Paul Krehbiel tells how he and his co-workers carried out a slowdown in a Buffalo glass factory in 1968; they succeeded in preventing management from raising their production quota. The author has used some literary license for dramatic purposes and has changed some names to protect co-workers' privacy.
I heard rumbling in the distance that sounded like military jeeps on a cobblestone street. The heavy door swung open in front of me and loud crashing and banging noises assaulted my ears. Dragon-like machines spit fire. Black and green pipes and hoses crisscrossed everywhere, hissing like coiled cobras. The once-white walls looked like old teeth, coated in a yellowish-brown film after years of smoking. My nostrils sucked in the stink of sulfur and other sickening smells. I had stepped into another world.
The worst part was the mist. It came from the beveling department. It created a fog in the air and had fine, ground-up glass in it. After three or four hours in that department, it felt like someone had rubbed sandpaper over your throat. Luckily, that wasn’t my regular work area.
It was the summer of 1968. I was 20 years old and the fine grinder operator on the “84-line,” one of two assembly lines in the Finishing Department at Standard Mirror Company. I worked on the 2nd shift, which went from 3 pm to 11 pm.
Founded around 1910, the company made a name for itself as the producer of rear-view mirrors for the early Model-T Fords. When I started there, Standard Mirror had all the rear-view mirror contracts for Ford and Chrysler nationwide. That seemed like a pretty big deal. If you drove a Ford or Chrysler car or truck built in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, I may have worked on your rear-view mirror.
The plant was located on Milton Street near the railroad tracks, two blocks from Seneca, in a solidly working-class neighborhood. This is in the heart of south Buffalo, an area populated overwhelmingly by second and third generation Irish-Americans whose pride in their Irish heritage could be seen in symbols– like the green shamrock — in the many Irish-owned bars and restaurants. Folks from other near-by ethnic communities, including first, second and third generation Americans from Poland, Italy and Germany also worked at Standard Mirror. There were a few other ethnic groups, including a very small number of Blacks, but these four European-based groups predominated. The company was never huge, employing about 250 people on three shifts.
As I waited to punch-in at the time clock, I looked at the familiar union sticker that had been pasted there for everyone to see: “United Glass and Ceramic Workers, Local 44.” Someone had written on it: ‘We are a union shop and don’t forget it.’ I wondered why someone thought we needed a reminder. It wasn’t long before I learned the answer.
I saw Ed, the steward for our department ahead of me, and remembered seeing him rip into the company personal manager on the shop floor last week for trying to get the workers in the beveling department to produce more than their quota. It was things like that that won me over to the union shortly after I started working there. Ed was a big, gregarious Polish guy in his mid-thirties. A wide, toothy smile spilled across his face most of the time – unless a boss pissed him off. Then he became a bear.
I punched in and was walking down the aisle toward my department when I heard a familiar voice over the din.
“Hey, Paul.” I looked across a row of machines and saw Joey, the fine grinder operator on the 84 Line, leaving to go home. When he had moved to the day shift, I moved up from a polisher operator to the fine grind operator on the evening shift.
“Hey, Joey. How ya doin?” I shouted back. Joey was a skinny Italian kid a year or two older than me with a wry sense of humor.
“Good,” he yelled over his shoulder as he headed for the door. I couldn’t make out the rest of it, but it was something about ‘gettin’ out of this shithole.’ Joey was a good guy. He always left my first run in good shape for me. I really appreciated that.
I got to my department, grabbed my black rubber apron and big rubber boots and walked over to my machine. My back and arms were still a little sore from yesterday’s work. But, what the hell. I was young and in good physical condition and enjoyed the workout – well, at least for the first four hours.
The buzzer sounded to start out shift.
I went to the overhead crane and looked underneath for broken glass. There wasn’t any. Joey had left my first run in perfect order. I reached up for the control box and steered the forms over the fine grinder, then gently lowered them onto the black-slate circular table. I released the vacuum pressure on the hydraulic system, and moved the crane out of the way. Then I flipped the switches to lower the four hydraulic heads. They each popped and hissed just like they should when everything is working right. I guided the heavy heads into place over the forms, turned on the lubricant, and punched the start button.
