By Reuben Roth for
Dr. Dorothy E. Smith, OISE/UT
Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, EDT 3928F
The goal of this essay is to build an institutional, ethnographic portrait of how a particular regulatory text, in this case an agreement between union representatives and plant managers (Appendix 1), enters the lives of General Motors (GM), Oshawa auto assembly workers. I realize this in several ways, including textual analysis, the use of oral interviews with employees as well as my own experience, knowledge and memory of work-practices on the GM assembly-line. The descriptive account originates from my background of almost seven years of working on the GM assembly line. From 1984-1991 I was employed at GM as an assembly-line worker, undertaking a variety of different assignments. In this paper I also use thematically-guided oral history interviews conducted with Oshawa autoworkers from 1995-1997 as part of an SSHRC-funded study entitled "Working-Class Learning Strategies" (WCLS).
In order to come to an understanding of the questions which are raised here, I map actual sequences of how this text attempts to organize the working-day of auto assemblers. In this context, ethnography equals observation of genuine events without any prior evaluation or judgement. Thus, I hope to use observation first and analysis last in order to discover the actual practices of assembly workers on the General Motors assembly line, but I will be keeping in mind D. Smith's cautionary note that:
..taking the everyday world as problematic does not confine us to particular descriptions of local settings without the possibility of generalization. This has been seen to be the problem with sociological ethnographies, which, however fascinating as accounts of people's lived worlds, cannot stand as general or typical statements about society and social relations (Smith 1987, 157).
Consequently I will not be attempting to make any sweeping generalizations beyond the situation at hand. I also work with the understanding that a document can be read differently by people in different positions. Here I merely attempt to examine the genuine practices of people in an accurate manner. As Smith writes, I hope to "map an actual terrain" (1987, 175) of this institution with which I am so familiar. Thus my main goal here is to build a descriptive account of the setting, work operations and regulatory practices of General Motors' employees and management in the context of this document. My aim is to, as Smith writes, build an account which is "closer to explication than explanation" (Smith, 1987, 175).
Some of the questions arising from an examination of the document are:
1. What practice is the document trying to regulate?
2. What do GM workers actually do on the assembly line?
3. What constitutes this as a regulatory text?
4. How does the text work in actual practice?
The problem addressed in this document is a breakdown in the regulatory process: workers are departing from their immediate work area before the end of their assigned shift. They manage this by working ahead of their assigned area. 'Working up the [assembly] line' is an advantage that workers procure by toiling doubly hard during the final portion of their shift, a practice not enjoyed by all. Only those who have the best (i.e. comparatively easy) jobs can relish this relative luxury. These workers feel they have earned this advantage by virtue of their relative seniority, gaining easier jobs and better working conditions with each passing year.
Plant management is concerned that this practice leads to a loss of product quality as workers rush through the last quarter-hour or so of their day. Moreover, from management's viewpoint, there is a belief that this visible loss of management control (marked by long lineups) leads to a breakdown in discipline and additionally sets a harmful future precedent. Since precedents and 'past practices' are used by union and management to settle grievances, these breaches in discipline are viewed by management as serious infractions and by union representatives as potential openings in future arbitration hearings. Thus, from their outlook, management's concerns are apparently well-founded. However, workers are aware that their work is under intense scrutiny, particularly during the end-of-shift period, therefore they pay extra attention to the quality of the last few cars built during this interval.
Note that supervisors are not being addressed in this document. Nor is this document merely a clarification of the union-management contract. The document attempts to coordinate activities in this setting by setting up a uniform penalty for workers who are caught outside of the prescribed work areas.
The Document and its Context
Oshawa's General Motors complex spans two car assembly plants, a truck plant and a number of parts fabrication plants. CAW Local 222, the largest private-sector union local in Canada, represents approximately 14,500 GM workers who work in and around Oshawa.
The document is known in both the languages of GM and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) as a "district letter." A district letter is an appendage to the negotiated 'Master' and 'Local' collective agreements. The collective agreement, popularly referred to as 'the contract', contains the rules which govern and regulate worker behaviour. Thus not all contractual clauses favour employees. This document is one example of an undesirable addition to the contract -- from the worker's point of view. In cases like this, union officials typically prefer the ambiguity of no contract language, rather than being saddled with an unfavourable clause.
