Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Does “being a factory rat” count for having a “real ass” job? If so, how come a majority of American autoworkers are viewed as overpaid, unskilled laborers?

In Leon Chamberlain’s self-published memoir, “Factory Rat,” he states: “There used to be millions of us. Nowadays we joke that we are dinosaurs, a dying breed.” He made this observation more than a decade ago, and from what’s written, he, along with many of his coworkers, knew the manufacturing landscape would someday change, that they wouldn’t be able to continue working on the assembly line earning a decent wage, thinking themselves valuable assets to their prospective employers.

Although his first auto job started at Wayne “Assy” in the mid-60’s, he starts with a 1970's quote from Henry Ford II:

“The average worker wants a job in which he does not have to put in much physical effort. Above all, he wants a job in which he does not have to think.”

Chamberlain’s first line of work: Installing right-hand seat belts with a powerful air gun that often stripped the chrome plated bolts. He emphasizes how everything’s related to speed, including sprinting to the parking lot with his fellow coworkers so they could make it to the Wayne Party Store for whiskey and beer during lunch break. Also, he describes how those air hoses would sometimes get caught on a passing trolley or a car mirror, only to stretch and snap, sometimes cold-cocking a worker. He quotes Studs Terkel from “Working”:

“They’ll (management) give better care to that machine than they will to you. If it breaks down, there’s somebody out there to fix it right away. If I break down, I’m just pushed over to the side ‘till another man takes my place.”

His memoir spans a 33-year career in the auto industry. Unfortunately, it does not portray the autoworker in a favorable light; it doesn’t show them as valuable entities. You’ve got a pipe fitter that spends his working hours making and selling coffee for profit, an electrician laying on a wooden bench in his crib, night after night, snoring (he promotes to supervisor), and other colorful characters trying to “stick it to the man.” “Factory Rat” is an entertaining read which gives insight into the decline in the United States’ automobile manufacturing from an insider’s perspective. --jr