Every day the company screwed with its employees.
They told us they would and even laughed about it.
You see I worked (ever so briefly) for a company that made metal fasteners, including screws. The puns cannot all be repeated here, but never varied much.
Working in that plant, along with summers spent as a painter, taught me as much as any given semester of graduate school . . . and I got paid to learn.
If you have never had a job doing manual labor, get one. It will be worth it.
I learned far more from the employees than they ever learned from me in all the places I worked, but here are a few of those lessons.
My first day stamping metal I thought how blessed I was. As a Bible college student, I could pray and think about the Word for hours! The noise of the factory was cut off by headphones, we could not listen to music for safety reasons, and so God had hours of time to speak the Word to my soul.
And He did. I was excited at the end of my first work period with my experience and looked up at the clock to see if it was time for my break. I needed a Diet Coke and human conversation.
Ten minutes had passed. Hours to go before my break and I was tired of praying already.
At the break, and break came as slowly as a white Iphone, I discovered that all the temps were glassy eyed. We hated ourselves. Full time employees fell into two camps. The first stood smoking, always smoking, and discussing the three B’s: beer, boats, and babes. I am not sure what the women discussed in their break room. We were weirdly segregated.
The second group was religious and read books or discussed their family life.
There was very little middle ground.
Secularism might thrive in graduate school, but it wiped out factory workers. It left them with nothing but simple hedonism. Of course, my faith was too shallow for the grinding task of being trapped with my own thoughts and God.
My spiritual growth would be rapid or I would become small and petty.
My experience suggested that Hell might be best pictured as being forever trapped with myself. If Jesus is not lord, I would be trapped with me as lord and my factory work taught me nobody was that interesting.
That job began the process of teaching me to live for Someone who would keep me in pain and in pleasure so that boredom would never be a problem again.
I also learned that “doing my best” could be bad for the community. Having deepened my spiritual life, I began to work faster and faster. There was a “rate” for the factory, a standard for all the workers, and I began to go far past it.
A fellow Christian pulled me aside and said some wise words: “Look snot-nosed college kid. You will be here a few months and leave. We will be here for years. You are not working at a rate that your wrists could sustain for decades. Slow down or less kind people will slow you down by necessity.”
He was right.
My friend was not encouraging slacking or laziness, we knew bad people who tried to hide in the break room and not work, but setting a pace that was good for everyone in the community. Workers that were older and had been there for decades needed a sustainable rate and I needed to cooperate with it.
From that point on, I tried to work just a bit faster than the norm. I was young and could, so I did.
My job as a painter put my on a tar rook painting vents in the summer. Some of the vents came from ovens and those ovens were not always as “off” as they could have been. Pounds of tar would stick to my shoes and my skin would change colour from the heat.
I was on my own. Very few people supervised me and I would listen to the radio soaking in the horrific music of 1981 and 1982. “The Greatest American Hero” played often and I would sing along at the top of my tuneless lungs. Nobody could hear.
Why keep working?
I know a few people who did not, but I kept working because almost all the men around me were good men and they taught me the joy of hard labor. They were family guys earning the mortgage and they cared about the company. They would moan and complain, but they also did jobs they were not paid to do when it was necessary, because they were thankful to have jobs. It was a union shop and I saw union rules both protect good men from management and strangle innovation.
It left me knowing there was no simple story to tell about unions. They were good, but not if they became too powerful.
Painting was not as hard as mining coal, but it was hard for me. This was nothing but good for my middle-class soul. The men of the plant were skilled and unlike the factory workers had meaningful and skilled work. They were as intelligent, in their way, as any people I have ever known.
Some snobbery about “college people” died in that plant. My grandfather’s generation there were especially remarkable. Often they were brilliant than management and created whole systems on their own to manage problems.
What worked for me in the factory has worked in my home. Working with my hands taught me that such work forced a body-soul integration that college did not stress. It brought me into contact with good and bright people that some ignore. My college jobs showed me that some work was soul-searing, even if easy, and other work was hard but used skills. God help those forced to work in repetitive and meaningless work, because the weekend and hedonism were not enough.
My students are finding such jobs hard to get, even if they want them. That is shame, because everybody should do such a job for a time. Many are made to do physical labor, it is their niche, even amongst college grads, and farming all those jobs away is a bad thing.
Theodore Roosevelt was right. Many well-read men are in the plants and factories of America. Meet them if you are not one of them. If you are one of these heroes of labor, working in hard places, thank you. I appreciate the education you give us all.