Hey! Randy

But I Still Drive One

Posted by heyrandy on December 1, 2008

Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line ,  Ben Hamper, Warner Books, New York, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991.  234 pages, no index.

It has been said that if you were to know how sausage was made you would never eat any.  I don’t know how sausage is made, but after reading Hamper’s book I know how cars are made.  It is largely a matter of getting enough drunks, drug addicts, and other low life people in a large building full of machinery.  You have to pay the workers much more than they could earn anywhere else.  A great deal more.

The book is mostly autobiography with tales of events that go on inside the General Motors assembly plant in Flint, Michigan.  Hamper, a native of Flint, worked for GM from 1977 to 1988.  In his tenure, Hamper learned to do serious drinking and doping on the job, even while working on the assembly line; escape undetected from the plant during production hours; and write a column for the Flint Voice, the local left wing rag (and later Mother Jones, both were edited by Michael Moore, who also wrote the introduction to Hamper’s book).  In between, he used a rivet gun.

Hamper is (and Moore too) a son of a autoworker.  Hamper calls his tenure at GM to be natural, his birthright.  In a sense it is.  Raised a Catholic, he promptly abandoned his faith once he married his pregnant Catholic high school girl friend.  Hamper make an existence living by being a painter in the apartment complex where he lived with his wife and daughter.  He showed no motivation to try to improve his situation.  He figured he would not get any more money even if he did twice the work, something he says he could have done.  This attitude is tailor made for a unionized assembly line.

Although his family was barely getting by, Hamper routinely spent much of his pay on beer.  It seems drunkenness is a prerequisite for an autoworker.  Here he follows his father:  a long time GM line worker who routinely disappeared for days at a time, drinking and carousing until the floozy got tired of him.  Once Hamper got to GM, his drinking reached professional levels.

It was not just Hamper who drank and used drugs.  The liquor and drugs were pervasive throughout the plant.  It was a way to make the “minute hand move faster.”  The problem even reached into management.  Just after Hamper started, the line worker next to him suggested they “double up.”  This is the trick where one person does two people’s jobs.  This allows one of the two to leave the assembly line (and sometimes the plant).  At first Hamper said no; he was too afraid of getting caught.  The man who suggested it said don’t worry about the line supervisor, “He’s a real alky, and I brought him a six pack.”  Hamper looked down the line; and there, behind some shelves, was the supervisor drinking a beer.  Hamper double up.

Drinking was so widespread that the janitor ran a delivery service.  You just passed word down the line and soon a bottle was delivered to your work bench.  The price was higher than the liquor store across the street, “but no one was complaining.”

The work was mind-numbing dull.  Every day the same.  The line moved at 37 units an hour.  This never varied unless there was and emergency line stoppage.  This happened once when someone was hurt.  A line worker pushed the stop button when the injured worker fell beneath the line.  This stoppage brought out “every necktie in the area, all screaming to get the line moving again.”  The neckties had the right to stop the line, you did not.

This really betrayed the motive of the factory.  Hamper relates the silly promotional episode involving a person in a cat costume:  Quality Cat.  Officially named in a plant wide contest, “Howie Makem” made random appearances.  Some how this was supposed to improve quality.  The only thing this accomplished was to cause the line workers to wonder about the intelligence of those who thought up this nonsense.

Hamper’s writing style is adequate but not exceptional.  His language is execrable, profanity is in every paragraph.  Yes, realism and all, but it is still unnecessarily coarse.  Other than telling us of his dissolute life and the stupid tedium of his work, the book has little to recommend it.  I suggest to all that the book be given a pass.

I still don’t know how sausage is made, but even after reading Hamper’s book, I still drive a car.


One Response to “But I Still Drive One”

  1. jzw said

    Just how credible is he on his drink-drug claims? After-all the more sensational the book, the better it sells.

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