A tale of toil by Hewlett-Packard manufacturing worker Jay Clemens in California, 1985.
The acrid aroma of warm ketchup and vinegar revives me as I step into the cool rose-hued early morning air. I crawl into my tin-plated subcompact and rev the engine into a dull roar. I'm gliding onto the Nimitz Freeway, past the ketchup factories and canneries, past the "outdated'' industrial plants, the factories and warehouses. Past the abandoned bus factory, where rusted engines and bus chassis lay strewn over the yard. Past the truck plant employee parking lot, once a dense concentration of pickups and chevys, now a desolate landscape of tumbleweeds and beer cans. I'm cruising over the San Mateo bridge and veering south, into the future. The signs say Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale but I'm reading Silicon Valley on each one. No more smokestacks, no more peaked tin roofs. Instead we have "university style buildings.'' Flat roofs. Rolling lawns. I pull into the parking lot of Hewlett- Packard's Santa Clara Division, slowing down to flash my badge to the guard on duty but not really bothering to stop. Why waste precious time? We receive a notice on this once a month. "All employees must come to a full stop and show the guard their badge.'' For our own safety and security of course.
I walk across the vast parking lot in the slanting morning sun clutching my paper bag of lunch. I remember my first days at HP being ridiculed for bringing my lunch in a tin bucket, like everyone did at the factory. HA HA, where do you come from? It reminded people of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble going to work at the stone quarry. Here we bring lunch in paper bags. That's progress.
I show my badge to the guard at the desk and walk into the stale conditioned air of building 2A. My building is only one of five at this division employing almost 2000 people. The building is a sea of modular partitions and workbenches. I mumble my hellos to the technicians at their benches hunched over their data books, catching up on a little sleep. I wave hello in the direction of the women assemblers, already perched over their chassis, trying to remember what goes where. I make my way to my bench, mechanical assembler position, a fifteen-foot-long bench with trays and trays of nuts, bolts, screws, washers, and hardware stretched out before me. A pile of tools at my elbows. I quickly take off my jacket and fumble my tools around, coughing and clearing my throat to announce my presence. There are no time clocks to punch here so you are clocked in by the several busybodies who make it their business to see when you come in. The eyes and ears of the supervisors. If your jacket is still on, it means that you just walked in the door.
I make a short trip to the main coffee dispenser in the main building. Got to start waking up. I stare at the skeleton of an instrument before me on my workbench. Where did I leave off? It starts coming back to me and I slowly start piecing the skeleton together, destined to become yet another Hewlett-Packard Fourier Analyzer. Nothing to look forward to until 9 o'clock break. The morning is a blur of humming flourescent lights and lukewarm coffee. I am lost in my work until, finally, the break trays are spotted rolling down the aisles. It's Tuesday, cookie day. I see the forewarned are already heading the cart off at the pass, grabbing the best cookies. The cart arrives and two pots of coffee and the tray of cookies are placed on our rack before rolling off to distribute to other break areas. A line is quickly formed and we grab our rations and join our respective social circles to talk and gossip. I edge into an assembler station and talk with some friends.
"Where's Ellen today?,'' I ask the group.
Marie perks up, "You didn't see her get the escort yesterday? She got canned yesterday about 2:30.''
"What!!,'' I shout in disbelief. I lower my voice instantly and everyone looks nervously around. "Why?''
"That bitch of a lead didn't like her. Prob'ly 'cause she's black. I talked to her last night. She's glad to be out of here, she was sick of this place.''
"She really needed this job though,'' says Becky. "It's hard to find work these days.''
"She'll find something,'' says Marie.
The conspiracy of the five of us talk quietly, making sure one of the supervisors, or their eyes or ears, aren't listening in. We all keep smiles on our faces. HP, you see, doesn't have layoffs. Never. There'll be no unemployment insurance for them to pay. Coincidentally, when the economy goes sour, there seems to be a rash of firings. In the afternoon, there'll be a tap on the back, a quick trip to personnel, and out the door without one chance to say "goodbye, I'm fired.'' Not one chance to tell your coworkers what's happening or exchange phone numbers. Spiriting people out the door like that makes most people feel they're to blame themselves. Most are too embarrassed to even come back for their belongings.
