WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FOUR – Part One, The Demon Lover)

I’ve had a pretty exhausting day for various reasons so I’m sticking to a smaller entry to kick of this section. There should be three sections in total and they will gain momentum in terms of length as we go on.

The “demon” in question.

The Making

Phil Stallings (Spot-Welder)

We start this section of Book Four with two parts of a whole, a Ford factory. Back in the 70s, factories were still very much a thing and especially when that concerned automobiles. As the two workers we will see in this article tell it, the lines are never-ending, tumultuous and make folks prone to injury from the minor to the severe.

Stallings works the third shift and barely moves from the spot he is assigned to.

Pretty early on, his surroundings are made known and they aren’t pretty:

The noise, oh it’s tremendous. You open your mouth and you’re liable to get a mouthful of sparks. (Shows his arms) That’s a burn, these are burns. You don’t compete against the noise. (p. 160)

The foundation of Stallings’ work is built upon a lack of communication between his and his co-workers. Whether that’s an intentional move so that collusion between workers can’t happen (e.g. unions) is anyone’s guess. But what is obvious is how much these conditions perpetuate unnecessary injuries and how that lack of communication is a likely culprit.

To deal with this sort of environment, Stallings remembers to when he was a boy. Between the two workers we’ll see in this article they’ll both tell us that trying to focus on the job itself is a fool’s errand. I’d say the same thing about my job which isn’t nearly as brutal in many ways but can be invisibly brutal as a result.

Trying to focus on the actual items I scan isn’t my top priority much of the time. I might be thinking about my plans for the week or things that happened in the week. I might be stressed out by a work-related incident or perhaps a manager is leaving or a co-worker and I aren’t getting along. Usually I’m just trying to remember to stay present and communicate.

But that’s pretty difficult when:

It don’t stop. It just goes and goes and goes. I bet there’s men who have lived and died out there, never seen the end of that line. and they never will—-because it’s endless. It’s like a serpent. It’s just all body, no tail. … Repetition is such that if you were to think about the job itself, you’d slowly go out of your mind.

(p. 160)

By that same token I bet there have been many people who have lived and died on the digital assembly lines of retail stores. These lines too never have an end and are made up of endless amounts of bodies, material goods, wealth and problems to be trampled under, whether by the customers themselves or your manager(s).

I try to think as little about my job as possible. I think about positive things I want to do when I don’t have work. I think about videos I haven’t gotten to watch or movies I may want to see next. I think about the articles I have yet to write and the many ones that I have written that I am proud of. I think about people I love and regrets I have.

And hey, remember school?

I don’t like the pressure, the intimidation. How would you like to go up to someone and say, “I would like to go to the bathroom?” If the foreman doesn’t like you, he’ll make you hold it, just ignore you. Should I leave the job to go to the bathroom I risk being fired. The line moves all the time. (p. 160)

Remember how in school you couldn’t move anywhere? You couldn’t get out of your chair, go outside the room you were being taught in and you certainly couldn’t go to the bathroom without being told to or asking first. It’s almost as if schools are training our minds for that sort of subservience elsewhere…

Granted, things have progressed in at least some places. At my place of work I still have to let someone know that I am going to the restroom. But I often have someone who can cover me at the front and I’ve never had anyone refuse me.

Then again, can’t say the same for schools.

Perhaps the most powerful passage was this:

I don’t understand how more guys don’t flip. Because you’re nothing more than a machine when you hit this type of thing. They give better care to that machine than they will to you. They’ll have more respect, give more attention to that machine. And you know this. Somehow you get the feeling that the machine is better than you are. (Laughs.) p. 160

Come to think of it, there’s a lot of good quotes just from one page. Overall this interview is pretty informative about the working conditions. Stallings goes into more detail about how he used to want to be a foreman. But once he realized their lives are even more dominated by work and especially the politics of management. Sure, they might be able to get a coffee or even use the restroom(!) without asking but seeing people as automatons isn’t what Stallings want:

…You see a guy there bleeding to death. So what, buddy? That line’s gotta keep goin’. (p. 161)

Maybe that seems like an exaggeration but Stallings’ tells a story about him getting blood poisoning and getting little in the way of care. And more generally Stalling says that his experience is such that if he was seriously injured he would just be pushed to the side and he’d be soon replaced.