There was a slight crunching noise as the big slate table began revolving, slowly grinding the surface of the glass mirrors pressed against it. My machine grinded out any slight imperfections on the surface of the glass.
I walked about 15 feet to the polishing machine next to me where John was putting the last head in place. He was a lanky guy about my age and wore a New York Dodgers baseball cap. It didn’t matter that the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles years earlier – John couldn’t accept the fact that they had left New York.
“How you doin?” I asked.
“OK,” he said as he turned on the spigot that poured brown polish onto the felt table.
He hit the start button on his machine. A couple of clumps of the chalky polish splashed over the guardrail and onto his workshoe as the polisher began to revolve. The polishers polished the surface of the glass to make them completely smooth.
“I heard they want to increase the quota on our line,” John said.
“Yeah, I heard that too,” I responded. “Ed said they’ll probably try to start it on the graveyard shift – you know, they have all those new guys there. The company figures those guys don’t know anything about the union yet, so they’ll get it goin’ there first.”
“Well, fuck ‘em,” John said. “We’re not doin’ any more. We’re working steady. They’re getting their production.”
“Yeah, I know,” I agreed. I remembered Ed told us that when ever we had a problem on our line that we should talk to all the guys about it to find out what everyone thought.
“You talk to the guys at your end,” I said, “and I’ll talk to Larry and the guys at the other end, and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do. I’ll talk to Harry when he comes on tonight, and Joey in the morning.” Harry was the fine grinder operator on the graveyard shift. He was a nice kid, but pretty new.
A couple days later, our shift supervisor, Jerry Kowalski, was standing by my machine when I came into work. He was a tall, balding middle-aged man with a big nose and thick glasses. He motioned to us to come over.
“OK, guys, listen up,” he yelled over the din of the machines. “As you probably know, we’ve completed our time study. We’ve determined that with a few changes in our production process, we can work smarter and increase our production. We’ll keep a running score at the end of each shift, and the shift with the highest production at the end of each week, every man on that shift will receive a $25 bonus. We’ll start it next Monday, on the graveyard shift.”
We were making about $100 a week in 1968, so a $25 bonus was pretty good extra money each week.
Kowalski was smiling now, and added with a twinkle in his eye: “I know you guys are the best shift. You can beat those other guys. I know you can win those bonuses.” He stopped and waited for our response.
There was some whispering and a lot of blank stares. But no one said anything.
“Look, guys,” he began again, the smile gone from his face. “We’ve got to do this to stay competitive. And that will help us all keep our jobs.”
“I understand we’ve got all the contracts with Ford and Chrysler,” I said. “So where’s the competition?”
“That’s true,” Kowalski responded, regaining his composure. “But there’s a company up in Michigan that’s very aggressive. They’ve got all the contracts with General Motors, and they’re trying to get our contracts with Ford and Chrysler.” He was sweating and pushed his glasses back into place. I never could figure out how those glasses kept sliding down such a big nose.
“What kind of changes are you talkin’ about?” John asked.
“We figure we can reduce the running time on the machines and turn up the pressure,” Kowalski responded. “We should be able to maintain our quality and get out three more runs a shift.”
“What!?” yelled out Mike. “From 18 runs to 21? No way!” Mike was a well-muscled Irishman in his mid-twenties who lived on the street behind the factory and had worked as an iron worker.
“Fuck him,” Larry whispered in my ear as he glared at Jerry. Larry was a short, stocky helper on our line with a barrel chest who was my age.
There was a general grumbling among the crew. Twenty-one runs would be rough. We’d be running our asses off the entire shift.
“OK, OK, guys, quiet down,” Kowalski admonished. “Three more runs isn’t that much…”
“If we speed up the machines, we’ll produce more scrap,” I countered, “because we won’t be able to get out all the imperfections.”
“We’re not going to produce more scrap,” he said firmly. “We’re going to keep our quality up.” The anger was rising in his voice.
“I’m telling you, there will be more scrap,” Mike responded in a loud voice. “You can’t speed the machines up any faster and hold quality. We can’t do it. Twenty-one runs are too much.”
