RogerBW's Blog

Rivethead, Ben Hamper 30 November 2016

1991 autobiography. Hamper writes about his life working on the GM factory floor in Flint, Michigan.

This is not a book about class warfare, though it's sometimes been adopted as such. The people who set up conditions on the assembly line are so far removed from the place itself that they barely register as an enemy. They come up with a cat mascot called "Howie Makem" to encourage the workers to put more effort into their jobs; that isn't "they hate us", it's "they simply have no idea of what it's like here". The closest we get to a human enemy is the supervisor who, when someone manages to smash all the bones in his hand with a rivet gun, threatens to write him up for "careless workmanship in the job place" – well, obviously that's a terrible thing to do, because accidents just happen, don't they? It's not as if anyone could avoid them or anything!

But no, the real enemy is time, finding ways to get to the end of one's shift without going mad from the repetitive work: job-doubling (two people take turns to do the other person's work as well as their own while the other takes a break), impromptu sports, practical jokes, and so on. Oh, and lots of drinking. In his case the life ruined his mental health; other people lost body parts, some of them vital.

And then he thinks it's a bad thing when fewer people are forced to feed their lives into this sort of grinder. That's the modern problem of work in a nutshell: we just don't need as many workers per consumer any more, but we're so tied down by the puritan ethic of "if you don't work you don't deserve to live" (as boosted by the people who want to keep their remaining workers desperate to stay employed, so that they don't have to pay competitive wages) that it's seriously getting in the way of moving towards a post-labour economy. Ahem. Rant over.

What I find most interesting here is not what Hamper says, but what he doesn't. When the in-house newspaper says that a particular country singer is going to be buying one of the cars they'll be building that day, he wants to find out which one; but he's never previously thought about the customer at all.

In all this time never, but never, had I encountered one human soul who had either purchased, ordered, leased or even hot-wired a General Motors Suburban. Every night the frames would roll by—thirty-eight jobs to the hour—and it would mystify the hell outta me as to where all these beasts were headed.

My Rivet Line pals were just as confused. We would often look up from our jobs in the middle of another shift and ask "Who buys all these things?" Obviously, someone had to be doin' it and we were tremendously grateful to them. We had mouths to feed and bar tabs to resolve. Still, it often seemed like the trucks we were assembling just vanished out the door—thousands of them, millions of them—lurching into some enormous black hole out by the train tracks and barbed wire fences. What a peculiar way to turn a profit.

As far as he's concerned, there's absolutely no connection between pervasive drunkenness on the job and the high worker injury rate and low quality of output; they're all just things that happen. When a nasty supervisor tries to curb some of the worst excesses, the workers sabotage their output in order to get the rules loosened again.

This book isn't a collection of the columns Hamper wrote for the Flint Journal, though that might have been interesting; it's autobiography, dealing with his early life, his attempts to do something other than work in the factory, his signing on with GM, his bouts of unemployment (and automatic rehiring thanks to the union contract when times got better, though he seems aware of the union only as a background force, much like everything outside his immediate life), and his eventual retirement thanks to recurring panic attacks and hallucinations. (Ah, Americans: when he realises he's hallucinating, does he try to wait it out somewhere safe or call for an ambulance? No, he drives home.) Outside his thoughts on work, he isn't really all that interesting; but although he disclaims the whole "voice of the working man" thing, he's the only voice these guys have.

Idiot labor may not have been much to fall in love with, but it beat the hell out of flailing around on someone's conference line. High wages, low thought requirement, beholden to only those you chose. What the rest of the world wanted was their own problem. Ambition maimed so many of them. I'm sure they had their own reasons for grasping for the next rung, but it all seemed so bothersome and tedious.

In contrast, working the Rivet Line was like being paid to flunk high school the rest of your life. An adolescent time warp in which the duties of the day were just an underlying annoyance. No one really grew up here. No pretensions to being anything other than stunted brats clinging to rusty monkeybars. The popular diversions—Rivet Hockey, Dumpster Ball, intoxication, writing, rock ‘n' roll—were just reinventions of youth. We were fumbling along in the middle of a long-running cartoon.

The ending is rather abrupt, and there's not much structure, but that's a fairly good match to the job. Well worth reading, though probably not worth keeping.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 04:33pm on 30 November 2016

    I am reminded of TV sequences of workers at British Leyland in the 1970s going in for the night shift carrying camp beds and management being unable to do anything about it. As soon as they banned sleeping on shift, the unions called everyone out on strike on some other excuse. It's human nature that this happened. What amazes me is the people that still want that kind of economy and lament that we don't have it any more.

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