Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The photo at left is of Johan with his finished platter.

Immediately after my college graduation, I felt like hanging out for a time in my college town of Hastings, Nebraska. I took a job at a manufacturing plant, operating a punch press. It was a way to make a little money and see a bit of the life I had hopefully avoided by getting my college degree. Besides, like most of the students graduating from college that year, I still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with my life.

Operating a punch press was almost interesting work for the two weeks I was there. There was a mindlessness to it. Once you got your hands into the rhythm: picking up a piece of steel, placing it generally in the right spot on the machine, and then stepping on a pedal to set the huge cast iron wheels into motion, you could zone out in some degree of idle fantasy. A small device would sweep in front of your hands to keep them from being smashed when the die came down onto its mating piece on the table of the huge tool, in case your mind was to wander too far to keep your hands safe.

When I took time to look up from the operation, the room was full of similar machines, each with an operator whose hands swept in and out placing or removing parts and whose feet kept a steady rhythm, stomping pedals and setting the wheels in motion. Each machine added significantly to the noise level in the room. I felt that I was a small part in something larger that had not been explained to me and that I couldn't fully understand, but that was all about time and money.

This was the nature of unskilled labor in America. Each person in the plant was an extension of the machine which was an extension of the brains and planning of engineering and management.

I was a shy young college man at the time, mixing at lunch with blue collar. At lunch time, sitting on stools and eating sandwiches, I listened to the conversations, about quitting time, retirement and resentment. I had found myself in the company of men who had little interest in their work. One had noticed me working efficiently and quickly and noted that I should slow down. "Some would resent things if I made them look bad," he said. There was no sense of higher purpose or involvement. After about 2 weeks, I was ready to turn in my resignation and draw my pay. It was that day that an efficiency expert came by to watch me at my work. He stood over my shoulder and timed my motions. After standing there for a few minutes, he said, "You are really working fast. I wish everyone here would work like you." "Give them a good reason," I replied. "Today is my last day."

There is a difference between being unskilled labor, trading time for money, and being a skilled craftsman and learning new things each day. I am grateful for that difference and the opportunity to learn. But as Otto Salomon suggested, anyone willing to make a contribution to the betterment of our conditions, whether skilled or unskilled, deserves the respect of all.

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