“Are you refusing?” Kowalski shouted at us. His face was beet-red and the veins on the side of his neck were popping out like an old garden hose with a bubble in it.
“No, we’re not refusing,” I shot back. We didn’t want to be charged with insubordination. “We’re just telling you it can’t be done.”
“Well, I’m telling you that it can be done, and you will do it,” Kowalski screamed.
“And if anyone doesn’t do it, they will be disciplined, up to being fired! Now get to work!”
I wanted to say that we were sore and tired doing 18 runs, and that 21 runs would just add to our misery. But the company didn’t give a shit about us. We were just parts in the production process to them. The quota was the only thing they cared about. The quota and bigger profits. If I had said that, Kolwalski would have responded by saying: ‘What’s the matter with you guys — you’re just a bunch of pussies. If you can’t hack it here, there’s the door.’ We’d all heard that before.
We talked to Ed later that day and told him none of us wanted to do the new quota. He told us we had to talk to the guys on the other shifts and that we all had to be together on this. If one shift broke ranks and did the new quota it would prove it could be done. No one suggested filing a grievance. If we filed a grievance and did the new quota, when we got to our first grievance meeting, management would say: ‘What do you mean you can’t do it – you’re already doing it.’
Our union-negotiated contract was pretty good. We had language that called for time and a half for any work on Saturday and double-time for work on Sunday, regardless of how many regular weekdays you worked. But we didn’t have language that would allow us to stop management from raising work quotas. The union tried but couldn’t get it. But that didn’t mean our cause wasn’t just. We had to figure out how to stop it right then, language or no language.
We talked to Joey and he said all the day shift guys were against the new quota too. Our concern was the graveyard shift.
The next day at lunch, Larry began. “I heard a bunch of guys on nights are going along with the contest.”
“Yeah, I heard that too,” added John, as he pulled a baloney sandwich out of his lunch bag. I couldn’t help staring at a glop of polish that John had on his Dodger’s hat. He obviously hadn’t noticed it yet, or he’d be pissed off. He loved that hat. “Has anyone talked to Harry?”
“I talked to him last night when we were leaving,” I responded. “Harry says he understands our position, but he said their supervisor’s got all the guys cranked up about the $25 and how they’re the best shift – you know, the same bullshit that Jerry tried to feed to us. Harry said he tried to talk to those guys, but they’re all young and think they’re tough and they’re just seeing dollar signs in front of their eyes right now.” Actually they were only a year or two younger than us, but at 20 or 21 that seemed significant.
“Did he explain to ‘em that if we start doin’ 21 runs now we’ll be doin’ 21 forever,” asked Larry. “Where will it end? Remember, Charlie had a heart attack on the 48 line when they tried to raise the quota there.”
“Yeah, he told ‘em all that,” I responded.
“I say we go in there tonight and kick their asses,” Mike retorted, as he opened a can of Pepsi.
“No, no, hold on,” I countered. “Let’s go in there and talk to them. Harry says there are three of them that are gung ho for this contest, but others don’t want to do it. And some aren’t sure. Let’s get four or five guys from our shift, and we’ll talk to them. And I’ll talk to Joey about getting some of the first shift guys to come in early to talk to them. That way, they’ll see that first and second shifts are united on this.”
“What if they still refuse to go along?” Larry asked.
“We’re going to tell them that the union fought hard for years to get some control over working conditions, and we’re not going to give it up now,” I responded. I had heard Ed say that many times. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll go to Ed and ask him what we should do. What do you guys think?”
“Yeah. Let’s try that,” John said. “What do you think, Mike?”
“I told you what I think. We should go in there and kick their asses. But we’ll try it your way first.”
I knew if we got Mike on board we’d all be together on our shift. Mike was always threatening to do something extreme. Hell, one time he got so pissed off at Jerry that he suggested blowing up the place. I didn’t know if he was kidding or not.
“OK. How many of you can stay over for 10 or 15 minutes tonight?” I asked. About half the guys said they could stay. The buzzer sounded for us to return to work.
