One summer when I was in college, I landed what I thought would be a plum of a job at a General Motors plant in Pontiac, Michigan. In just under four months, I would earn enough money to carry me through the next academic year.
On my first day of working the afternoon shift, I parked my car in this huge lot and walked a quarter of a mile to the gate. I showed my badge, was given directions to my workstation, and was admitted into the factory. It was like an oven and had this eery lighting that made everything seem spectral.
As I walked the half mile to my job, I increasingly felt like I had just entered Dante’s inferno. The men I passed were engaged in a bewildering variety of tasks that forced them to contort their bodies in unnatural ways, the noise was deafening, and everything was covered with a oily sheen.
When I arrived at my job location, I was told that I was to be a punch press operator. These were gigantic, three story machines fitted with dies. I would take a piece of sheet metal off the line, fit it into the machine, and place both my hands on the safety buttons. The top die would then come down with tremendous force and stamp the metal into a bumper, a fender, or whatever else we were making that day.
The booming of the machine was so loud it was impossible to even talk to the person standing next to me. The pace of work was never-ending, for no sooner had I stamped out one piece than another was waiting for me. If I delayed even for a second, the pieces would begin to pile up and the foreman would be on me for slowing down the line. Each piece of sheet metal was covered with a grease so that it wouldn’t break when stamped. My terry cloth gloves would soon be soaked and it would become increasingly hard to handle the pieces.
Beyond the brutal heat, it wasn’t physically demanding work, but it was boring as hell. There was a ten minute break in both the first and second halves of the shift, separated by thirty minutes for dinner. I would live for the breaks, but it seemed forever before they came. When they did, I’d stand in line to use the bathroom and then have a couple of minutes left to buy a stale donut from the vending machine.
While I tried to be a good press operator, I soon ran into trouble. Often pieces of sheet metal would be cut off the part we were making. These could be razor sharp and the force of the press would send them flying. It wasn’t long before my arms were a mass of profusely bleeding cuts covered with grease. Finally, a piece flew out of the machine, entered my work boot, and pierced my toe. I was sent to the infirmary.
I found the nurse to be less caring than I would’ve liked. She had somehow determined that the injury was my fault, and I was admonished to avoid any in the future. But it wasn’t just me that was getting cut, it was all of the college hires, and every couple of days one of us would to taken to the infirmary. Somehow the veterans on the line had learned how to dodge the shards.
This was the late sixties and the height of the protest movement. Management had apparently concluded that the injuries were part of an organized conspiracy to slow down production and bring GM to its knees. We were told in no uncertain terms not to get injured again or we would lose our jobs. From that point on, we would ignore the cuts and gashes, waiting until we were back home after work to clean and bandage the wounds. It was just one more thing we had to put up with for the princely wage of six dollars an hour.
No matter how I tried, I never quite got acclimated to the work. Everyday I dreaded going to the factory, and when I was there, time just seemed to stand still. There was a hope, though, that was there would be some breakdown that would stop the line and give us a respite for five or ten minutes. How we relished those times.
The veterans would push us to work quickly so that we would meet our production quota early. If we really went all out for our eight hours, we could finish fifteen minutes early and have time to lounge in the line waiting to punch out at the time clock. On the bulletin board next to it was an article posted about the yearly salary of GM’s CEO. Someone had done the math and calculated that he earned in a week what we earned in a year.
Before work one day, I learned that my grandmother had just died, but I knew that if I didn’t show up at my job, I would lose it. At dinner, I stretched out on a bench to rest and realized that I had my arms crossed just as if I were in a coffin. I looked up at the ceiling and thought to myself that if this were to be my job for the rest of my life, I’d rather be dead.
I could allow myself that thought because I knew I would be returning to college in the fall. But the veterans, who had learned to dodge the shards of sheet metal and drove themselves unmercifully to be able to enjoy that fifteen minutes at the end of the day, were going to be there for life, if they were lucky enough not to be laid off.
Ironically, it’s now the workers that are going to own GM. Amid all of the talk about cost-cutting and new products, and how unfair it is that the workers will own more than the bondholders, I can’t help but believe there is a more fundamental management change needed if the company is ever going to compete against those Japanese I saw a few years ago in Toyota City, working in teams side by side with their leaders, in a clean, well-lit, and safe environment.