Sunday, April 26, 2015

Those Good Old (Disappearing) Factory Jobs Rant

      Years and years and years ago, when high-paying factory jobs were still available, my best buddy and I loaded up his ’55 Chevy and headed across the George Washington Bridge, our destination sunny California. We made the trip in five days, a journey that included fifteen hundred miles on Route 66, there being no completed Interstates west of St. Louis. This was our big adventure, undertaken at a time when airline trips were still a luxury. Mike and I were high school educated, but even though we had no specific plans and no connections, I don’t recall any discussion of what we intended to do after we settled in Los Angeles. The country was prosperous and jobs abundant.

      We found lodging easily enough, affordable housing also being plentiful, and I landed a job in a Pasadena aircraft factory within a week. I no longer recall the name of the factory, or exactly what it manufactured beyond parts for other parts of commercial aircraft. I don’t recall exactly what the company paid, either, only that it was enough to cover the rent, put food in the fridge and repair a beat-up Packard that got me to work if I didn’t push it too hard on the Freeways. What I do remember, on the other hand, and quite clearly, is my first day on the job.

      I received no training, not even an orientation. A factory foreman escorted me from a reception area onto one of those enormous spaces generally measured in football fields. The whistle signaling the start of my shift had already blown and the din was almost, but not quite, painful. The air smelled of lubricating oil, human sweat and, more vaguely, of scorched metal. We reached my station, a tiny space surrounded by tiny spaces, a few minutes later. I’d been assigned to man a drill press. To my left, as I stood before the press, a rolling bench held a metal box filled with…. I don’t actually know what the small metal items were, and the foreman saw no reason to give them a name. My job, which he did explain, consisted of a single task. I was to place one of these widgets into a depression on the press, drill a hole through the center of the widget by lowering and raising a lever, deposit the completed widget in an empty box on the rolling bench, fit a new widget onto the press and pull the lever again. If at the end of the day, I surpassed my drilled-widget quota, I would receive a bonus.

      What’s the point?

      I’m probably responding as much to a somber tone as I am to content, but when I hear pundits bemoan the permanent loss of high-paying factory jobs, as if they were observing those jobs cross an arbitrary divide separating the eastern and western hemispheres, I cringe. They seem to be implying that something about factory work, some special skill, justified the high pay. Sadly, this skill is not required for the service industry jobs that have replaced those factory jobs and lower wages are not only inevitable, they’re justified.

      I worked in other factories as I passed through my twenties. At no time was I expected to show any more skill than on my first day in Pasadena. My bosses were looking for three traits. First, reliability. Would I show up every day, on time and sober?  Then speed and stamina in equal measure, as the bonus system demonstrates. Productivity was determined by widget count, by how many widgets you drilled and not how well you drilled them.

      The next time you’re standing on a supermarket checkout line, take a close look at the woman or man behind the register. Imagine that you’re managing the market. What do you need from this employee, other than speed, stamina and reliability, in order to do your own job? I would say nothing at all. I would say that the assembly line worker and the grocery checker are equally skilled. I would say that high-paying factory jobs are high paying because the pay is high. I would say that low-paying service industry jobs are low paying because the pay is low.

     It is in the perceived interest of virtually any business to reduce every cost of doing business, and labor is an undeniable cost of doing business. And while there will always be a few “enlightened” employers – Costco immediately comes to mind – businesses generally attempt to reduce the cost of labor, whether by shipping those high-pay factory jobs overseas, or replacing human beings with factory floor robots, or busting unions in Wisconsin.

       On December 30, 1936, auto workers, under the banner of the United Auto Workers, seized General Motors’ Fisher #1 body plant in Flint, Michigan, which supplied body parts for Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. They barricaded themselves inside and prepared for battle by amassing piles of bolts and door hinges at strategic locations. As a second Fisher plant in Cleveland that supplied parts for Chevrolets, was also on strike, the Flint occupation effectively shut down GM’s automotive division.

      Twelve days later, in response to an injunction issued a by a local judge, the Flint police attacked. One might yawn at this point. Police from municipalities all over the country had been attacking striking workers for a hundred years. The difference here, the exception to the general rule, was that the workers inside the plant, fought off several assaults and final routed the police. They paid a price, of course – fourteen strikers were injured by police gunfire – but workers had been paying in blood for a hundred years by then, so….

      General Motors had another card to play. It petitioned Governor Frank Murphy to call out the National Guard. Unfortunately for GM, Murphy had a conscience and he called out the Guard, not to drive out the strikers, but to protect them from strikebreakers and the Flint police. With no options left, GM began negotiations with the UAW and the two parties reached a limited agreement on February 11th that accepted the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for unionized GM workers. That was all the UAW needed. Within six months, it signed up 100,000 workers and those factory jobs, which paid subsistence wages at the time, were on track to support a middle-class way of life.

      A word to the wiseguy.


  1. I think Solomita has it right here. The issue is wages. You can't expect people to go to work every day for wages below subsistence.

  2. You can if you help them sign up for food stamps and drive all the competition out of town!

    ! My understanding of labor is terribly basic, but for service jobs, the Walmart model still seems to be operational, and as for manufacturing, for those industries remaining in the US, robot Solomitas have replaced young meat Solomitas in widget-drilling, freeing the Solomitas of the nation to that wonderful life of the mind we never envisioned when we forgot whose labor all those futuristic labor-saving devices were going to save.

    1. I understand the bit about signing people up for food stamps (which, by the way, conservatives want to cut). Now workers must have subsistence wages in order to survive. If we use various subsidies to achieve subsistence, the government is, in effect, subsidizing low wage industries with tax dollars.