“And, Mike,” I said, as people were getting up, “No fights tonight. Even if they don’t agree, don’t start anything. That’s just what management wants. If you start a fight, management will fire you, and then we have another problem on our hands. If they’re not with us, I’ll talk to Joey and see if the first shift guys can come in early the next morning to talk to them. OK?”
“Yeah, OK,” said Mike. “But if that doesn’t work, let’s wait until they leave the premises, and then kick their asses.”
That night we talked to the guys on the graveyard shift. We gave them all the reasons why we shouldn’t go for this contest and the new quota. We told them that the increased production was worth a lot more to the company than $25 a worker, there was no promise of how long they would pay the bonus, and most importantly, it would raise our quota forever.
“Do you want to be doing 21 runs every night forever?” I asked Donny, a husky young blonde haired kid. I saw his supervisor come down the isle so we stepped behind a big hand truck loaded with glass.
“But I can do it, no sweat man, and it’s 25 more bucks in my pocket a week.”
“Yeah, but Donny, if you do 21 runs now, what’s going to stop them from raising it to 23 or 25 in three or six months? Or more? When will it end? When you’re the last man standing and then finally they give you a quota that even you can’t handle? You’re letting them take advantage of you.”
“Naw, I’m not lettin’ em’ take advantage of me,” he responded with some indignation in his voice. But then a funny look appeared on his face like maybe I was right. So I pursued this line of thought.
“Of course they are,” I countered. “The question is are you tough enough to stand up to them and not be pushed around?”
“No one pushes me around,” Donny said, puffing out his chest.
“Well, they are trying to push you around,” I continued. “They’re telling you that you have to produce 21 runs. What if you come in some night and don’t feel well? Do you think they’ll say, ‘Ok, Donny, you don’t have to do 21 runs tonight.’ No. They’re going to tell you that you still have to do 21 runs. Look, we’re giving them 18 runs now. That’s a full night’s work. That’s enough. OK?”
He looked at me quizzically, paused for a moment, and then said, “OK.”
I went over to John and Larry. They were talking to two other guys on graveyard. I listened for a minute and it seemed like they were getting through to them.
“How you guys doin’?” I asked the two night shift guys when there was a pause in the conversation.
“OK,” they said.
I looked at John and Larry. “You guys ready?”
“Yeah, we’re ready,” said John.
I looked around for Mike and the others and motioned toward the door. We met up in the beveling department where the mist was still hanging in the air.
“How did it go?” I asked. “Pretty good,” said Larry. “The guy I talked to seemed to go along.”
“What did he say?” I continued.
“Not much. He mostly listened.”
“But did he say he agreed with us?” John asked.
“Well, not exactly,” Larry responded. “But when I told him 1st and 2nd shifts are going to keep doing 18 runs, he nodded his head and said ‘OK’.”
“What about you, Paul?” John asked me.
“I talked to Donny. You know, he’s one of the gung-ho ones. He argued with me at first, but by the end of the conversation he said he agreed.” I explained.
“Do you think we can trust him?” Larry asked.
“I don’t know. He seemed pretty weak,” I answered, “but we’ll see.”
“How about you Mike?” I asked, turning toward Mike as we rounded the corner on our way toward the door.
“I was talkin’ to some asshole who said he was going to do it because he wanted the extra money. He said ‘fuck the union.’ I told him to fuck himself and step outside right now. Just then the supervisor came up and told us to stop arguing and for him to get to work.”
“Well, one guy can’t increase the quota by himself,” Larry said.
“Yeah, as long as the others go along with us,” I said.
We left the plant and went out into the cool night air.
“See you, guys,” I said as we walked toward our cars. It was Friday night. John, Larry and I headed for one of the neighborhood taverns. A cold beer sure tasted good after an evening at the glass factory.
When we left the bar John went to his car and Larry hung back a little while he was talking to me. As John drove off, Larry said he wanted to tell me something. It was late and the parking lot was almost deserted, so we stood by the side of the building in the shadows.
“Mary talked to me the other day,” he began quietly, looking around to see if anyone was watching. Mary was one of the secretaries upstairs that Larry was quietly going out with. I don’t think anyone knew they were seeing each other. “She told me that she had heard the big bosses talking one day recently in a meeting behind closed doors about how they could all get raises if they got out more production. But she also told me not to say anything because she was the only one around then, and they would know she told people.”
