Tire Plant – Dan Bailey 1993

A witness to change. I have been employed at this plant for eighteen years.  When I hired on at this plant it was owned by Firestone and was non-union. I have witnessed and actively participated in the work force when it was organized by the United Rubber Workers (URW) Local 1055. I was one of the key in-plant organizers. I was also on the very first negotiating committee and was elected as the first Secretary of the local.

I have seen this plant experience massive lay-offs in the early 1980’s to the point of being closed before being purchased and revitalized by the Japanese based tire company Bridgestone in 1983. Since that time the plant has doubled in size and we now make heavy truck and passenger tires.  As a worker, I have firsthand experience of the rigors of factory life and the social interaction within the plant. Second, as a union official, including 6 years as local president, I have gained an overall knowledge of the entire production process.

If management could eliminate the need for workers, they would.  As mentioned several times in Royal Blue, factory work is extremely monotonous.  It is a never- ending cycle of repetitive actions and procedures that occur over and over.  Most of the work is such that a worker has no choice but to feel that they are only a necessary extension of the machine.  Most workers realize and believe that if management could eliminate the need for the human functions they would without hesitation. Where this could be done it already has, and management is constantly studying ways to further automate the work. One feature of the tire industry that hinders management’s efforts to do this is the fact that the characteristics of rubber are never consistent. Unlike an auto plant where some functions, such as spot welds, are always performed exactly the same way and at the same location, which enables management to robotize the operation, rubber will vary. There are many chemicals that go into the mixing of the rubber for the production process. Variances in the chemicals or the way they are mixed will cause the rubber to react in different ways. The weather conditions will affect the rubber. If the atmosphere is hot and dry, rubber will react differently that when it is cold and damp.

No sense of trade identity. Unlike the crafts or professional occupations, tire plant workers have no sense of trade identity.  Everyone who has worked at the factory for any length of time comes to realize that another worker in the factor could learn to perform their job with a few weeks of training. In fact, those who have been there for a number of years have performed and become qualified on several different jobs within the factory.

Bid a job for a change, not for money. Our contract allows employees to bid on jobs by seniority, both inter-department and across department lines. The only bidding restrictions are that the person must have been in their current job for at least six months and, if bidding into another department, he must have been in their current department for at least one year. Due to this, workers bid into different jobs and departments on a fairly regular basis. They bid to other jobs for several reasons. The predominant reasons are a better shift, a physically easier job, and a change of pace.  Because the difference in pay rate between jobs is small, money is not often cited as a major factor in bidding a new job. Many times a worker bids into a different area because he either does not like his current co-workers or would prefer co-workers in another area. Some workers like to work in areas were they work as a groups and others prefer the jobs where they are more isolated.

Don’t bring up the damn factory on your off hours. The frequent changing of co-workers through the bidding process does not foster long term, close-knit relations among workers. Generally, most workers maintain fairly separate work and non-work lives. However, there are groups that have formed of co-workers who share a common hobby or interest. Hunting and fishing are very popular in the Middle Tennessee area and co-workers who enjoy this will often times do it together.  This is a small group that likes to play tennis and they do it together on off hours. Some bowl together. However, these are not the social gathering that whole crews participate in after work like the construction crews of Royal Blue.  Groups socialize around their common hobby and not necessarily work. Often, when workers are hunting or playing tennis together, the work place is seldom, if ever mentioned. If someone does mention it that are usually ridiculed by the others for ruining their day by bringing up the damn factory on their off hours.

Perform a full days work – no more and no less. Status among workers within the factory is not obtained through job knowledge or skill as in the crafts or professions. Usually the workers who are considered in high regard by the co-workers are those who come to work, on time, every day. They only miss when something is absolutely wrong. They perform a full day’s work – no more and no less. They do not rush in performing their tasks just so they can get done quickly to screw-off. Most workers recognize that rushing is unsafe and quality of product suffers. These are two areas that workers take a real concern about more so than management. Additionally, experienced workers know that if management constantly sees that a worker is finishing early they will look to see what tasks they can add to the job to more fully utilize the time. Therefore, smart workers and those most respected pace themselves and do good, quality work safely.

Working safely is respected. Working safely is a very respected trait among workers. Besides the chemicals in a tire factory, there are also mills and other equipment that can severely injure or kill a worker that is not careful. Over the years we have had two deaths at our factory and several injuries, ranging from severed fingers, cuts, and broken bones to back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive work. The workers take safety very serious and will react collectively towards a supervisor or co-worker who is doing things in an unsafe manner. In the case of a supervisor they will either refuse to continue working or they will institute a slowdown that causes the supervisor to fix the problem. If it is a co-worker the other workers will usually criticize and chastise them to the point of conformance.