"I was just getting to know Ellen, too bad,'' I mutter to myself.
And then, much too soon, break's over. We all saunter back to our work stations. I'm up to my elbows in hardware. I'm assembling frames for instruments. Assembling the chassis, installing the transformer, the switch assembly, the fuseholders, the lights and LED's, the cardholders. I'm installing the mini box fan, to keep the instrument cool and calm. Me and these fans have a history. I got tired of watching the heavy solder smoke curl up the women's nostrils over in chassis wiring area.
"How can you stand breathing that stuff all day long?,'' I would ask.
"HMM, oh, you get used to it,'' Mae said. She ought to know, she's been working for HP for thirty years now. One of the few who still remember Bill and Dave handing out the Christmas checks.
"It's really bad to breathe that stuff you know.''
"Oh, everything is bad for your these days.''
Mae is a tough, loyal old-timer type. The other women on the line detested breathing fumes all day long, however. So, I started requisitioning extra box fans from the stock room, since my job enabled me to procure spare parts for repair work. I would wire the little fans and put them on the workbenches and they would at least blow the solder smoke away from the nostrils. Soon, everyone wanted a little fan of their own. I was having a hard time filling orders. All was well for several months when, boom, our breath of fresh air died. The management caught on to our poor judgement and misuse of company assets. Fans were for cool and breezy instruments, not for assemblers' faces. The fans were rounded up and herded back into the stockroom. No one, it seemed, really knew where those little fans came from all wired up like that though. Mysterious.
At one of our little department meetings, I requested ventilation for all the employees' benches. Sherry, our new supervisor, was horrified. Supes were rated on keeping department expenditures down. She smiled benevolently, after regaining her composure, and chided us little children for asking for exorbitant luxuries like ventilation. Sherry was a new hire fresh from Stanford who had never worked a day in her life before now, yet here she was telling the electronic facts of life to people who have been working in the industry for many years. No one, however, backed me up on my proposal after she ridiculed it like that.
Around a month later, Mae came back from a three week vacation, all tan and relaxed. Her second day back on the job she came in furious.
"Do you know, Sherry, that I've had blisters in my nostrils for as long as I can remember. They actually went away while I was on my vacation. I could actually breathe properly. Do you know that one day back on the job and they're back again! It's that damn solder smoke, I'm sure of it. We must have some vents in here!''
Sherry's face was a flustred pink while Mae continued her story to all the women in the area as they sat around the big table wiring chassis. Big festering sores in her nose for twenty-some odd years and never placed the cause.
On break time I wrote up a petition demanding ventilation and everyone quickly signed. I xeroxed it and left it on Sherry's desk. I told her I'm giving a copy to the area manager. She was in a panic. Letting rebellion spread is an unpardonable offense for a supervisor. Several days later, installation people were installing a central vent with individual air scoops for the work stations. Sherry's hatred of me stems from this day.
I'm installing a cable harness and a subassembly which comes from yet another area. Now it's ready for the chassis working. I put it on a shelf for the wiring people to take. It will take them about eight hours to wire just one of them. I go back to another chassis and repeat the same steps. I work automatically, grabbing the right crinkle washer, the right locknuts, screws, tinnermans. Working miniature little nuts in the tiny space between the transformer and the frame. What a pain. My hands fly from tweezers to screwdrivers, to needle nose pliers to wirecutters, solder irons, solder suckers, crescent wrenches, allen wrenches, bus wire, the tools of the trade. I'm like an automaton. I know this particular instrument well so I can daydream and still work.