This document is printed on both sides of a single sheet of plain paper, typewritten in capital letters (therefore I quote the document in capital letters), with several errors in spelling and grammar. There is no company or union letterhead affixed to the document, but the signatures on the flip-side of the sheet indicate that it is indeed an official document.
In this environment, signatures are important even on unofficial documents. For example, in this competitive union culture electoral leaflets have been rejected by rank-and-file members for the lack of a signature. The signatures affixed to this Notice wipe any later claims of 'unknowing action' by union representatives should there be any negative consequences in the aftermath of this notice. The missing signature can now be understood as a form of personal protest by a union representative. Each party has different reasons for affixing their signatures to the agreement: management parties must sign the document, if they are to preserve their jobs. But the document is also advantageous to management and it makes supervisors' jobs easier, so there are few reasons that managers would refuse to affix their signature to this notice. But union representatives are under no such obligation. Elected officials have an obligation to those whom they represent and they need not sign the agreement. The absent signature indicates a disagreement over the contents of the document.
The document is headed as a "notice" which is addressed only to two departments in the auto plant and it is not intended for those working outside of these two areas. The document is broken into four discrete sections: an introductory explanation as to the need of the document, a section titled "CLARIFICATION OF EMPLOYEE'S WORK AREA," a segment headed "CLARIFIED BELOW ARE THE APPROPRIATE PLANT RULES," several closing statements and signatures of union members and their management counterparts.
TABLE 1 Union-Management Counterparts
|Level of Agreement
|Local Shop Committee
|None - enforces all of the above agreements
|Rank-and-file union member/employee: votes on acceptance of the Master Agreement and the Local Agreement and elects local union representatives.
The district letter is aimed at unionized assemblers in the workforce who are paid hourly and record their hours worked by 'badging in' via a magnetically-encoded plastic identity card which is inserted into a time-clock, thereby recording their comings-and-goings. This is the reference in the opening statement which reads:
RECENTLY, MANAGEMENT AND UNION HAVE HAD ONGOING DISCUSSIONS REGARDING PROBLEMS WITH LEAVING THE WORK AREA EARLY AND CONGREGATING AT THE EXITS BEFORE QUITTING TIME.
Local plant managers can, at times, selectively ignore various contract rules and clauses which are agreed to during negotiations, which take place every three years. This is a management response to union members and officials who attempt to find contract loopholes or omissions, and take advantage of them. In this case, management have found an omission in the contract which allows workers an opportunity to flee the factory before the designated time. Additionally, managers have procured local union officials' permission to block this loophole. But from the point of view of the average assembler, the implications of barring workers from their pockets of free time are enormous.
Time in this industrial factory is marked by sharp whistles which indicate the beginning of the shift, relief breaks, lunch breaks and the end of the shift ("QUITTING TIME"). The text in question is attempting to enter the work process at these particular points.
YOUR WORK AREA DOES NOT INCLUDE THE BOTTOM OF THE STAIRS, BADGE READERS BY THE STAIRS OR TUNNELS SURROUNDING THE PLANT EXITS. EMPLOYEES SHOULD REMAIN IN THEIR DESIGNATED WORK AREAS DURING SCHEDULED WORKING HOURS UNLESS PERMISSION IS GRANTED.
The regulatory function of the text is to shepherd workers into acceptable areas of the factory during times which are compatible with management's schedule. Management urges that workers remain at their work stations (and not near badge readers for example) at all times other than breaks and both prior to and following scheduled work shifts.
Workers who have the opportunity (and the seniority) to work ahead of their particular job by several hundred yards can take advantage of the precious minutes they have acquired. They use this extra time to leave their work stations and gain an advantage over their peers by lining up in advance of the end-of-shift whistle. These workers can then badge out the moment the end-of-shift whistle wails without facing any disciplinary action or loss of pay. This act gives them a further advantage in allowing them to reach their car before others do escape the inevitable traffic jam, as thousands of workers try to leave the massive GM parking lot within the same short time span.
THE INTENT OF THESE DISCUSSIONS IS TO PROPERLY DEFINE THE EMPLOYEES (sic) WORK AREA, CLARIFY PLANT RULES AND THUS AVOID UNNECESSARY CONFLICTS.