 Don’t tell management that a co-worker is not doing his job. Telling management about insufficiencies of co-workers is a strictly forbidden rule among the experienced workers. The thinking behind this is not only the solidarity and brotherhood arguments but also the fact that management believes that the workers have an overseer to make sure that everyone is working. Therefore, the thinking is that it is management’s responsibility to determine if a worker is not doing his part. Co-workers will ridicule the offending worker and will not treat him as part of the “accepted” group within the area, but they will not say to management that the worker is not doing his job.

Relationships with supervisors in the “real” world. The relationship between the workers and supervisors is usually cordial, but distant. There is a fine line between supervisors and workers. Most supervisors that are experienced realize that their workers determine their ultimate success. These are the supervisors that generally are not seen unless needed and do all they can to accommodate their workers. Their crews are usually the most consistent and best performing crews. However, because most workers will not accept a supervisor’s job, the company often times has to hire supervisors from the street or promote from other staff support areas within the plant. Sometimes these individuals do not understand the “real world” as workers say, and they have to be taught.

“Work to rule” to teach a gung-ho supervisor. There are many mechanical and technical problems that tire workers experience every day. However, in most situations where the supervisor has already “been trained” the workers will work through or correct most situations on their own without involving the maintenance department or the technical department. Involving those departments always entails “down time” for the workers which is costly for the operation. The workers will do this for a trained supervisor because they know that as long as they achieve a certain quota by the end of the day they will not be messed with.

Slack time is highly valued. All experienced workers know how to “short-cut” the system without sacrificing quality in order to achieve the numbers more quickly. This does not mean that they do not work hard in order to reach the numbers, but it mean that they know each day that they will have some slack time during the shift if they are willing to put forth a reasonable amount of effort and they know how work “smart”.  This slack time is very important to the workers. Many workers use this time to read various materials. Some are continuing their education, like me, and use this time to ready or study their assignments. Others will play cards or shoot craps in an isolated area with a “lookout”. Some will meet together and have a bible reading and a short prayer service. While others sneak off in far corners of the plant or outside to smoke marijuana. The slack time within the operation and how it is used by the workers define the culture within the factory.

If you are not in the union, you are an outcast. The support of the workers for their union is fairly good. It is especially strong among those workers who were working when we were organized. Although we are in a right-to-work state, our membership percentage is 98%. This is because non-members experience the worst kind of harassment and intimidation imaginable. Most choose to join rather than experience their continued role as a low-life outcast. The few workers who are not members work in areas and on jobs where they are isolated from most workers.

Workers support job actions supported by sound reasoning. The great majority of workers do not actively involve themselves in the functions of the union. Usually membership meetings are not that well attended unless there is a major issue such as a contract package or something of that nature. However, the great majority of workers are supportive if the union calls for an overtime boycott and a “work-to-rule” campaign because the company has taken some ridiculous action deserving of retaliation. However, the union has learned that it better have very sound reasoning for calling for such action because the workers generally do not like to do this. The reason is that such action causes the workers to have to stay on their jobs longer throughout their shift and it causes management to closely supervise them to make sure they get all that they can.  Because of this, such situations do not occur frequently and they involve situations that affect the majority of workers. However, when done at the right time and in the right way they make management respond quickly.

Dealing with management, just like the Pygmy people do it.  There is a clear similarity of many of the events and situations I witnessed in the factory to the interactions described in the course reading about the Pygmy people in The Forest People.  The way workers put on an act when management is present is similar to the way the Pygmies would make the villagers, their superiors, believe that they were doing what the villagers wanted them to do. However, once out of sight, the Pygmies continued to do things their way.  Another example is the way groups of factory employees arrive at a group decision on some course of action.  Similar to the way the Pygmies discussed their fate while sitting around the fire, each member of a group at the factory has a social ranking that either magnifies or lessons the impact of what they contribute.

Rules of survival.  It seems the bottom line is that in most social situations individuals do what they have to do to survive. The hardships and difficulties are lessened by good humor among the participants and good teamwork.  Everyone is expected to do his share. However, during slack time, those who have similar interests will draw to each other and find their way of dealing with the idle time. The “rules” of the work society, as with most societies, are determined by the wishes of the majority. Those individuals who do not conform to the rules are dealt with harshly. They are perceived as a threat to everyone.

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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