I listen to the chatter of the technicians behind me. I catch snatches of their conversation: the 49ers, some asshole of a referee, Willy Nelson's concert, some blonde in a ferrari... I see Louie hunched over his work station. He's strapping a just tested laser on the vibration board. Straps it down with a big black rubber strap. Turns on the motor and it shakes, rattles and rolls with the sound of an outboard motor. They build these lasers tough. Louie shuts the motor off and prepares another one. Last week Louie was walking the line between getting fired or electrocuted. The company had been talking for months of the dangers of static electrical damage to delicate CMOS parts. Just think of it, miniature lightning bolts at our fingertips, this static electricity. They corraled us all into the conference room for a thirty minute film on the danger. We saw crashing F-111's all for the sake of a burnt out little CMOS chip. Sounded like a good idea to me. A little later we were all handed a big black mat that was electrically grounded to our workstations to protect these chips. No more coffee cups at our area since stryofoam harbors these dangerous electrical charges. Certain fabrics were not allowed to be worn to work. Then they handed us all little bracelets with straps to strap ourselves to the tables. To ground ourselves to not damage the chips. Amazingly enough most people did not want to be leashed like dogs to their work stations. To the assemblers it was an insulting thought, but to the technicians it was like telling them to stand in a puddle of water and stick their finger in an electrical socket.
Louie expressed his fears to me. "I spend my whole technical career trying to remember the old axiom of never grounding yourself and they ask me to do it voluntarily. I work with 10,000 volts on the power supply of this laser. One slip and I'm cooked meat with this grounding strap.''
Louie is a quiet guy. He agonized privately over this dilemma for several days, disturbed that all his coworkers saw no problem with the arrangement. One afternoon he exploded into a tirade against the grounding strap, pointing out the dangers to his coworkers. Seems no one had really thought about it. They all trusted the company's engineers to think it through and make a good decision. They all saw Louie's side and agreed unanimously to refuse to use the strap. They scheduled a meeting the next day with the big boss who also agreed it was a stupid idea. Seems the office people had been sold on all this stuff by the marketing group. Sounded reasonable to them as they never work on electronics. That was the end of the "Leash Law.'' Louie retreated back into his shy little corner again.
I see Mike and Pam winding their way through the burn-in area, coming to get me for lunch. We join the stream of the hungry in the aisle and walk up the stairs and through a long sunlit corridor to the cafeteria. We take our trays outside, for some fresh air. Some people are playing volleyball at the net stretched across the courtyard area outside the cafeteria. The famed silicon valley recreation area. This isn't a factory, it's a country club. Actually, you'd be a fool to use your thirty minute lunchbreak to bat a ball around. You eat, talk a little and it's back to work. The people who play volleyball are either on a diet or have no lunch money. I suppose the engineers could play volleyball in between designing new technology but I've never seen them. They go to their private health clubs that are scattered throughout silicon valley. We gossip and bullshit about who's been fired, how we managed to goof off today and who's been getting it on with who. We plan our upcoming weekend. Before we know it it's time to troop back down to our workstations. It was nice seeing the sun as there're no windows in the building downstairs. No distractions. Groups of us are drifting back to work, a parade of happy-faced clones. We all wear painted smiles. All one big family. Management wear shirts with the sleeves rolled up and no ties. That's their uniform. Most have no doors on their offices. They have the "open door policy'' here. We refer to that policy when they fire someone. "They open the door and throw them out.''
When I was first hired, at a different HP facility, my boss told me, "You don't come here to make money. You come here to make a contribution. We don't discuss wages here with each other, that's strictly personal.'' I remember my final interview with this guy, my original boss. With his pen he wrote these letters in capitals for me. M-E-R-I-T. "This is the key to your success here,'' he told me. "Merit--not seniority like union jobs or cost of living or stuff like that. That's the old days.'' I noticed he had a pack of Merit cigarettes sticking out of his breast pocket. "What a loser this guy is,'' I thought as I shook his hand happily and agreed on my future career with HP. I had lied about my work history. I knew I couldn't tell him that my last job, before I was laid off, was a lumper with the Teamsters Union making twice the wage I was to start out as at HP. Anyone with union background is tainted at HP.
