Tales from the Line

In the summer of 1965 I worked as a “Sweeper” on the assembly line at the Fisher Body plant in Lansing, Michigan. I found that my job required less than 3 hours actual work in an 8 hour shift. Being a guy who liked to read, I would spend much of the 5 hours I had no work sequestered in various nooks and crannies with a book.

One day, I was reading Atlas Shrugged while sitting on a box of parts about 8 feet off the floor. This height proved insufficient to avoid the notice of the General Foreman, and he reamed me from stern to stem. What I gathered from this was that I should not appear idle, even if the job more or less implied idleness for an able bodied adult.

This seemed just bizarre until the end of the shift, then it got yet a bit more curious. As I punched out, the guys doing the same job before and behind my section of the line gestured me over. They were leaning on their brooms as they held a discussion as if I were not there. They discussed what it looked like if someone didn’t pretend to have 8 hours work as a sweeper, and how that could screw up everybody’s life – mostly the life of the guy who couldn’t dawdle through 8 hours while accomplishing 3 hours of work.

I said, “You know, if you don’t like the way I do the job you could complain to the General Foreman. In any case, I can do your jobs on top of mine and I’d do it for only double the pay. Should I ask about the possibility?” This drew a string of expletives and threats that I probably should have taken more seriously. In any event, 2 months later I was at the very beginning of the process of flunking out of the University of Michigan. The veteran sweepers (and there has to be an oxymoron there) didn’t have me to think about kicking around any more.

After a year at UofM, where I learned much of value – but little of it from classes – I returned to working at Fisher Body in the spring of 1966.

Later that year I was working “extra board,” basically I could do all the jobs on my section of the line and filled in for absentees, or I provided “relief” breaks by doing someone’s job for 12 minutes at a time. I was often lent out to other departments where I had to pick up a new job on the fly. I was paid an additional dime an hour for this flexibility.

1967 was the year a few line workers had an extra task added to their job. That was to apply a sticker to the inside frame of the driver side door.

This is the sticker.
The small type at the bottom says “MARK OF EXCELLENCE”.

I observed the first half-dozen jobs to go down the small car line (the bigger 98’s had a completely separate line from 88’s and F-85’s) with this sticker applied upside down. It was not an accident. It was a protest based on a perverted understanding of “work rules,” and a complete misunderstanding of the importance of customers. It was a naked statement of entitlement.

I thought UAW/GM had improved since then. Until Ron Gettelfinger’s comments rejecting UAW “targets” (not “requirements”) for George Bush’s UAW bailout, I had assumed the UAW had gained some small understanding of their members’ relationship to people who buy cars. Obviously, I was wrong.

Perhaps less wrong than Gettelfinger, however.

Who’s Losing the U.S. Car Business?

Who Is at Fault for the Decline of the Big Three?

Shock: Al Sharpton Takes on the Unions

Baby, Who’s Your Stakeholder Now?