Monday, November 10, 2014

Being Frank About the American Worker

I have a new appreciation for the American working man and woman. 
I'm talking about the person who works with their hands for hours on end every day, making products that their employers will sell. 
From Sept. 26 until Nov. 7 I was part of that workforce. It opened my eyes to a segment of our economy I had only heard about. 
My family were working people. My dad, grandfather and uncle were railroad men and my other grandfather had been a businessman but he was also a farmer. 
My mother worked in a munitions factory during World War II and as a beautician after the war. 
But nearly all my adult life I have worked with words not my arms and legs.
So, I am talking about people who do manual labor. 
I signed an agreement to not disclose any secrets of the company when I signed on so I will not tell you the name. Let's just say it is a high tech firm.
Whenever a worker leaves the plant, he or she must hit a big button and a light will say "Search" or "Pass." 
If you get "Search" you have to unload all your pockets and place your lunch cooler in a tote for inspection. Then you have to walk into a room the size of a small closet, raise your arms and your feet three times and then bow to the wall while a security guard looks at your body scan. On the way out, the security guard will wave a wand over the soles of your feet to be sure nothing is concealed in your shoes. 
"They act like everything is a big secret here, but everyone in 50 counties has worked here at one time or another," a woman told me. 
This column is about the people not the secrets behind the factory. 
My first job was loading new DVD cases on to a moving conveyor belt. It sounds like an easy task but it ended up being as much a problem for me as Lucy's candy job in a classic "I Love Lucy" episode. On the next to my last day on the job I managed to do better but still loaded 23 cases wrong out of several thousand. That stopped the machine and ended up in lost productivity.
I continue to marvel when I think of the people who made it look so easy after years of experience. 
Everything in life is easier when you know the "the secret."
I learned to look for the big circle on the back of the closed case and put the cases on the conveyor belt with the circle to the left.
Not the stuff of a Master's thesis but satisfying when your line operator is counting on you to do your job correctly and boost productivity.
A few weeks into my stint, a young man came to my line at the end of my shift. He was going to be the number two operator following me.
"Number Two" sounds like something from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" but it was a glorified term for "assistant" or "apprentice."
After watching the young man fumble around trying to load cases, I gave him my "look for the circle" tip. On my last night, I was heading out and he came up to me.
"Hey, buddy, how you doing?" he asked.
I grinned and called him by his nickname.  
Al ages worked at the plant, from recent high school graduates to people like myself, in their 60s. 
Many, not all, the younger people seemed to have an affinity for the "F" word. Everything was "F" this and "F" that. 
"I can run any line in the plant and they put me on this one," a young person complained. Over the course of several days, she failed to successfully run nearly every line on which she worked. 
On my last night, her line stayed above 200 percent of the standard. When I congratulated her, she said, "This is my going away present for you." 
"Well, thank you. Now keep it up after I'm gone." 
"I will." 
Shortly before quitting time I told her, tongue-in-cheek, "I hope you have a "F"ing good life." 
She thanked me but I don't think she got the intended lesson, that the use of that word had lost its shock value and whatever else it was supposed to convey. 
Another young person spilled a load of totes carrying DVD cases from a fork lift. 
As I said, it wasn't only the young people who had problems. One night I managed to pick up the end of a machine while trying to load a skid of products on to a walk-behind fork lift we called a "Joe."
I would say everyone I met was above average in intelligence compared to many people I know. There were so many high tech bells and whistles going on, anyone who worked there had to be smart. The equipment, with the logos of the companies that produced it emblazoned on the Plexiglas sides, looked like it came from the Starship Enterprise. 
There were even robots. One would pick up cartons and stack them on pallets. There were delivery robots running around everywhere. 
You were expected to stay out of their way. I opened the door to a lunch room and ran into one, stopping it in its tracks. 
"Excuse me," I said. Then, I realized I had just apologized to a robot. 
The most impressive part of the workers in the plant was that they stood on their feet for hours on end every day, sometimes six days a week. 
On my last week I met a lady who said she had not worked for six years. Now she is starting in The Plant and three hours into her shift on her first day, during lunch break, her feet and legs were killing her; and she was 20 years younger than me. 
My advice was to make up her mind she would be made stronger by this job ... and take Ibuprofen with her lunch. 
Another worker, also younger than myself said hydration would lessen the cramps. 
During the first few weeks, mine were so bad I woke up my wife with my screams because they hurt so bad. One night I had two episodes.
"Do you think you ought to look for another job?" she asked. But I toughed it out. Nietzsche was right; I became stronger and I didn't die. 
We worked hard. During my adult life, working hard has meant sitting at a desk for hours at a time, writing on a word processor and talking on a telephone. 
Repeated bending to my side to plug and unplug USB cables into a computer that was setting on the floor led to four herniated discs in my back and a week's bed rest while heavily medicated. But my experience "working" at a desk had been nothing like the manual labor on the factory floor. 
Don't misunderstand, the work in the plant was not physically demanding work and it was good for me. I lost two to three pounds a week until I started listening to my body and eating more calories than I had eaten each day for decades.
While working at the plant I quit tracking my calories on and ate whatever I wanted. including "Three Musketeers" bars. I still managed to lose a pound a week and my blood sugar hit a new low, 94, which is exactly where it should be after being above 300 while chained to a desk a year ago. 
So, here's my salute to the people who really make America work -- the people who work with their hands and arms and legs to produce the goods that make life better for us all. 

Frank Phillips is a freelance writer. He will soon begin a new job, sitting in front of a computer, working as a reporter for The Brazil Times in Indiana.