The Tools We Work With, Part IV

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One day the plant manager called me upstairs to his office to discuss why I hadn’t managed to fire Waldo and Lloyd yet. I said something like they were doing their jobs well, which they were. Both were smart men, especially when it came to race, and it probably hadn’t been too hard to figure out they’d had bull’s-eyes painted on their backs. Knowing someone is trying to fire you can be a powerful motivator.

temple 5 temple 2Larry looked at me through sleepy-looking eyes. He had a soft drawl that sometimes made the threats hard to pick up on. “Here’s what you do,” he said, and he went on to lay out a plan. As Quality Control technicians, Waldo and Lloyd were tasked with making rounds of the plan every two hours to record various machine settings. One setting was on a wax tank at the top of a catwalk forty feet above the plant floor. The wax was weighed out and then dumped into the urea-formaldehyde resin and mixed together before being sprayed onto the wood particles to be pressed into a board. The wax settings hadn’t been changed in the year I worked at the plant, and Larry and I and probably everyone in the plant knew that the technicians strolled past the ladder to the cat walk on their way to the milling side of the plant every two hours, checking off the box on their report and never even looking up at the ceiling.

“You wait ‘til Waldo makes his first round,” he said, “then you go up there and change the setting by about forty pounds. After he makes his second round, take his clipboard and fire him for falsifying his report.”

He kind of laughed about it, making it out to be a joke, but as I left the office I passed his secretary, a woman in her thirties, hunched over her typewriter, and she gave me a look that told me she had heard Larry’s plan, but I couldn’t read what she thought about it.

I’m ashamed to say that I thought about Larry’s plan too. Far longer than I should have.

After a year as the Quality Control Supervisor, a year that passed without firing Waldo or Lloyd, I was moved from the quality control department to production foreman on the swing shift. The plant manager said it was a lateral promotion, but lateral only meant a demotion where I didn’t lose any pay. Two weeks before the union contract vote, the company flew in an Atlanta lawyer who specialized in labor relations for a meeting. I sat in the conference room with the other supervisors and foremen.  We smoked and talked, nervous and unsure what to do with our hardhats, so we kept them on our heads. Management meetings were always awkward because being called upstairs was worse than being called to the principal’s office. The lawyer stood in front of the company logo fixed to the wall, six T’s joined at the base so they formed sort of a wheel with spokes–cut out of the first load of particleboard that came off our press.

The lawyer told us what we could legally promise to our employees about the way the company would deal with them after the union was voted out–nothing. We listened politely, asked one or two questions, and then the lawyer was driven back to the airport. With the lawyer gone the plant manager told us to talk to each member of our crew privately, to promise them a year-end bonus if they elected to deal directly with the company, and to find out how each person planned to vote. I didn’t say anything to my crew.

The employees voted out the union and suddenly Temple was a harmonious company. Except for one black man on my crew named Keith, who openly admitted that he was one of the few employees who had voted to keep the union. Keith was branded a troublemaker, and Larry put pressure on me to run him off.

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At night, with the machinery running and the lights and sounds, the mill was a living thing. It had a power of its own. In order to make good particleboard, the whole mill had to be in sync, from the person loading shavings into the silos with a front end loader, through the milling and drying and blending, all the way to the press, the saws, and the forklift driver who stacked the bundles of board. There were over three hundred electric motors, timing switches, sensors, and twelve operators and technicians.  Sometimes the mill got into a groove, and the machinery would run for hours and sometimes days at a time without the operators making a single adjustment. Other times it ran like hell and we spent whole shifts rigging, bypassing, and patching together equipment. I watched other supervisors to learn the management techniques I missed in college. I decided that a good supervisor should stand behind his crew, discipline them if necessary, but defend them as well, because finally you were defending yourself.

I lost that job one morning after a graveyard shift that I’d spent fighting one equipment failure after another. At seven in the morning Larry walked into my office, a rare event which only meant trouble. He took off his hardhat and smoothed his hair into place, sat down on the bench beside my desk. His face was framed on one side by the production schedule tacked to the wall, and on the other by a photocopied cartoon, the kind that circulate through company offices. He said, “We need to discuss the Keith problem and what you plan to do about him.” The cartoon seemed appropriate for the situation–a frog was being swallowed headfirst by a snake, but it was choking the snake, holding its throat closed with both hands.

Keith had had some run-ins with another shift foreman before he came to my crew. But I liked Keith. I liked his work because he tried hard. One night he and I were talking and he called me “Boat.” It slipped out, and he was worried that he’d said something wrong. When I pressed him about the name, he told me that the hourly employees began to call me Boat after I’d taken a canoe to the company picnic the year before. I liked the nickname–it made me feel accepted–and I told Keith to spread the word that it was okay to call me that.

I explained to the plant manager that Keith was a good worker, loyal. I refused to fire him. We were at an impasse. I gave my notice and Larry let me go.

A week later I saw Waldo at K-Mart, flexing a fishing rod in the sporting goods department. He had heard that I was quitting and I told him it was true. Waldo looked at me and flexed the rod he was holding, trying it out. He said, “You’re a goddamn fool.  You had a good job and lost it because you weren’t tough enough on your men.” I agreed with him, but I was angered, and surprised. Two years ago I had tried to fire Waldo, and now I wanted some appreciation from him, some acknowledgement that I had finally developed principles. But Waldo understood better than I how that company worked. As I turned to leave he said, “If it had been me. If I’d had that good job? I’d have wasted anybody who got in my way.”

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