Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line

Citation metadata

Author: Michae D. Yates
Date: Dec. 1992
From: Monthly Review(Vol. 44, Issue 7)
Publisher: Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,861 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

My father and Ben Hamper, the "rivethead" of this book's title, have a lot in common. Both spent good portions of their lives as factory workers, my father in a glass works and Ben Hamper in an auto plant. Both became factory workers because it was more or less predetermined that they would. All of their relatives and friends were factory hands. As Ben Hamper puts it, "Right from the outset, when the call went out for shoprats, my ancestors responded in almost Pavlovian compliance. The family tree practically listed right over on its side with eager men and women grasping for that great automotive dream." The high pay and benefits sealed their fates. Both hoped for something better but deep inside knew that the odds were long. The "rivethead" did get out, though not by choice. My father never did, despite the correspondence school courses and the plans to open a small store.

Mr. Hamper gives us a clear, darkly humorous picture of life on the line, telling us things which my father told me, though not in such a frenzied and manic way. The work is hard and dangerous. "Ropes, wires, and assorted black rubber cables drooped down and entangled everything. Sparks shot out in all directions--bouncing in the aisles, flying into the rafters and even ricocheting off the natives' heads. The noise level was deafening. It was like some hideous unrelenting tape loop of trains having sex." Not to mention the extremes of hot and cold, lung-clogging dust, and noxious chemicals which will prevent most workers from enjoying their retirement. A foreman actually told my father, now disabled with emphysema, that if you could see the dust it would not hurt you.

The work is unimaginably boring, something which the "rivethead" had, at seven, already discerned on a "family night" visit to the plant to watch his dad work:

We stood there for forty minutes or so, a miniature lifetime, and the pattern never changed. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that mechanical octopus squirming against nothing, nothing, nothingness.

The trick is to beat the clock anyway you can. Play "rivet" hockey. See how high you can kick packing boxes. Pretend you're going for the gold at the riveting olympics. Be a practical joker. Best of all, "double up" if you can, that is, do both your own and your partner's job while he rests and vice versa. When this can be done for half the shift, each worker has four hours of freedom, to read, sleep, head for the bars, or go home.

The work is stressful. For a long time, my father was a glass examiner; he checked plates of glass for flaws under high intensity lights. Four cutters, working on incentive, depended on him for plates, and they were not happy if he was too slow. The boss was not happy if he was too careful. He coped with the stress by taking aspirin and smoking, several cigarettes burning simultaneously. Hamper and his shopmates smoke dope and consume prodigious quantities of alcohol, off and on the job. One guy actually runs a little business on the line, supplying half-pints of whiskey to his mates.

Actually the boredom of the work, its profoundly inhuman quality, is what makes it stressful. In fact, the descriptions of this work were themselves stressful to me; you can almost feel what it does to people. Some become zombies, like the old fellow who spends every day sleeping upright, leaning against the wall by the door to the john, or the man who answers "same old thing" no matter what you say to him. Not a few crack up completely, witness the "rivethead's" line mate who blowtorches his pet mouse and then mutilates himself to qualify for sick leave. A few workers become so habituated to the line that they hate to leave it, like the pensioners who sat in the park in my hometown wistfully staring at the plant gate across the street. Ultimately Ben Hamper himself experiences panic attacks of such severity that he is forced to quit the factories and commit himself to a long mental rehabilitation.

These essays give the lie to what we might call work "myths." First, workplaces are not happy places, and the bosses and the workers do not have much in common. Whether it be in auto plants, banks, fast-food joints, hospitals, post offices, or the public schools, work is something to be endured, for the money, period. Sometimes, surveys tell us that people are satisfied with their jobs. But, satisfied compared to what? The lack of a job? An unknown alternative? I have been teaching union workers for years, and it is always the same story. You get pushed around; you count for little; your hours are long, your pay is low; and at any time, you might get put out on the street, just like the trash. True, auto workers made good money; bought houses, cars, and boats; went on vacation; and sent their kids to school. Yet their work took some of the shine from the money, and today this "good life" is gone, lost in the tidal wave of plant closings and union busting. A lot of people ended up selling rabbits, humping at Taco Bell, or peddling Amway products like the hapless victims of Flint plant closings in Michael Moore's great film, "Roger and Me." Amazingly, all of this eludes the ponderings of our social scientists, who prattle on about the new work teams and cooperative management. The worst job Ben Hamper ever had was his last one, in one of the modern "Japanese-style" plants. He dubbed it "Gulag City."