“Really,” I said. “That’s interesting.” I knew the company was out to make money. But it was disturbing to think they would tell us one thing to get us to work harder, and then plan to put most of the increased profits in their pockets. That angered me and made me more determined to stop their plan.
“Thanks, Larry. I appreciate you telling me that.”
“Don’t tell anyone,” he pleaded. “Mary is afraid if it gets out she’ll get fired.”
“No, I won’t say anything,” I assured him. We both got in our cars and went home.
On Monday, when I arrived for the second shift, the atmosphere was tense. I was wondering how things went. On Sunday night, the company started its new quota with the graveyard shift crew. I was pretty sure the day shift stuck to our old quota, but I was concerned about the graveyard guys.
I pulled up to the factory just as Mike was getting there. We walked in together, punched our time cards and headed for our department.
We approached our work area and saw bosses everywhere. Even bosses that I hadn’t seen before. We turned the corner into our department and saw the blackboard.
“Those sons-a-bitches!” Mike shouted.
‘Third Shift: 20 runs, ‘ it read in big white chalk letters and numerals.
“I told you we should have kicked their asses!” Mike exploded.
“Hold on,” I said, trying to calm him down. “Let’s go talk to Joey to see what they did.”
Joey was just finishing up his shift.
“Hey, Joey,” I called out as we approached him. He looked up as he hosed off the forms of my first run. “How many did you guys do today?”
“We did 18 but it was tough. There were bosses all over the place. And are they pissed off. Ralph was standing by my machine watching me like a hawk the whole day.” Ralph was the first shift supervisor for our department. “I couldn’t turn the time back up or the pressure down.”
“So how did you do it?” I asked.
“You know, work to rule, slow down, have every problem you can think of. But it was hard because they were watching us real close. So we had to be careful. You guys better watch out. They know we don’t want to do this quota and they’re looking to fire anyone who is goofing off or purposely slowing down. They’ll probably be here for your entire shift,” he said. “The pressure is really on you guys because they’re so mad at us, and they figure you’re in it with us.” He stopped working for a minute and looked up at me. “But you can do it.”
“Did you have more scrap?” I asked.
“Some. We made sure we did,” Joey responded.
“What about the guys on graveyard, did you talk to them?” I asked.
“Yeah, we talked to them when we came in this morning. We told them that this is a union shop. We told them that the majority of us in this department believe 18 runs is enough so that’s what we’re going to give the company. I told them, ‘if you guys don’t like that, then go down the street and find a non-union employer where you can knock yourselves out.’ We told them that we would show them how to do 18 runs, even with the time turned down and the pressure up on their machines. So we gave them some pointers. Also, the company figures the graveyard guys will do it, so they don’t have too many extra bosses on the graveyard shift. Besides, none of the bosses want to get out of their warm beds at night to come down here,” he laughed. “That will make it easier for the guys to slow down, if they agree. Can any of you guys stay over a little and show them how to do it? Some of us are coming in early tomorrow morning to make sure they do 18.”
“Yeah, we can stay over for a little while,” Mike answered. A wicked smile crept across his face.
“No rough stuff, Mike,” I told him. “Just show them how to do it.”
“OK, no rough stuff,” Mike agreed. He paused for a moment. “Unless they refuse.”
Just then I saw most of the rest of our crew come into the department. We had about 15 minutes before the start of our shift.
“C’mon,” I said. “Let’s go down to material storage. We can talk down there.”
“OK,” I began. “Management is going to be all over our asses today. Graveyard did 20 runs. But first shift did 18, so management is really pissed off at them. And they figure we’re like the first shift so they’re really going to watch us. So be careful. If they catch anyone slowing down, or wrecking a machine or the product, they’re going to come down hard on us. We know they have shortened the run time on our machines, and turned up the pressure. That means we have to stretch out the rest of the work. That means work to rule. Walk inside the yellow lines; no cutting across the department. Follow all the safety rules. Take your time getting material. We know what to do. Just like Joey and Ed told us. OK?”
People nodded their heads in agreement.
“Also, who can stay over a little tonight to talk to the third shift guys again?”