Stalling aspires to work in utility but really wants to work with kids in social services.

But he feels it’s too late for him and tries to tell kids to go to college so they won’t end up like he has.

That being said, he knows having pride in his job would be foolhardy.

To finish, Stalling tells a story of a co-worker, Jim Grayson…

Jim Grayson (Spot-welder)

But before we get to Grayson’s story, a little about him:

He is also a part-time student at Roosevelt University, majoring in Business Administration. “If I had been white. I wouldn’t be doing this job. It’s very depressing. I can look around me and see whites with far less education who have better paying jobs with status.” (p. 164)

In addition to this there are issues of air pollution, monoxide fumes, the heat that can build up in the factory and the inefficiency of the building layout, how it makes workers take much of their breaks just trying to find the bathroom and then trying to find the area where you’re supposed to eat.

All of this adds up to a fairly degrading and often times dangerous situation. It’s also a situation that Grayson, reaffirming what Stalling said before, makes communication to even the person next to you, nearly impossible.

Grayson goes as far to compares it to jail:

A lot of guys who’ve been in jail, they say you don’t work as hard in jail. (Laughs.) They say, “Man, jail ain’t never been this bad.” (Laughs.) That’s the way I feel. I’m serving a sentence till I graduate from college.

So I got six more months in jail. (p. 165)

Though from what I understand, most jails are “kind” enough to provide a toilet in the jail cell but that just promotes another whole mess of problems for the convicts. Still, it’s something that even prisoners don’t have to do: ask for the permission of the guards to use the bathroom. Not so much with Ford factories in Chicago during the 70s.

Grayson backs Stallings up on the fact that thinking about the work itself is a no-go. Grayson tries to think about anything else besides the work he is actually do. He calls the work “boring” (p. 166) and especially for someone who is going to school and trying to challenge himself in the world, it’s a dismal job.

Not to mention the racial factor:

“I get pretty peeved off lots of times, because I know I can do other work. They have their quota of blacks and they have just enough so you can’t say they’re prejudiced.” p. 166

Stallings also mentioned this but I wanted to wait till we actually heard from a person of color. Stalling is more blase about the whole matter, denoting their are obvious racial tensions and separation going on within the workplace. But for Grayson this is his life so not surprisingly he has a bit more to say (such as the above) about it.

With regards to people being injured and getting little to no assistance:

One night a guy hit his head on a welding gun. He went to his knees. He was bleeding like a pig, blood was oozing out. So I stopped the line for a second and ran over to help him. The foreman turned the line on again, he almost stepped on the guy. That’s the first thing they always do. They didn’t even call an ambulance.  … The foreman didn’t say anything. He just turned the line on.

You’re nothing to any of them.

That’s why I hate the place. (Laughs.) (p. 167)

Grayson says this was before the union really became a thing in the factory he works. But at the same time, the union that is there is only so much help. Often, when he has grievances or anyone does, it only has a chance of getting to the company and making an impact if the union backs it. But otherwise, “…you’re at the mercy of the company.” (p. 167), which, given Grayson’s skin color is hardly surprising if he’s often left out in the cold.

The incident I refereed to earlier will close out this article:

I was going on my break. You’re supposed to wear your safety glasses all the time. They don’t enforce these things. I took mine off just to wipe my forehead. He said, “Get your glasses on!” It’s these nagging little things building up all the time. always on my back. so I grabbed him, shook him up a little bit. And I went on to lunch. I came back and the were waiting for me. I was supposed to have been fired. I got the rest of the night and two days off.

The guys that worked with me, they didn’t like it. So they sat down for a while. I’d already gone. They refused to work for about twenty minutes or so. Now this takes a lot of nerve for the guys to…good guys.

(p. 167)

There’s power in worker solidarity, even if it’s just sometimes a handful of y’all.

According to Stallings they ended up costing Ford around $100,000 in just those twenty minutes.

Remember that.


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