Second, work itself, no matter how oppressive, does not engender class consciousness and solidarity. It is more likely to lead to such poor health and mental stress that any coherent thoughts and actions are difficult. Historians such as David Montgomery and Jeremy Brecher suggest that during the great mass strikes before the Second World War workers eagerly debated great questions. Who should run the factories? Who should lead the nation? My father told me that after the war, his factory was alive with talk of politics. Not so in modern Flint, where meaningful discussions are far outnumbered by talk of booze, sex, sports, and hunting.

What consciousness does develop is of the "us versus you" variety. Ben Hamper and his comrades take a negative pride in the very meaninglessness of the work they do and dislike those who don't or won't or couldn't stand up to it; a kind of self-hatred turned into contempt for outsiders. My auto worker students love to bait me, but often in a wholly negative way. Who am I to talk about work? Who am I to criticize GM?(!) While I was in college, they were in Vietnam. Aren't teachers overpaid? Needless to say, I do not know what it is like to work the line. But I do know why depressions occur, why there is so much poverty, what Keynesian policies are, how the Federal Reserve works, why free trade agreements stink and so on, and they do not know these and a lot of other things. Many of them believe that the media causes depressions, that welfare is the root of all evils, that the trouble with sports is that there are too many black players, that Japanese are innately evil. I slog on, but there is more work to be done than a lot of progressives think.

Third, unions, as currently constituted, offer working people a very partial victory. Ben Hamper says little about the UAW; it isn't exactly a daily felt presence on the shop floor. In the old plants, the union made it hard to fire a worker and made it possible for workers to resist and sometimes to defeat the worst management abuses. But at least since the radicals were expelled long ago, it has not stood for anything except higher pay and some job security, and today it cannot deliver these. In the newer plants, it is firmly in bed with the companies, pushing the labor-management cooperation schemes which Parker and Slaughter in their book, Choosing Sides, more accurately call "management by stress." There are hopeful rumblings among the rank-and-file in the UAW and in many other unions, but it is a sorry state of affairs when a book like Ben Hamper's has so little to say about what most people consider to be one of the nation' s greatest unions.

Ben Hamper has written a "riveting" account of work, devoid of veneer and true to life. He has done so despite alcoholism and mental illness; no doubt the writing is the one tiring which kept him alive. In the face of this achievement, it is hard to criticize. Still, I expected something more from him. He is well aware of the insanity of the whole rotten work system, from a mascot dubbed "Howie Makem" prowling the factory dressed in a cat uniform promoting quality, to G.M. chairman, Roger Smith, telling his proles that they will be better off once thousands of them are put on the street and scores of plants closed. Yet he is not much aware of the world outside of the shop, outside of Flint, Michigan. This is the concern of intellectuals like his friend Michael Moore, but not of shoprats. He obviously admires Moore, who has encouraged him to write about his work, but he won't make much effort to bridge the gap of consciousness between them. Why not?

It is this failure, even unwillingness, to push his class consciousness forward when he could which disappointed me. Maybe it is too painful to do so. Maybe the unions have failed so utterly to create a working class ideology which would force workers to ask the right question and struggle toward the answers that it is no longer possible to imagine a new world. No doubt radicals have failed workers too, either ignoring them for the pleasures of theoretical debate or trying to become one of them so hard that they forgot that work in this society destroys the human spirit.

If we are ever to liberate ourselves, we must reinvent work. Either we will convert the daily hell which is work today into something which connects us to other people and the world around us or we will descend further into the alienation which engulfs us. Ben Hamper gives us no illusion about work; it is a soul-destroying, lethal experience. But where is the way out?

When the rich assemble to concern themselves with the business of the poor, it is called charity. When the poor assemble to concern themselves with the business of the rich, it is called anarchy.

--Paul Richards

He who gives money he has not earned is generous with other people's labor.

--George Bernard Shaw

Michael D. Yates teaches economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A13272614