to my right shoulder, sustained from working in the shipping department the year before, had not recovered, even after a four-month layoff from work. Cleaning window frames over nine months made the injury worse, so much worse in fact that my shoulder has never fully recovered from this time in my life.
Many workers also experienced problems with drugs, be it alcohol or narcotics. One of our best workers at the cleaning station regularly smoked marijuana. When he worked on one of the assembly lines, his supervisor would ask him if he had smoked up before work. “Yes”, he said, “and I’m going to smoke up tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day”. One of the other fellows used to show up for work smelling of alcohol, and a third fellow, only in his mid twenties, was trying to overcome alcoholism. These men had other problems in their lives as well, but a big reason for their use of drugs and alcohol was the job. Other fellows in the saw department smoked up in their cars during lunch break, inspite of the fact that they worked with dangerous saws all day.
Sometimes the only way to get through a day, let alone a week or month, was to numb yourself. In my own case, only my writing kept me sane. I would bring a piece of paper into work with some ideas and set it on the work table when the supervisor was absent. As I chiselled, I would try to swirl these ideas around in my brain in the hope of producing a complete sentence, which I would write down immediately if possible. When this approach did not always work, I really wished that I believed smoking pot was acceptable.
A fourth additional problem for the worker was economic degradation. Our pay at the factory, from $7–9 per hour for 90 percent of the staff, was already criminally low. I was a single man with no dependants, and I struggled to maintain a squalid bachelour pad at $350 per month, and an old car that was already paid off. My savings were never more than a few hundred dollars, and my weekly treat was two beers at the bar, and a sub sandwich on Saturday along with a copy of The Globe and Mail. For the guys who were supporting a family it must have been a real grind.
So if you were forced to go out on Worker’s Compensation because of an injury, or took a layoff at the end of the season, you sank into financial quicksand. Worker’s Compensation gave you only 80 percent of your gross pay, and as we used to say to each other at work, “eighty percent of nothing is still nothing”. Unemployment Insurance was even worse at 60 percent of your gross pay, in Moncton, New Brunswick anyway. During one layoff period, I remember eating spaghetti without sauce every night for a week, and dropping my car insurance. If you skipped work because of the drudgery, or quit the miserable job and had no unemployment insurance behind you, it was even worse.
This system of production also caused problems for the company. The regular absenteeism, high turnover of staff and injured workers could not help but impact production. Indeed, production fell so far behind that the company made overtime work mandatory. At first, the saw department was hit with twelve-hour shifts from Monday to Thursday, with Friday off, which added one full extra day of work. After a small scale rebellion the twelve-hour shifts were eliminated, but the overtime work continued, merely spread out over five days. The company also forced us to make up for statutory holidays. Whenever there was a statutory holiday, we had to come into work on the Saturday to prevent production from falling even further behind. On other Saturdays we were not forced to come into work, but the company was often looking for volunteers.
Work quotas were increased as well in the effort to maintain production. At the cleaning station the quota was increased from eighty to one hundred and twenty frames in one shift in only two years. Moreover, we had to mark down our numbers on a piece of paper and submit them to the supervisor daily. If your numbers were low, the supervisor came back, stood beside you and said that “there was a problem”. We did not finally catch up on production until nine months later, and only because the building season and the demand for windows was winding down.
Quality Control was another problem for the company in this system of production. How can you maintain high quality manufacturing with such a considerable turnover of staff? At any given time we functioned with a significant number of un-skilled or partially skilled workers. When I first arrived at cleaning I went slowly and still damaged a lot of frames. It was at least two months before I was reasonably competent with a chisel. The mind drift from repetitive work also undermined the quality of manufacturing. When as much as ninety percent of your staff struggles with monotony, the product is going to suffer.
Soon the company became so frustrated that it posted notices around the plant called QC On The Line:
It disappoints me to find that some of the windows that are going down the line are still not the way that I nor you would like them to appear in our home. We must make an effort to improve the quality of the product….We have a chance to produce the best quality windows in Eastern Canada but you must be willing to commit to this. Management has taken a firm stance on quality….but a chain is only as strong as its weakest link…
The notice went into detail for the different positions around the plant, and exhorted us in the strongest moral tone to take pride in our work and put quality first.
