Rivethead; Social Issues Of Work Introduction Ben Hampers book Rivethead; Tales From The Assembly Line is a gritty in your face account of a factory workers struggles against his factory, his co-workers, and the time clock. Hamper makes no apologies for any of his actions, many of which were unorthodox or illegal. Instead he justifies them in a way that makes the factory workers strife apparent to those who have never set foot on an assembly line and wouldnt have the vaguest idea how much blood, sweat and tears go into the products we take for granted everyday. Rivethead is an account of the entire life of Author Ben Hamper, from his long family lineage of shoprats and his catholic school upbringing to his numerous different positions on the General Motors assembly line and his equally numerous lay-offs from the GM Truck & Bus Division. Unfortunately the many years of back breaking labor combined with Hampers own personal demons led him to check into an outpatient mental facility (at the time of the completion of this book) where he learns daily to cope with his many years of mental anguish. Rivethead is a social commentary on industrial America, assembly line work , and the auto industry.
This essay, however, will focus on the more specific aspects Hamper considers, such as the monotony required on a (then) modern assembly line, the relationship and hierarchy among workers and their interaction with management as well as both collective and individual responses to work and job satisfaction (or lack there of). Analysis When Henry Ford first developed the idea of the assembly line he was heralded as one of the most forward thinking men of his time, and without the assembly line we would no doubt not be as powerful a nation as we are today. The assembly line principle as it matured in industrial society however, proved to destroy workers creativity and stifle the very essence of human life. Growth and change. On an assembly line workers are degraded to automatons, performing the same tasks over and over and over.
Day in day out, without ever having any knowledge or input into any of the other tasks related to completion of the project. This monotony in the workplace spills over into the daily life of many factory workers and affects how they live their life outside of the factory after the whistle blows as much as it does while theyre on the assembly line. This spillover was observed by Hamper of his Grandfather. Straight home from work, dinner, the evening news and immediately into bed at 7:00 p.m. He arose each weekday at 3:30 a.m., fixed himself some black coffee, turned on the kitchen radio, smoked a handful of Lucky Strikes and waited to leave for work at a quarter to five.
This regimen never varied one iota in the forty years he worked for GM (Hamper pg.6). It is fairly clear that the monotony of the assembly line has a way of setting personal routines for its workers that eventually work their way out of the factory and into the home. One interesting question that is raised, is whether people who like their life to be routinized eventually find their way to an assembly line or if the assembly line monotony brings the propensity to routinize out in people who previously did not live by many routines. The relationships Hamper discusses between the workers on the assembly line are unique to say the least and sometimes comical or dangerous. After reading this book I would surmise that most factory workers build friendships with other factory workers almost exclusively.
This could be due to their similarity of interests, similarity of jobs, the fact that they are in contact daily, or just by virtue of the timing of their shifts (as was Hampers case). I think one thing that helped to bind the workers together was the fact that they saw it as workers against management and by their solidarity they could turn the balance of power in their favor. This solidarity was visible when a new supervisor was hired who wasnt cutting the workers any slack, so the workers resorted to sabotage. We simply had no other recourse. Sometimes these power-gods had to be reminded that it was we, the workers, who kept this place runnin (Hamper pg.206).
Relationships between workers were generally very good, although there was a hierarchy among the workers between the new guys and the experienced guys. Franklin..made a career out of intimidating rookies (Hamper pg.51) because until a worker had put in 90 days he could be fired for any reason. Not all of Hampers co-workers saw eye to eye with him when it came to his column in the Flint Voice. After one column in which he poked fun at someone down the line he nearly was strangled to death. The interactions between Management and the line workers was quite different than that among the line workers. The same solidarity that created bonds between the line workers creates rifts between workers and management. Consequently management did what they could to make it hard for the workers and to re-affirm their own dominance. Henry Jackson, [was] always in a mad quest to break up the chemistry of the Rivet Line by importing snitches and milksops.. (Hamper pg.188). One example of a cruel personal vendetta was when during a layoff a supervisor forced one worker to stay on when he didnt want to and there were many workers who would rather work than be laid off, strictly as a personal attack.
The line workers spite for management was demonstrated during a slow down when Hamper and one of his friends were discussing a fantasy docudrama they would make that ..would be a collection of short pieces that chronicled the systematic executions of [their] least favorite shoplords (Hamper pg.125). Beyond just friction with their direct management the workers had quite a few complaints with the higher up corporate management. After an elderly woman was hurt on the assembly line attempting to do a job she was unqualified for, Hamper noted GMs total aimless approach in evaluating the capabilities and limitations of a given worker (Hamper pg.110) and regarding GM policy in general Hamper stated, There was just no figurin General Motors. When it came time to make a move, I think they just threw darts at a board or yanked on straws (Hamper pg.105). These situations only perpetuated the growing contempt of management by the line workers and mistrust of line workers my management.
Hamper and his line mates did whatever they could to help pass the time and break up the monotony of their workday. Doubling-up was a common behavioral response to the monotony of the assembly line. Doubling-up jobs, whenever and wherever possible, made the utmost sense. This arrangement totally destroyed the monotony of waiting for that next cab to arrive (Hamper pg.39). In this doubling-up arrangement two workers would privately organize and devise a means of having one man complete both jobs at the same time, while each took turns relaxing for half the time. ..The summit of the double-up system [was] a half day on , a half day off..
(Hamper pg.61), which Hamper took advantage of whenever possible. Doubling-up was a rather drastic behavioral response because, technically it was a theft of time and wages. (Although one could argue that if all the assigned work was being completed it was not theft.) Hamper and his fellow line workers embraced any and every diversion they could conceive of in order to bring a little excitement or emotion to their daily grind. Most of these diversions were passive in nature and didnt interfere with their ability to meet their quotas or performance standards. Hamper would often pretend that his riveting job was an Olympic event and he was competing for the honor of his country, just to pass a few minutes.
These mental diversions soon turned into full fledged sports and games of skill, such as Rivet Hockey and Dumpster Ball. Co-worker Roy showed Hamper a particularly dangerous method of work avoidance. [He] approached me with a box-cutter knife sticking out of his glove and requested that I give him a slice across the back of his hand. He felt sure this ploy would land him a few days off (Hamper pg.43). Conclusion It is clear that the industrial assembly line is a manufacturing process that requires the complete servitude of the workers to the machine. The whole arrangement equals nothing more than lousy prostitution (Hamper pg.233).
None of the workers were the least bit happy to be working in the GM factory because they viewed it as their only option, a family legacy passed down from generation to generation. By being involved in only one very small aspect of the completed vehicle the workers felt disconnected from the job because they had no sense of who they were making the trucks for or where they would go. Never had I encountered one human soul who had either purchased, ordered, leased, or even hot-wired a General Motors Suburban (Hamper pg.158). Beyond feeling disconnected to the completed vehicle, the workers felt (rightfully so sometimes) that GM was so huge and that they, as workers, were such an insignificant part of the organization that they couldnt affect any change. [It] went along with being just another cog in such a mammoth flywheel (Hamper pg.72).
Ironically the Saturn car company, a division of General Motors, was one of the first auto makers to try to solve the inherent problems of the assembly line. Instead of each worker doing the same thing all day long, Saturn created a system where lineworkers are organized into workgroups which combine to complete a major, visible portion of the car. Saturn also informs the lineworkers specifically who they are making each individual car for and where it will be sent whenever possible. These small changes along with many other recent advances have proven to make a tremendous difference in worker satisfaction and loyalty and continue to help humanize an inhuman job. Social Issues.