GM employees presumably already know the boundaries of their work area. Moreover, the work areas are restricted by the length of a hydraulic hose, or the reach of a tool or jig and so on. What is being addressed here is the employee taking advantage of the time secured by either working ahead or 'doubling up' (explained below) with a co-worker and using this time as a relief from the monotony of the job. During this free time workers visit friends in other work areas or the cafeteria, they exchange information with their co-workers, read the newspaper or size up other potential jobs which are slated to open up. Sometimes workers simply hide in the washroom to avoid the watchful eye of management.
Ten years ago GM workers had an average of 30-50 seconds to perform a given job. With time and experience, assembly workers might find a faster (but unapproved) way of performing a task without affecting the final quality of the finished product. Workers might change the order of an operation, or 'double up' with one another -- that is to perform the work of two workers in 10, 15, 30 minute (or even one or four-hour) 'shifts' in order to 'buy' oneself a break from the routine of the line. Workers 'pay the price' of these breaks; doubling up for an hour or two might be impossible on jobs which are heavily laden with work. Conversely, easier jobs can be 'doubled up' for up to four hours, allowing two workers to effectively cut their shift in half.
Doubling up is a risk-taking exercise which is generally done in a clandestine manner, so as not to raise the ire of management. But often management simply turns a blind eye to worker practices of doubling up. In my experience, autoworkers explain that they have good relations with supervisors who didn't mind their methods 'as long as the job gets done' -- a phrase heard often on the shop floor.
The practice of doubling up thus satisfies both parties. The advantage to line workers is immense: workers free themselves from the tedium of nonstop assembly, and choose to fragment their workday into manageable blocks (i.e. rather than looking forward to the end of an eight-hour shift, now even those poorly served by doubling up could look forward to ten minutes of relative freedom every ten minutes). However there is a downside. The practice of doubling up reveals slack within the job and therefore jeopardizes workers' jobs. With the introduction of lean manufacturing techniques, workers who reveal slack in their work routine can tempt management into eliminating the slack -- thereby eliminating their jobs. In the past few years, however, GM has increased the time allotted to complete a job, but GM has increased the workload as well. A fifty-five second minute is the current norm. But doubling up is a key component of the worker's struggle to secure free time from the rigours of the job.
Workers also find shortcuts which make their jobs easier and faster, although these shortcuts do not conform to the specifications which are written up in a job description. Job descriptions (written by industrial engineers) are posted at every work station on the assembly line. These regulatory documents typically state what tasks (parts used, tools used, motions made) an assembly line worker must perform in order to complete a job. But workers do not allow this document (job description) to regulate their work activities.
EMPLOYEES ARE REQUESTED TO REMAIN IN THEIR WORK AREAS DURING WORKING HOURS OTHER THAN SPECIFIED ABOVE TIMES (LUNCH BREAKS etc.), OR IF PERMISSION IS GIVEN TO LEAVE THE WORK AREA BY THE SUPERVISOR OR HIS DESIGNATE DURING WORKING HOURS.
The document "CLARIFIES" the employees' work area and prohibits access to the cafeteria, except during scheduled breaks, which are marked by the factory whistle. Workers who are able to, work up the line or double up participate in this illicit practice precisely in order to avoid spending the bulk of their precious half-hour lunch break in a cafeteria lineup.
Obviously in this context, free time carries an enormous price tag. It can be 'bought' only with the cooperation of a fellow worker or with immense personal effort. Time away from the immediate demands of work is very important to GM assemblers. The reason for this overwhelming desire to escape the line, even for a few minutes, may not be fully understood by those who have not seen an assembly operation. Even then, it is difficult to imagine the experience of assembly work without actually performing it firsthand. The monotony and degradation of assembly-line work in an industrial factory can be oppressive in the extreme.
The Rigours and Madness of Assembly-Line Work
In Farewell to the Factory, a study of General Motors Workers in California, author Ruth Milkman (1997) appropriately titles a chapter "Prisoners of Prosperity: Autoworkers in the Postwar Period." Milkman writes that:
the metaphor of imprisonment was central to the self-conception of most GM workers ... because they hated their jobs so intensely (43).
Life as an auto assembler verges on madness for many and Milkman's imprisonment metaphor has hit upon what few commentators have. Assembly line work is alienating, inhumane and debasing and workers will battle management partly out of an unacknowledged sense of rebellion and partly out of a feeling of sheer boredom, a feeling which sometimes borders on lunacy.