“I will,” Mike chimed in with that same evil grin on his face.
The others looked at him and smiled.
“We got about a minute before the buzzer,” John reminded us. I noticed he had wiped the glop from the polisher off his Dodgers hat. “We better get back to our department.”
We streamed out of material storage and down the aisle toward our department. Four bosses were standing there watching us.
“Afternoon, Paul,” Jerry said to me as I grabbed my apron and boots. “Ready to make 21 runs today? Did you see, graveyard made 20.”
“We’ll see,” I said slowly.
The buzzer sounded. I checked the glass in the forms hanging from the crane. Everything was OK. I took my time, but Jerry was right there watching me. I put the first run on my grinder, did all the prep work and started it up. I was right on schedule. Jerry was still staring at me. The other bosses walked up and down the line watching the other guys. Jerry knew that my machine controlled the pace of the entire line because it supplied glass to the polishers. If my machine slowed down, it slowed down the entire line.
It seemed like in no time my grinder stopped. I got the overhead crane in position, lowered it over the forms, turned on the hydraulic suction, and picked them up from the circular slate table. I hosed off the glass and checked for broken mirrors. Everything was OK. Jerry was still watching.
John took the crane and transferred the glass onto his polisher. Everything went smoothly. The run times had been reduced on the polishers too. While the machines were running, we machine operators assisted the helpers in pulling the mirrors out of the water tubs, cleaning them off, throwing out any cracked or broken mirrors, and racking the rest. After the first run, we were on schedule to make 21 runs for the day.
As we approached our first break two hours into the shift, we were still on schedule for 21 runs. There was a little more scrap, but not enough, and Jerry hadn’t left my machine the entire time.
The buzzer sounded for our 5:00 pm break and we headed for the lunchroom. We went to the table where we all regularly sit together.
“We’re too far ahead,” John said under his breath, as he pulled out a chair to sit on and pushed the Dodgers hat back on his head.
“We’ve got to slow it down.”
“Yeah, I know,” I agreed. I turned to Larry and the other helpers. “When you guys go for material, don’t rush. Take your time, in fact, take all the time you can. We’ll try to take as much time as we can getting the runs on and off the machines, but they’re watching us so closely, it’s tough. But they can’t see you when you go for material. That’s where we’ve got to slow down. They can’t watch all of us all the time. There are more of us than there are of them. OK?”
“Sure,” said Larry. “We can handle that.” The other helpers nodded in agreement.
“Where’s Ed,” John asked. “I thought he was going to come over to give us some help.”
“He said he’d be over before lunch,” I answered. “I think he had a meeting with management about 4:00. He might still be in there with them.”
“Remember, we’re giving them 18 runs and that’s it,” Mike added with emphasis.
Right after our first break, Larry went for some more material. I watched him between two of the machines. Before he got out of our department, he came up behind another tow motor that Mike had left in the aisle on purpose. Instead of bumping it out of the way, like we usually did, Larry slowly backed up his tow motor about 30 feet until he found a clearing beside the tow motor path. Then he carefully pulled his tow motor completely off the path and parked it behind another big machine. You could hardly see it.
Then he walked to the other tow motor, got on it, and drove off out of sight into another department, probably to park it somewhere. About five minutes later, I saw Larry walk back into the department. He went to his tow motor, and drove off for more material. By the time he got back my machine had been stopped for several minutes. Jerry was pacing back and forth steaming.
“Where the fuck have you been,” Jerry screamed at him. “This material needs to be here before his machine stops!” His face was red and swelled up like a beach ball ready to pop.
“One of the tow motors was left in the aisle,” Larry responded. “I couldn’t get by.”
While Jerry was screaming at Larry, I took an extra long time picking real and imaginary pieces of broken glass out of the form with my screwdriver.
Just then I heard Ed’s booming voice.
“What’s going on here? Don’t yell at that man like that!” Ed screamed at Jerry, while pointing at Larry.
“It’s none of your business, Ed,” Jerry yelled back. “Go back to your line.”
“It is my business,” Ed shot back. “I’m the steward for this department and you’re not going to yell at people like that!”
