Rivethead

I stumbled across Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, in an off-hand comment in our cranky local alt-weekly, The City Paper. God bless 'em, alt-weeklies still exist, a healthy weekly dose of casual profanity, pinko editorials, normcore cartoons, and weepy art criticism, held together with mis-registered newsprint and strip-club ads. I ordered it used and read it in just a few days.

Ben Hamper was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1956. He was a 4th generation assembly-line worker -- his great-grandfather joined the workforce in 1916, only 15 years after the assembly line was invented. He grew up standard mid-century Catholic: a half-a-dozen siblings, a drunk dad who was in-and-out of work, and a regimen of parochial schools. He ended up married with a kid on the way after barely graduating high school.

A few years later the marriage went south and Hamper went looking for serious work. Partly it was a ploy to repair his relationship, but it also seemed ancestral, like the dull pull of the mills had been ground into his blood. The late seventies weren't great years for the domestic auto industry -- the beginning of a rough two decades -- but he eventually found work at the General Motors Bus and Truck Plant on the night shift. 

 Photo of the Flint Truck and Bus Plant at night, circa 2011,  by Flickr user Joseph Dennis .

Photo of the Flint Truck and Bus Plant at night, circa 2011, by Flickr user Joseph Dennis.

The next ten years were brutal duel with the minute hand. There were games with his co-workers, pranks, talking to himself, and the gods of classic rock. There was a ton of on-the-job drinking -- beers on lunch break at 9 PM, whiskey on the line, dashes to the tavern at quitting time. After a little while, he grew more sophisticated, double-shifting with a teammate so they both made the same money for half the work.

The scheme went like this: normally, Hamper had to mash 15 or so rivets in precise places down one side of a truck chassis, 37 times an hour for 8 hours. A partner was hitting rivets down the other side at the same time. However, once they got good, one guy could hit all the rivets on both sides in the same minute-and-a-half. So, partner 1 would nap, read, drink, etc. for four hours, then they would switch and partner 2 would hit the tavern. The only tricky part was that partner 1 had to stamp out two time cards at the end of the shift, which was a firing offense. But, with forgiving supervisors and fulfilled quotas, Hamper never got too far into trouble. As long as the line kept moving . . .

On the side, Hamper started writing a column for the Flint Voice (one of those blessed alt-weeklies), then under the editorship of Michael Moore, another Flint native. He wrote longhand on scraps of cardboard right on the assembly floor, while his double-shift partner hammered away. When Moore decamped for San Francisco to take the helm of Mother Jones, he syndicated Hamper's column and put him on the cover, attempting to bring the liberal intellectual press back to the concerns of the working man. But he only lasted four months , and his settlement for wrongful termination gave him seed funding for his first film, Roger and Me, which also carved out a role for 'ol Ben Hamper.

The book ends in psychosis. Hamper had multiple nervous breakdowns on the shop floor, where his co-workers turned to lizard-headed monsters and his heart raced to bypass proportions. It didn't help that he was drinking a quart or so of whiskey a day at the time. But it was the war with the minute hand that broke him down. Mixed in with it all was his new-found celebrity as Michael Moore's sidekick and gonzo bard of the working man, pressures that forced him into an inpatient program for 14 months. He found help, eventually recovered, and found a second life as a writer, journalist, and DJ. 

The whole story grabbed me for a lot of reasons. For one, the writers I looked up to growing up (the writers a lot of bored adolescent boys look up to) -- Thompson, Kerouac, Bukowski, Fante -- were all blue-collar, self-educated drunks intent on fucking with the establishment. Hamper did that, sure, but he brought a hard political edge to the gonzo prose and drunken boasting. Second, the whole story seems like an America so far in the past it's hard to comprehend. Our fathers and grandfathers existed in a world of rigid systems: from schools to the Army to the factories. Listen to the bells, do what you're told, punch in, punch out, and don't fuck up, because there would be consequences

I've written at length about manufacturing on this blog -- its history, its decline, its future -- and none of the books I've read have ever explored the human dimension like Rivethead. In this election season, as the demagogues and populists get fired up talking about the bygone era of good-paying blue collar jobs, it's worth remembering that that era of American manufacturing was a dark and dirty time. It was filled with brutal union politicking, work stoppages, strikes, layoffs, massive pollution, and the churning up and spitting out of a generation of men. 

Today, many look to the maker movement to pull manufacturing into an era of lean, clean, on-demand work. But an outfit like Open Desk is never going to employ 30,000 people around the clock and keep a whole city afloat. Hamper's job has largely been taken over by robots, and I bet you can just about eat off of a Tesla factory floor now, but that main question remains unanswered -- in this brave new world, where does mass employment come from?