I have encountered some inaccurate descriptions of life on the factory floor and I have seen autoworkers portrayed in a way I often do not recognize. Here I am thinking in particular of Ben Hamper's book Rivethead (1992). Many who read these selective accounts of the factory experience will confuse humour, which is an expressive release from the day-to-day drudgery of repetitive, alienated work, as an accurate reflection of that kind of life. It is not.
There exists a madness of sorts on the auto assembly line. In order to relieve the frustration and tension I experienced, I would sometimes join others and, in what no doubt appears to the outsider as an inane ritual, we would smash our hydraulic power-tools against the heavy steel track of the line and howl as loud as possible, in an unbridled and rowdy custom. During the hot summers there were frequent water-fights. These might escalate from simple handfuls (or even mouthfuls) of water slopped on its victim, to large garbage pails full of water dumped from a second-storey catwalk onto a worker at his work-area. The Tarzan yell could be heard at anytime during the day or night, but the call: "day-oh!" was shouted only on night shifts, waiting for someone to reply "daylight come and me wanna go home!" But Belafontes we were not.
There was also a regular trick often played on newcomers. Safety glasses were required to be worn at all times in the body shop, by all workers. But workers take off their glasses when they went to the cafeteria or washroom, or sometimes they might put their safety glasses down on a work bench just to wipe the sweat from their brow and relieve the weight and pressure of the glasses. A fellow-worker would then wipe a finger on the assembly-line track and transfer a fingerfull of grease to the nose piece of a pair of safety glasses. The effect always brought gales of laughter from a fellow's workmates when the poor soul took his glasses off the next time only to reveal a nose streaked with black grease.
But these antics were only a relief from the gruelling monotony and intense work. In a journal entry written almost a decade after the event, I described my own initiation to auto assembly work in 1984 as follows:
I slumped down on the filthy floor of the grinding booth on only my second day on the job at General Motors. I just slumped down and sat floor among the metal shavings and the deafening noise of the grinding booth where I had been assigned. J. -- a large, friendly Acadian who had started at GM only a couple of years earlier -- was attempting to show me the finer points of grinding a bronze seam on the roof of the Chevrolet Celebrities zooming by at a terrifying, maddening speed. I knew there was no way I could do this kind of work. I would fail my three-day probation and be turned out, jobless, onto the street. Or maybe I was afraid that I would succeed and be condemned to this job for the rest of my working life -- perhaps the truth was a bit of both. My Journal Entry, October, 22, 1993.
Workers' attempts to be innovative, helpful or to find a creative outlet are not rewarded at GM. As seen in the example below, the direct experiences of workers teaches them that the exercise of creativity or innovation outside of normal channels (i.e. GM's employee suggestion program) is discouraged by management. This GM worker put it this way:
I would say, ten years ago not too many people knew anything about computers [...]. My group leader, who is my best friend too, he gave me a stack of papers, he said "you know, I only need these two pages" out of this big thick stack of paper, "can you just print them for me?" no problem. So I just created a spreadsheet on my Apple (computer) and I just printed them out and it was, believe it or not..only one page [...] So he went to the meeting [of supervisors, group leaders] everybody had this stack [of paper] and they were looking at all these part numbers he had "yup, [he'd say] this is it, this is it" and everybody said "where'd you get it?" "Oh," [he said] "I have a friend who does it..he's on the floor, he's working with us." Sure enough that's what triggered their interest in me. And they said well, we need somebody who can do all this work. I said "yeah, no problem." So [...] I measured all these cars in a specific area [...] put it on a spreadsheet, charts, and [...] had it ready for the engineer to hand it in for presentation. Me: Did you get any recognition or something along those lines [for this work]? Well, let me put it this way, the engineer he took my name [off] and he put his name on it." -WCLS O3ARR2.F96
Of course, this could be just tossed off as another case of 'office politics,' or the lack of reward might be attributed to the union-sanctioned seniority system. But non-unionized workers undergo very similar regulatory practices which are even more restrictive than those which unionized workers experience (for example, see Lichtenstein) both today and in the past.
General Motors and Employee Discipline
ALL FUTURE VIOLATIONS OF PLANT RULES WILL BE DEALT WITH AS PER PAST PRACTICE. PROGRESSIVE DISCIPLINE, VERBAL WARNING, WRITTEN WARNING, ETC.
