Window and Onion Factories

There was a time when people could expect to work for the same company their whole lives. That’s hard for me to grasp, really. Especially men, you could make decent enough factory money to raise a family. Or at least not be poor.

Recently, the Economist (a business magazine) said,

The idea that having a good job means being an employee of a particular company is a legacy of a period that stretched from about 1880 to 1980.

1980? You’d have to be about 50 years old to have even been working back then. So if that was then, what is now? Well, here’s a story about 2 local places that paint the picture.



The window factory (MI) used to be the highest paying factory around. A TON of people worked there (mostly men). You knew who worked at MI, because they had trucks, tools and houses. In high school, you’d hear guys saying, “I don’t need to graduate, I’m just gunna go work at MI”.

A guy from my school dropped out of school to run a garage. When it didn’t pan out, he went over to MI. He didn’t plan to work there forever.

Nobody ever did…everyone’s intention was to make a couple bucks and to move on. But it was kinda like smoking— once you started, you couldn’t quit”

That was the early 2000’s. He started at about $7.50/hour, but piece-rate gradually kicked in. By the end of the first month, he was making around $25/hour when he pushed himself.

Things changed.


When the economy went bad a few years ago, most jobs in this area cut everyone’s wages. I lost $6 and hour and a few of my buddy’s did as well. Which i felt was bullshit, The reason wasn’t that they “had to.” It was because they could & nobody could do anything about it!”

MI is still one of the best paying place around… if you’ve got grandfathered wages. If you start today, you come in as a temp. Even if you get hired on and work the same job, you’ll never make as much as the older employees.


Years back, I worked at the onion plant. Whole onions went in one side of the refrigerated place, and came out the other side chopped up in bags. We’d slice and dice for places like Wendy’s (who don’t want employees cutting their own onions).

I know what you’re wondering— we didn’t cry all day. We’d get immune to it after the first shift. But we sure did stink. And the neighbors sure didn’t like the breeze on a warm, windy day.

The plant was run by the Amish, and they employed all sorts of people. Young Mennonite women from across  the other side of the river, local “English” (like me), and temps from Harrisburg who were Black, White, Mexican and African.

Half my family worked there, at one point or another. My Aunt was there when the Amish got bought out in 2011. The new company promptly fired everyone. She explains it:

When the onion plant was sold, the new company decided everybody had to work thru the temp agency. You didn’t “have to” stay. People who’d been there 5-6 years were making $10/hr with benefits. Everybody that had worked there for years and years as employees that stayed went down to minimum wage with no benefits. They even tried to fight unemployment for the people who didn’t join the temp agency.

Not too long after that, the onion plant closed it’s doors for good.

The Future of Work

There used to be an unspoken bargain in a lot of industries. We work for you, Mr. Bossman, and you are responsible for our economic survival.

More and more of the good jobs still out there want 50+ hour weeks. 4 workers at 50 hours is the same as 5 workers doing a normal week, but employment really isn’t the name of the game.

It’s “The future of work.” A future with more independent contractors, more temp workers, more seasonal and “flex force” workers. Companies are more invested in their equipment than their workforce. Silicone Valley and Wall Street see it as the new, efficient way to do business.

Ironically, factories are coming back to the US. and that’s supposed to continue. But they are coming back more automated than ever, requiring a skeleton crew of employees. European companies are even outsourcing their work here because of our lower work standards.

I wish the benefits of all this technology were shared. For now though, it means bigger payout for millionaires and less work for everyone else.