While they argued, Larry just stood there doing nothing, and I continued fiddling with my machine.
After several minutes, Jerry looked over at me.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he screamed at me when he saw my machine wasn’t running yet. “Since you’re not runnin’, the polishers aren’t runnin’ either!”
“Jerry, I told you we aren’t going to put up with you abusing our people like that,” Ed yelled back, anger rising in his voice.
“Ed, I told you to stay out of this,” Jerry said as he whirled around.
Another boss, who was watching a polisher operator, saw all the commotion, and came over. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.
While Jerry explained the problem, the polishing operator stopped working. Now two-thirds of our line was grinding to a halt.
Finally, Jerry looked back at me, his eyes blazing with anger and his jaw muscles so tense he looked crazed.
“I had some broken glass that I couldn’t get out of this form,” I retorted.
“Well, get that damn thing going,” he said pointing at my machine with his outstretched right arm. Even the muscles in his finger were tense.
“Hey, quality work takes time,” I said turning back to my machine.
“What did you say?” has asked angrily. His lips were foaming and the words flew out on gobs of spit. “I’m going to write you up for insubordination,” he screamed, “for not following my instructions.”
“Hey, I am following your instructions,” I yelled back. “What have I refused to do? We’re doin’ everything you’ve asked!” As I was talking, I was working even slower. My machine still wasn’t going.
While I was arguing with Jerry, Ed walked down the line and started talking to a polisher operator and a helper, so they weren’t working either. Now almost the entire line was stopped. Jerry looked at them and turned to the other boss.
“Go down there and tell Ed to get back to his job or he’s goin’ to be written up,” he yelled, “and tell those other guys to get back to work!”
All of a sudden there was a loud crash. A rack of glass smashed on the floor. Occasionally, accidents like that happened. Today was a good day for it. Guys all over the department were hootin’ and hollerin’ — something they normally did when a lot of glass broke — as everyone stopped working to look. Since our department was at the end of the production process, any mirrors wrecked in our department ruined the work that everyone did before us.
We developed a pattern. Every time a boss confronted one guy, he argued back, and then the others who weren’t being watched slowed down. It was a cat and mouse game.
Everything was falling apart on our line. About 6:45 pm none of the machines were working, and when the bosses rushed up to the guys, they came up with all sorts of arguments to explain why they were having so much trouble.
Finally, the buzzer sounded at 7:00 pm for our lunch break. We streamed into the lunchroom, giddy with excitement.
“Did you see the veins in Jerry’s neck?” Larry said as we reached our table. “They looked like they were going to explode.”
“Yeah, we did good out there,” I said. “We’re at 9½ runs. We should be at 10½ to reach the new quota. We’ve got to keep it up.” Under our original quota of 18 runs for the entire shift, we would have 9 runs done by lunch, so we were pretty close to our old mark.
“How you guys doin’?” we heard a familiar voice say. It was Ed. He had just walked into the lunchroom and had that big toothy grin on his face.
“Good,” said Mike. “We’re close to our old quota.”
“Good. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’,” Ed said. “The guys on my line are with you. We’re ready to raise some hell over there. You need any more help, you give me a holler. OK?”
“Yeah, thanks, Ed,” I said. “Thanks a lot. You were a big help out there.”
After our lunch break we went back to our line and did the same thing. Jerry was still furious, but now he had a look of desperation on his face. We met again at our 9:00 pm break and we were on target to make 18 runs. Things were going just as we planned.
When the graveyard shift guys came in at 11:00 pm, they saw that both first and second shifts did 18 runs. We had another talk with them and gave them some pointers.
When we came in the next day, we saw that the graveyard shift did 19 runs. That was an improvement. By the third day, they were down to 18 too. The total number of mirrors we produced was the same as when we did 18 runs, but the total number of good mirrors was less because we were producing more scrap and having more accidents. So instead of production going up, it was going down.
The bosses were furious.
“We know you guys are doin’ this on purpose!” Jerry screamed at us at the end of the third day. “When I catch anyone purposely slowing down, or ruining the product, I’ll fire ‘em!”
Our campaign went on much the same on Tuesday and Wednesday. But neither Jerry nor any of the other bosses could ever quite catch anyone purposely goofing off.