'Progressive discipline' is the term applied to the punishments meted out to workers. The word progressive, however, refers to the stepped up character of the punishment, with each additional infraction of the plant rules. The document makes reference to the opening phases of discipline: a verbal warning (which is actually written and stays on an employee's record for a period of 30 days to a year), a written warning, a one-day suspension, a one-week suspension, one-month suspension and, eventually, dismissal.
One of the key questions related to this document in this context is whether it is posted or distributed. That is, how does management communicate with its workers when the message is imperative? In this case the document was posted. This practice strays from the norm (which is to have the document hidden in a binder and locked away in an office). The document, now posted and distributed, acts as a frame to justify future employer discipline. This is reinforced by the statement:
ALL DISCIPLINE OR PENDING DISCILPINE (sic) FOR RECENT INFRACTIONS OF PLANT RULES 6, 14, AND 34 WILL BE REMOVED FROM EMPLOYEES (sic) RECORDS EFFECTIVE JUNE 10/87.
Plant rules are handed to newly-hired workers when they enter the factory for the very first time. It would be very unusual for workers to remember all the plant rules as there are thirty-six in total. The three rules in question are as follows: rule six prohibits leaving the plant or work assignment during working hours or not returning from lunch, rule fourteen prohibits "wasting time or loitering in toilets or on any company property," and rule thirty-four forbids "stopping work or making preparations to leave work before lunch or authorized quitting time."
The union may have fought for the removal of discipline from workers' records. In fact, this might truly be the reason for the (re)negotiation of this document's contents. But the downside of this notice is that the rules have now been 'clarified' and publicized, therefore workers can no longer claim ignorance or innocence around issues of wandering about the plant.
Democratic Institution/Negotiated Settlement
A negotiated automotive contract between the two parties, union and management, generally takes months of negotiation and can occupy several thick volumes. For example, the current GM-CAW 1996 Master Agreement takes up 467 pages, and this is only one portion of the entire contract which includes a Local Agreement, a Pension Plan, the Supplemental Unemployment Insurance Fund Plan, Sickness and Accident Fund and so on.
In a testament to the democratic practices of most trade unions, members of CAW Local 222 have an opportunity to either accept or reject a negotiated agreement during a ratification vote, by secret ballot, after a presentation of the key changes in a newly-negotiated contact, a question-and-answer period and (generally) a debate from those with opposing views on the matter. Finally, the agreement published and distributed to all members. Locally negotiated district letters can also be used as the basis for future negotiations, for example, this alternate committeeperson recently pointed out that in 1996:
...just when we were headed for negotiations, just before [...] [negotiations my District (committeeperson) pulled all of us out of the plant, both shifts of committeemen and alternates and we met in the (union) hall for a day. And we went over [...] every single (district) letter ... what needs to be changed or is this fine, or, you know, roll this one over 'cause it covers it, or does this need to be improved and we basically sat, like, okay, like it's a bearpit, everybody around the table, is like "this needs to be changed, this has to be addressed, this is vague here, so then we wrote out new drafts, if we had to change the letter we thought it needed to be improved, "okay so what issues need to be addressed now?" so then we wrote up some new letters like er, placement, an' a couple of other things. (unidentified alternate committeeperson, Dec. 1997).
Of note in this case is the fact that this particular district letter was negotiated at very uneven levels of the management-union hierarchy, between zone committeemen and area managers. These are not direct hierarchical counterparts, as seen in Table One below. The alternate committeeman who refused to sign the document defended his action this way:
What I mean is it should be the top committee, should have signed it, nobody else should have I mean. ... Yeah, I know it was a major plant issue, you know? That's probably what it was, I knew, I knew it was something else ... but it should be the top, the top committee that was signing that sheet ... yeah, I'm pretty sure now that's what it was, 'cause er, not because er, because we had no authority, you know? -J.T., former alternate committeeperson, Dec. 8, 1997.
Above, the alternate recognized that he was not elected by the membership to negotiate new contract clauses, but to enforce those clauses which were negotiated by those entrusted with the authority to do so. While one might say that he has succumbed to the hierarchy of the union easily, others might contend that he merely respects the democratic union process.
Local 222's Political Caucuses
Local 222 is a fractious political community. Its two union caucuses the Autoworkers and the Democrats, share almost a half-century of political conflict. These two caucuses have existed in Oshawa in some form since the early 1950s and are largely organizational groupings of like-minded and ambitious trade unionists, rather than groupings based on an ideological belief.
