The Tools We Work With, Part III: Particleboard

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My first job out of college I was hired as a quality control supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia. The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a dirty pale green color specially mixed for the company: Temple green. The plant was laid out like a long assembly line, with tall silos and fifty foot piles of yellow pine shavings at one end, the warehouse and loading dock at the other. In between the shavings were ground to particle size, dried, treated with urea-formaldehyde resin, formed into mats eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long, pressed and sawed. High pressure blow-lines four feet in diameter sprouted out of the roof of the building and moved the wood furnish from the silos to the dryers to the blenders. Fine particles of wood floated through the air and dusted the cars in the parking lot and formed windrows on the ground that looked like cream colored snow.

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The company was based in Texas, but the particleboard division had mills in Alabama and New Hampshire as well. In college I had studied forest products and had worked for another particleboard company through cooperative education. The man who supervised my co-op job had told me that I could expect to work sixty to seventy hours a week in management, and that dedication to the company, good intentions, and hard work would ensure promotion. That sounded right and I was willing to make any sacrifice for the company. But everything I thought about how big business operated turned out to be wrong.

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A week into the job I was called upstairs to the plant manager’s office, where he stood by the window looking down at the conveyor belt that shuttled the long mats into the press. The man’s name was Larry, and I was struck by the way his Southern accent sounded affected, the Hollywood version of the way people in the South talk. His boss, the division manager, was a short man from Texas who wore Brooks Brothers shirts and spat tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup packed with tissue. They said I had two “problems” in my department–two technicians whose main crime proved to be that they were black, union troublemakers. The division manager told me that it was my job to run those two out of the company. I was twenty-three years old and I thought that I could do it.

I left the office with every intention of running those two off, even though I had no idea what sort of employees they were. In college I had learned something about making particleboard, but nothing about managing people. I didn’t think it would be so hard. I planned to be fair and I assumed that everyone cared about the quality of their work. I put pressure on Lloyd and Waldo. Both men were in their thirties, which seemed very old to me at the time, and they looked even older because the wood dust turned their black hair white. Every mistake they made I reacted with the company’s established disciplinary process: verbal warning, written warning, three days off without pay, termination. But I learned that I was doing a bad thing when Lloyd responded to a written warning by filing a grievance against me.

Waldo represented Lloyd when the grievance was heard before the division manager. The man who ordered me to fire Lloyd, who had promised to back me up all the way to arbitration, spat tobacco juice into his cup and said: “Lloyd, Terry’s just a young guy trying to make an impression, a little too gung ho. I think we can convince him to back off on this warning and remove it from your record.” I backed off Waldo and Lloyd, and the pressure switched to me.

I met with the plant manager, Larry, once a week to discuss Lloyd and Waldo.  One day he explained why the division manager hadn’t backed me up. The union contract was due to expire soon, and the company couldn’t afford to make the men martyrs by going to arbitration. I remembered the first or second day I worked for Temple, when he’d given me a copy of the union contract and said: “I hope we don’t have to work with this long, but you’d better know it pretty well.” When the contract expired, the employees would have a chance to vote on whether or not they wished to be represented by the union, and I realized that the move to fire Lloyd and Waldo was a move to weaken the union. Larry said that I should try to catch them in gross negligence, an offense not protected by the contract, and he offered fatherly suggestions on ways to trap the men. Other days he threatened to fire me if he didn’t see results before the union vote. It was sort of like good cop/bad cop. I never knew what to expect when I went upstairs to his office.

When my parents asked about Temple, I told them how bad the situation was in much the same way I’d told them I would probably fail physics in college. I was afraid of disappointing them, and I didn’t want them to be surprised. I’d decided that there was something wrong with me, that I didn’t understand personnel management any better than I did physics. My father talked to me about DayBrite, about what it felt like to work at a thankless job, and how being fired was the best thing that ever happened to him.  “There’s plenty of work that you can do well,” he said, “without having to work for assholes.”

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