On Thursday, I was picking a broken piece of glass out of one of my forms when I heard a loud scraping and crunching sound. I looked over at one of the polishers and saw big strips of felt ripping off the table. It was Mike’s polisher. He was nowhere to be seen. He had gone to get some tools. So the table kept revolving, and the broken glass busted up all the mirrors on that run and just shredded the felt. One of the bosses ran over and shut off the machine, and Mike hurried over like he was real concerned about the accident.
Jerry stormed over there too and I could hear both bosses screaming at Mike, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Mike was screaming back and more time was being lost. That was fine with us because we knew that polisher would be down for a half hour to 45 minutes while a new felt was put on it. And that meant it would be impossible to reach the new quota, and we wouldn’t have to sweat it too much for the rest of the shift. That day we made only 16 runs.
We heard that some of the bosses suspected sabotage. I know they wanted to blame Mike but he wasn’t around his polisher when it happened. But they were sure that someone had thrown a piece of broken glass onto the felt polisher so it would get imbedded in it and break up all the mirrors. I don’t know if there was sabotage or not. We did have this type of accident on the polishers occasionally.
What made things worse for the company was that when third shift came in that evening they had a similar accident on the same polisher, and the bosses thought for sure it was planned sabotage. I don’t think it was on the third shift. I guess it was just bad luck. Third shift gave them only 14 runs that night.
By the second week, our numbers were all over the place. Some days we made 18 runs, but other days just 17 or 16 or worse. Overall, everyone was having more accidents than normal; that undoubtedly accounted for our dismal showing.
On Thursday of the second week, management stopped recording our scores on the blackboard. It was nice to come in Friday and see blanks on the blackboard for every shift. Even the number of bosses out on the floor dropped back to close to what it used to be, and the screaming, yelling, hair pulling and threats died down.
On Monday of the third week, some genius in the front office thought it wasn’t good for morale to have the numbers “16″ and “14″ from the week before recorded on the blackboard for everyone to see, or blank spaces either, so by Tuesday the blackboard was gone. We never heard anything more about the contest.
There was so much scrap, that the run-time on our machines was put back to what it had been. That was on Wednesday of the third week. We never heard any more about the new quota. Nor about any quota. And no one was disciplined.
When we went back into work the next Monday, three weeks after this fiasco started, it seemed like everything was back to normal – well, normal for that shithole.
“Afternoon, Paul,” Jerry said, as if nothing had happened. “How you doin?”
“OK,” I responded. “How you doin?”
“OK,” Jerry answered. But he didn’t look too good. His face drooped and his shoulders sagged. He looked defeated. He turned and went up front to his office. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day.
We were ecstatic. We not only stopped the new quota, but we did something equally important for ourselves. We took some control over our worklife. We walked taller after that campaign and we felt good about it. We regained the self-respect that had been stripped from us when we walked through those factory doors. This respect was not only in our eyes, but also in the eyes of management. The company learned that they were not going to easily run over us again.
We also learned some important lessons about unionism. The union is all of us, working together to help one another. We learned that there is real power is in our hands – the workers acting collectively on the job. Ed, our steward, and other union members gave us good ideas, and Ed was a big help when he came over to argue with the supervisor. But arguments alone wouldn’t have been enough by themselves to stop the new quota; it required us to carry out the slowdown.
If Ed and the other union leaders could have solved the problem on their own, we wouldn’t have the new quota, but we also wouldn’t have had gone through the experience of standing up for ourselves. That was an invaluable experience.
Organizing this campaign taught us new skills and helped sharpen ones we already had. It got us to talk to and try to convince the unconvinced that we shouldn’t do the new quota. That helped us develop logical thinking and the skills of persuasion. We learned something about planning, thinking on our feet, and adjusting our plans to address problems as they cropped up.
Finally, when we carried out this campaign, we became rank-and-file activists and leaders. That not only made us stronger as individuals and as a work-group, but it also made the union stronger as well. This rank-and-file activism and organization at the worksite is a core ingredient in strengthening the labor movement.
This text was originally published as The Quota at Polkagris.