During what seems like a flood of never-ending elections, these two groups form 'slates' of candidates under a particular caucus banner for the purposes of seizing the majority of votes at election-time. Aside from the political aspirations of their members, there have been few genuine political differences between the two major caucuses -- although historically the Democrats, who were ironically originally called the "Democratic Right-Wing," were formed to combat the anti-Communist Party of Canada sentiment of the McCarthy era (see Yates).
Caucus influence pervades the union's daily life, from swaying the outcome of a grievance to determining the choice of service representative. The CAW Local 222 caucuses are active mainly during in-plant union elections, but their influence pervades the union's day-to-day life.
The two caucuses' fidelity to one view or political alliance is not unchangeable. For example, until 1996 it was the case that the Autoworker caucus was more supportive of the CAW National Union's policies and the Democrats tended to oppose the National Union's leadership, while the reverse is true today.
To many of the less active rank-and-file workers in the Oshawa plants, the intense rivalry between the caucuses has led to a disillusionment with the CAW in general and Local 222 in particular. Frequent criticism of the 'caucus system' is heard from CAW members. However, in true democratic form, Local 222's caucuses are in turn influenced by rank-and-file members. Caucus membership is open to any member of the local, the structure of the caucuses mimics the democratic organisation. This is due in large part to the democratic nature of the trade union movement.
The union-based practice of grassroots decision-making is a contrast from those of most corporations, which tend toward decision-making 'behind closed doors.' However, district letters are bargained for during the life of the Master Agreement -- this means that there is no similar mechanism in place to reject or accept the contents of a district letter. The contents of the district letters are usually held close to the chest of management and union both.
District Letters: Battleground of Caucus Politics
As stated above, the signatures on this document are significant but the reader should note that the absent signature is perhaps a more indicative symbol of individual protest in this context.
In an interview, the lone union-side holdout, John Tracy, who was the alternate committeeperson of the day, explained why he would not affix his signature to the district letter:
..well that was the time ... there was [caucus] politics involved, I can't remember what the heck it was ... I wouldn't sign it anyhow, 'cause ... I think ... we talked to [former Local 222 Plant Chairman, Phil Bennett on it there, and ... its [the notice's]..ideas were unreasonable, you know? -John Tracy, former alternate committeeperson, Dec. 8, 1997.
At the time that this document was written ("6/10/87"), the contents of district letters within these two departments were rarely revealed to rank-and-file union members. But there were exceptions to this rule; for example if the letter's contents were particularly favourable to a worker (i.e. a committeeperson from a particular caucus wanted to 'score points' with the shop floor members leading up to election time), or if an understanding arose as a byproduct of a worker-initiated complaint, the worker might be allowed to see the 'fruits' of his or her grievance.
The confidential nature of district letters is one of the few instances of secrecy in an otherwise openly democratic process (see Table 1). The reason for this particular breach of tradition is that the district letter has been recast into a "Notice to Department ... Employees." This has presumably been accomplished with the knowledge and acquiesence of at least the lowest-ranked union officials, the committeemen whose signatures are affixed to the bottom of the document.
Copies of this document and those like it are generally collected in binders which are accessible only to management members and elected union representatives. However, this document was posted on a company bulletin board and distributed to employees, a divergence from the routine practice. District letters are generally not available to employees, unless they are directly related to a grievance lodged by a worker. But this practice is not necessarily the case today, nor was it the required practice across all departments. The current practice is different, as seen in the statement by this present-day shop floor representative:
[today] ... we use the district letters, like, you know and we don't have a problem with lettin' people see them, it's just er, I guess prohibited to, I guess, photocopy like, I dunno, a hundred and something, two hundred copies and hand them all out to everybody (unidentified alternate committeeperson, Dec. 1997).
That the current practice of openly sharing district letters is common is confirmed by a recent interview with an alternate committeeperson who works in the chassis department. He put it this way:
Let's say I've got a guy with a specific problem. [...] if you're gonna write up a grievance, [and] take the issue on you look for [contract] language. So it's either [in the] Master, Local [agreement] or it could be a district letter. And if it's a district letter, like I carry them around with me..for certain issues, damaged clothing, things like that, we use the district letters. (unidentified alternate committeeperson, Dec. 1997).
