I quit my factory job. Finally. I wasn’t there for long; just to pull a paycheck until I found something better. It was an experience, though.
In books, they talk like there’s no factories left in the country. They’re still around, though. Just not as many. In this case, I was at a pallet factory. See, pallets are cheap and everybody needs ’em, but they’re heavy and don’t make sense to ship long distances. So all across the country, there’s little pallet shops. You buy broken ones, cut ’em, nail ’em back together and sell ’em again.
A couple of people in the place made good money… for dangerous work that leaves their fingers all messed up. Some go “piece rate” – getting paid by the pallet, not by the hour. If you pound Monster energy, you can make up to $14/hr. For others, it’s a bottom-of-the-barrel kinda place. I was getting $9.50/hr through a temp agency, with a 40 minute commute.
My first day, I got trained by Travis, the most laid-back supervisor ever. He took me into the break room (a dirty, 12 x 8 shed) and told me he wouldn’t be there the whole day. “My old lady don’t know I stole her car, so I gotta get it back before she gets home.” Then he popped in a VHS about nail gun safety.
I started out using a Harbor Freight (re: discount) nail gun, banging together boards for 8 hours a day and stacking ’em 8 ft high. It was pretty boring, and too loud to talk to anyone. It mighta been 3 days before I talked to anyone but Travis. I could pop in some headphones to take me through the day, though.
I got to know Gilbert, who worked at the next station down from me. Said he used to be a union president at a sheet metal plant, back in the day. He refused to go to piece-rate on the pallets, and was punished by staying a $9.50/hr temp for the year he’d been there. He was always trying to borrow $10 til the next pay-day, saying things like “I put my last 78 cents in the gas tank to get to work today.” After awhile, I learned he never had money because his wife needed expensive medication.
Now, I’m keen on trying to convert racists. To show them that Blacks, Mexicans, whoever their target—they aren’t the enemy. I’ve even giving it a go with an occasional Nazi. But some people, there’s just no way. All you can tell em to do is shut their mouths.He was 100% friendly to me, but one day gave me a little “I hate niggers” rant. Most racists test the waters a little… they say some shit and look at you to see how you take it. Not Gilbert. He was more like the Korean War generation- didn’t really care how you took it. He’ll probably die a racist.
After just a couple weeks of swinging a nail gun, I started to get Trigger Finger. That’s from repetitive motion; it makes your middle and ring fingers lock up. I’d wake up, make a fist, and couldn’t open my fingers again. I know plenty of people who have this; my brother sometimes uses a wrench to pry open his hand. So, I put paper work on it (you gotta document these things!) and played the workers comp game (20 trick questions and a piss test) so I could talk to a doctor for 2 minutes. He told me to stretch. The owner was freaked out by that, and I got moved to to sorting pallets instead of building them.
Sorting was a lot more social, and I spent a lot of time with Ricky and Daren.
To Ricky, work was just what you had to do to afford booze. He’d come in drunk most days, and he was a miserable little drunk. Most of the day he spent avoiding work, either in the bathroom (another shed, this one with a toilet & sink) or in the dark spaces between the mountains of pallets. He’d start a fight with someone most days, sometimes me, always over nonsense. Needless to say, he pissed me off.
Unlike us temps, Ricky was a factory employee, making $10/hr, but he lost $40/week to insurance. Since temps don’t have insurance, he actually took home less than me. It took me weeks to piece it together, but Ricky was homeless, staying on couches and catching rides to work.
Daren was much friendlier. A happy drunk, he would take down 15 pounders on a normal night. He lived in a trailer with his wife and wanted a divorce, but really didn’t know how he’d be able to afford living on his own.
After a few more weeks, I got a lead on better work, and I was outta there.
Moral of the story? Maybe there isn’t one. But this was my first job after being a staff Field Organizer for a year. I’d done so much to challenge people (especially factory workers) to see the best in those around them, and get them organized.
That’s easier some places than others. It wasn’t easy to empathize with people at the factory. A lot of days, I’d give up and try not to talk to anyone. Sometimes I wished other people would get fired so I wouldn’t have to deal with them.
But then I’d hear the stories about being late on the rent, or not enough gas to get to work. I’ve been there before.
I’d remember, it doesn’t matter if your an alcoholic, a good person, or even if I can stand to be around you. Life is miserable if you can’t cover the basics. A lot of us are stuck in shitty jobs that it’s hard to care about. You’ve got billionaires out there setting the rules to an economy that doesn’t give a damn about us. So if I’m choosing sides, it’s the people who couldn’t afford lunch at work today. The Ricky’s, Daren’s and the Gilbert’s. I have no idea how, but maybe one day they’ll set down the Natty Ice, clear their heads and join the fight for a better life, a better world.