The company was hit hard by wasted labour and material in this system of production. If a mistake in the work was minor, more often than not it could be fixed. A hole in a non-important spot on the frame could just be filled with some caulking. A shallow scratch in a frame could be cleaned up by squirting on some solvent and rubbing with sandpaper until the surrounding surface was flush with the bottom of the scratch. The frame did not always look the best, but it still passed through the rest of production and all the company lost was some employee work-time. If the mistake was substantial, however, it could not be fixed.
This was especially the case in the saw department, where we did the rougher work. A gouge or deep groove in the face of a frame could not be sanded down without noticeably altering the appearance. A bad gouge on the inside of the frame would interfere with the placement of parts further down the line. A frame that was improperly welded together could not be adjusted. In each case a whole new frame had to be made, which entailed using more material, re-cutting the material, re-welding the material and re-cleaning the material. These sorts of mistakes used to happen so often in the saw department, that one day the supervisor posted a sign for the record lowest number of re-cuts.
The company had to contend with un-necessary operational costs as a result of this system of production. Overtime work is paid at the rate of time-and-a-half. Instead of paying a worker seven dollars and twenty five cents for one hour of work, the company had to pay out ten dollars and eighty seven cents. All of the overtime work as a result of absenteeism, staff turnover, and injuries, meant that the company had to pay out much more money to get the same job done. The other increased operational cost was Worker’s Compensation. In New Brunswick, employers cover the cost of compensation based on the type of industry and associated risk of injury. The more injuries there were among staff, the higher the premiums paid by the company.
At the cleaning station alone the injury problem became so acute that the company called in consultants. One consultant, who clearly had never spent a day of her life in a factory, concluded that we needed to stretch at the start of our shift. The second consultant, a nurse, showed us how to stretch. Not surprisingly, nothing at all was said about the problematic nature of the work itself, or the fact that the quota had been raised from eighty to one hundred and twenty frames. Company money was paid out to the consultants, and the staff continued to suffer injuries, at the cleaning station and elsewhere.
So why do we have this system of work? Why do we force so many workers at so many factories to stand at a work station and endlessly carry out the same simple task? It is not for the benefit of the worker. After one week he or she wants to quit from the sheer the drudgery, not to mention the problems from mistakes, injuries, drugs, and poverty. It is not for the benefit of the company. The owners or managers have to deal with staff disciplinary problems, reduced production, lower quality products, and un-necessary operational costs. Indeed, the whole system is rotten to the core for both the worker and the company.
Not even more money for the worker would make a difference. While this sort of work, as mentally taxing as any, should be well paid, all the money in the world would not have made it more human. You could have paid me $50 per hour, instead of the $7.25 that I was making, and I still would have gone crazy after a whole year, let alone for the rest of my life. The only right course of action is to abolish this miserable system of production. Our people need to produce our goods in a way that allows them to think, feel, and act with a sense of real purpose in life.
It is not going to be easy though to change this system of production. Despite all of its problems for the worker and the business, this system does accomplish one objective; it perpetuates our system of class here in Canada in the most brutal way. In a matter of hours the worker involved with such labour knows that they are being oppressed, that they are considered garbage. A person feels right to the centre of their bones that this system of production has been designed so that a few people can look down on the many. The company owners and managers are not about to change this system and lose their feeling of superiority.
Change must come from the workers who have to endure the drudgery and sense of inferiority. At a minimum we must push for a rotational system of work. For example, in the saw department a person could shift through the routers, cleaning, chop saws, specialty saw, supersaw, welders, and finally frame preparation. Under this plan there would an interval of several months before Tommy or anyone else would have to stand at the router again all day. Moreover, the worker would get to work different muscles, and exercise different mental skills. The new system would not be flawless, but it would be a lot better than what we have now in so many factories across Canada, and most importantly, Tommy and others would not feel the urge to damage the product they help build.