I was sent to a big introduction to the company, to "see the garage'' as they say. It was a four-hour media extravaganza with a talk by some VIP, a slideshow, and a big presentation by personnel on "The HP Way.'' The garage was the highlight of the slide show, the garage being the place where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their first instrument, an oscillator for the Walt Disney production of "Fantasia.'' I was fully indoctrinated by the end of these four hours and found myself becoming an android for Bill and Dave.
I kept trying not to think about the time when Dave Packard was Undersecretary of Defense for Nixon during the Vietnam War and a group of us lit fire to the hotel he was speaking at. The flames were licking around the hotel and we could actually see Packard and his buddies at the top of the hotel. We all chanted "Pig Nixon, you're never gonna kill us all'' as we blocked the arrival of firetrucks. It took several squads of riot cops to break us loose and send us scattering into the balmy Palo Alto night. That was a long time ago, however.
My first place of employment at HP was phased out of existence as they moved to their Santa Rosa facility where the wages were cheaper. They started moving regular employees to other worksites and bringing temporaries in to take their places until production was halted for good. Almost every temporary was black. That was weird. There were one or two black employees out of several hundred in my area. HP claims its racial percentage is better than average. HP is a very large employer for the area and obviously hires very few blacks. This leaves a lopsided percentage to look for work as temporaries. My boss explained it to me at one "Beer Bust.'' This is where they roll out a few kegs of beer and some hot dogs to express their appreciation of us.
"Blacks aren't good workers,'' my boss explained to me, quickly looking around making sure no one was in earshot. He was quite delighted at sharing his little philosophy with me, an obviously sympathetic white man. "They're just troublemakers, we prefer orientals.'' The plant was full of Filipinos, Vietnamese, Mexicans and Latin Americans. HP ensures its workforce will be people who are not in a good position to make "selfish'' demands on the company.
I arrive back at my bench. It's time for "button up.'' I receive a finished instrument from the technician after it's been assembled, wired, and burned in, i.e. run in a hot box for several days. It's now ready to get the final covers on it. I bring it over to the button up area. I fill in the forms for shipping/receiving and check the instrument for damage or paint chips. I clean the unit up. Put it on a cart and I'm off wheeling this new machine to the stock room.
None of us assemblers really know what these things do. We only know it goes with a bunch of other instruments, a computer, a CRT screen and a keyboard and costs around 200,000 dollars. Occasionally we see who buys them. General Motors, Lockheed, the Swedish Air Force. They are Fourier Analyzers. That's not the only thing we make here though. Within these five buildings we produce hundreds of different instruments. From lasers to custom integrated circuits. I wheel my cart around into the stockroom and dump it on another table. Will comes and checks it off on his list. Will is a different breed of employee. Most of the workers here are young; Will is in his fifties, from the old school of electronics--electron tubes and military jargon. He's head of the HP garden club.
There is a several acre lot outside the building that has been plowed up and fenced in. It was divided into about 50 parcels of land. We could sign up for one of them and grow crops on it. I signed up as I love gardening and could use some free vegetables. Several days a week I would join scores of others filing out to the garden to hoe, plant, and water in the slanting afternoon sun, the HP monolith hovering in the background. The scene brought to mind a post-1984 nightmare, serfdom of the future. Working in the plant all day and growing your crops outside. It just lacked the barracks to sleep in. Our crops were coming along OK. At least I thought so. From the front of the garden, with the factory in the background my cucumbers and tomatoes were doing fine. Most of my plot went to corn though. I noticed that as I walked into the corn patch the closest rows were lush and green, but as I walked closer to the factory, the plants were sickly and yellow and the last third of them had not even come up at all. I thought at first that I was just lazy and not watering the rear as much as the front, but one day I took a sweeping look at the whole HP garden club and noticed that a giant line of sickly yellow had been drawn down the width of the garden plot. One third of the garden was poisoned! Then I realized that the whole plot of land that stretched from the garden plot to the building had not one blade of grass or weed on it. We were gardening on the edge of some sea of poisonous chemicals! I was thankful that I hadn't carried home a load of chemical soaked vegetables to my wife who was pregnant at the time. I pointed this chemical sweep out to the garden club officials, but they thought it would still be OK to eat the vegetables that survived the chemical holocaust. That was the end of my green thumb. I let my poor garden shrivel in the sun.