Not all district letters deal with heady issues. This alternate committeeperson makes a point of this when he states that:
...we've got some stupid ones, like, like er, checkerboard decals (gummed black and red chess/checker stickers) for all the picnic tables [laughs], I've never had to grieve that 'cause generally, it's not an issue for the majority of people. (unidentified alternate committeeperson, Dec. 1997).
But at the time it was negotiated, likely a decade or more ago, playing checkers during the few moments of freedom from the drudgery of assembly work would have been quite important. The popularity of checkers has waned considerably. Today it is more common to see workers listening to their Walkman or playing video games on their Nintendo Game Boy rather than play checkers during their free moments.
Discussion and Conclusion
I have addressed the facts surrounding what constitutes this as a regulatory document above. Employees reading this document know that it is an attempt to regulate a previously neglected niche of free time and space.
The distinctive property of the ruling apparatus is its capacity to organize the locally and inexhaustibly various character of the actual into standard forms of organizational action. (Smith, 1987, 158)
Also of note here is the document's "stripping away of context"
-- a key feature of bureaucratic documents which Wendy Espeland (1993) recognises. The discipline meted out for violations of this notice, and the associated plant rules, is merely another aspect of this document's regulatory effect on worker's lives.
Producing things and services for exchange on a market in which an uncountable multiplicity of others is involved enters people into relations that abstract from these local actualities ... the social relations of capitalism have the special character of translating the particular and concrete into abstracted and generalized forms. The properties of these relations organize our everyday world pervasively. We have had no problems in seeing the accounts of work and social organization in a factory or other work settings as organized by them (Smith, 1987, 158).
Sadly, many workers cope with the limitations and restrictions on their behaviour by acting out their confined roles within the bureaucratically allocated restrictions. As this GM workers recently said:
My attitude with GM is I go and I do my job that they give me every day, to the best of my ability and I get my paycheque and come home. -WCLS interview O6ARR1.M96
As the GM worker above states, "I do my job that they give me every day," that is, he recognizes that he has little control over his job; his employer chooses the job, its form and content. His attitude is one of sweeping disinterest in the operation and well-being of General Motors corporation -- outside of its direct relation to his employment and job-security. This is also a variation of the 'fair day's work for a fair day's pay' postulate, as witnessed by the phrase "I do my job ... to the best of my ability," that is, this worker recognizes that he is paid for his direct labour and little else. His inventiveness is not valued (unless he writes down an idea on the approved form and submits it to his foreman). The worker's closing statement, "I get my paycheque and I come home," is an expression of his dual goal, returning home (where he has control and more agency) with cash in hand -- embodying the freedom he buys from his job. Based on my experience, this sentiment is often-heard and is a genuine expression of worker discontent and lack of on-the-job control.
After this notice was posted, there was an initial period of management 'crackdowns'. But plant life soon returned to normal in departments 91 and 92, and workers eventually returned to their old habits. Management once again 'looks the other way' on issues of leaving the plant early and 'doubling up' for several possible reasons, including:
a. managers generally wish to preserve good relations with their workers and will reserve their discipline for either certain workers, or certain occasions (management crackdown, pre-strike period, new supervisors sometimes like a tough reputation). As is often heard about 'good' supervisors who turn a blind eye to infractions, they "don't mind (shortcuts, etc.) as long as the work gets done."
b. the shortcuts workers 'invent' are often improvements over the posted job descriptions. In fact, during those few times when workers' innovations have been discovered (either through surveillance or the suggestion box program, the latter which can yield monetary awards, based on cost savings in the production process), these innovations can integrated into the formal job description.
However these practices were more effectively regulated and curtailed by the later introduction of line speed-ups, 'kaizening' and lean production techniques. All of these have severely limited the free spaces that workers had once managed to find. The later installation of locked turnstiles and plant gates limited workers' ability to leave the plant early and made badging out unnecessary.
In sum, the 'problem' addressed by document is characterised from the point of view of the company managers: employees are doing their jobs out of sequence rather than working according to the schematic established by the plant industrial engineers, these workers are autonomously choosing to re-arrange the order of their carefully timed job in order to gain an advantage over others when leaving the plant at the shift's end. These workers are also attempting to gain several minutes or hours per shift respite from the monotony of their jobs. Thus the document attempts to 'readjust' the unregulated veins of time which workers manage to eke out of their day in order to gain various advantages.
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