I'm back at my bench again, assembling, assembling, assembling. I've run out of excuses to leave my bench. I've gotten parts out of the stockroom, I've delivered to the stockroom, I've gone to the bathroom, I went to get some more shipping forms. I've accepted the fact of working till the afternoon break. It's amazing what you will get used to. You do develop some pride in your ability to do simple things. I can assemble these things very fast when I want to, which is not very often. Me and one other woman are the only ones who know how to assemble these things. She trained me since she will retire in several years. Bess has been doing this job for almost thirty years, another old-timer. I was asked to document the assembly of this product as I learned the procedure, but I stopped after a few weeks. We're more valuable without documentation.
Second break. More coffee comes rolling down the aisle. I grab a cup and I'm off at a fast pace to visit some friends in another building. It's about a three minute walk to get there and I only have ten minutes. I run past the stock area, past the machine shop, past the degreasing area with its vats of steaming chemicals. I walk into the vast Printed Circuit Board area. There's about 50 women sitting in front of little racks of Printed Circuit boards, loading them up with capacitors, Integrated Circuits, and resistors. Pairs of reddening eyes look up from their giant illuminated magnifying glasses and microscopes. I see my friends, Laura and Rose, standing up and stretching in the walkway. Laura had worked with me at my last jobsite for HP and transferred here also. We go out the back door and cross the parking lot to smoke a joint in Rose's car. Both complain about their supervisors. The printed circuit area is a very harassed area. Lots of bickering and quarreling. The stories they tell remind me of the movie "Caged'' where the matronly women jailers harass and torment their prisoners, mostly young women. We finish the joint and run back to the building. I still must reach my area in a matter of minutes. Being a few minutes late from break time can be an excuse for a lousy or no pay raise come review time.
It won't be long now. The final stretch of the afternoon has begun. My eyes are fatigued. My fingers are trembling from dexterously manipulating hardware all day. I'm bored to death. I've run out of reminiscences, sexual fantasies, and daydreams. I think of what I'm going to do tonight. The early risers are starting to drift out. Our "flextime'' enables us to come to work within a two hour time slot, work our hours and leave. Sometimes I appreciate this flexibility, but I really miss the power I felt working in the factory when we all arrived en masse to take control of the machines. Even as wage slaves, there is something very powerful when a shift of workers leaves the production lines at the same time and march out of the plant together. Something that reinforced and gave the impression of unity and solidarity. Here, in silicon valley, they have us believe that we voluntarily come to work on our own accord and at our own convenience. What a joke.
Finally I have five minutes to go. I start cleaning up my area. Put away the tools. I nod goodbye to my co-workers. "See ya tomorrow, take it easy.'' I'm out the door. Fresh air, how great. Cars are revving up and twisting out of the parking lot. I check the paint on my car. A few rust spots, that's all. A few weeks ago it was discovered that the ventilation system was fouled up and raw chemical fumes were being emitted from the "smoke stacks.'' It had stripped the paint off of 300 cars and HP paid for new paint jobs for all of them. At first I thought how generous, but what other damage had been done? What did it do to our lungs or the lungs of nearby housing tract neighbors? New paint jobs were a small price to pay. I was surprised that not one thing about it appeared in the newspapers. Electronics is such a "clean'' industry. But then many stories I've heard about chemical dumping and poisonous fumes never appear in the papers.
I cruise out of the parking lot and join the crawling freeway traffic back to the East Bay. Hi tech workers creeping alongside auto workers and warehouse workers. The only difference between us high-tech workers and industrials is that we get paid half the amount. But then, that's the HP way.