FACTORY (an ongoing serial)

"It's gone, or it's going, but it's never coming back," Mother said stiffly.

"I know it, I know it," Martin said, exhaling weakly and avoiding her gaze. "Don't really know what I'm going to do."

Mother sat silently.

"I guess I could go work at the liquor store," he continued.

"Liquor store. Hmph," she muttered.

"And I could always join the Army," he added, unadvisedly.

"Army? Army?" Mother cried. "We left Italy to escape all that, so you'd never have to go to war. Is that all we've been working for, for you to go get shot up somewhere?"

"There's no war going on right now, Mother," Martin replied. "Korea's over."

"Maybe, but there's always starting up somewhere else. I want so much more than that for you. But the plant is going away, and you need to find a new position."

---

Fifty years later, Danny peered around himself in the monolithic gloom. Giant cauldrons, concrete trenches cut into the floor, endless conveyors that trailed out of sight. Light filtered down weakly from a thin line of windows, tucked just below the beams.

"What went on here?" he asked himself in wonderment.

---

"I was making something. I had something to show for myself at the end of the day," Martin said, the pride still evident in his muted voice.

---

Odd jobs barely sufficed. Shoveling the ceaseless snow, stocking shelves, making deliveries. But nothing close to what the plant had given him.

It used to be cyclical. Boom and bust, jobs came and went, but they always came back, eventually. Not this time, and never again. This was permanent.

Automation, jobs moved overseas, the waning of the unions, environmental concerns. The overall standard of living had risen, but not for everyone. Not for the lost souls of Pennsylvania, northern Ohio, most of Michigan.

---

"I like to work hard. Growing up, if there was work to do, you did it. After a while, you just got used to it," he reminisced. "We've got millions of people who have failed to get through high school. If their minds are not on their salvation, what's wrong with letting their hands be their salvation?"

---

It's suddenly beneath us to get our own hands dirty. Better that a diemaker overseas, whom we'll never see, should take care of that. Leave us to our intellectual efforts.

Welding, riveting, soldering, painting. Now all done by machine, if done here at all.

---

"Unions have to be held partly responsible," said Dr. Enright, the economist. "They tried to save all the jobs, even when those jobs were no longer needed, in order to keep the union dues flowing in. And all they succeeding in doing was driving away all the jobs. Once the employers realized that not dealing with the unions at all was easier than dealing with them a little, the decision was simple."

---

During the heyday, streets were proudly named after company founders. Names which were now reviled, if remembered at all.

Average wages were 20% higher than the national average. Something had to give.

"We no longer needed to maintain all the facilities previously supporting our business," the spokesman recited.

---

A growing fear that they are becoming obsolete.

---

In changing from an industrial economy to a service economy, our lower classes have moved from the anonymity of the assembly line to the public frontlines of stores and restaurants. In earlier days, the public's interactions with business were limited to contacts with executives and salesmen--polished, well-spoken, courteous to a fault. Anything to please and satisfy the customer; happy customers meant higher commissions to salesmen and fatter bonuses to executives. Assembly lines were back in the plant, hidden from view. If one slacked off, another could be added. Raise prices a bit, and call it a higher cost of doing business.

But today, the working classes are the public face of American business, rather than being hidden in the shadows of the factory. Now a sullen and indifferent worker gives the consumer, directly, slow and discourteous service, without the salesman's smooth veneer as a buffer. If a sales clerk doesn't care about moving customer promptly through the checkout line, or if a floor person would rather chat with his cronies than help a customer find an elusive item, the company's image takes a battering.

With service workers being poorly paid and unincentivized to do a good job, poor service--and loss of business--is the inevitable result. But don't bother offering the employees company ownership--each figures that he's a tiny enough cog in the great machine that going the extra mile won't boost the value of his stake. And spectacular employee-owned failures like United Airlines only bolster the case for not caring. Money talks.

---

Railcars long, thin and narrow, aluminum-clad, like glorified sardine cans. They inch out of the train shed and into the railyard, slowly gaining speed until the first switching delay is inevitably encountered. First they creep through darkness, snaking through the foundations of office buildings which are ingeniously perched above the rails: the moderate towers of Riverside Plaza; then the old Post Office, a monolith patiently awaiting rebirth; and lastly the new Post Office, so sleekly modern and efficient that one wonders how many hundreds of employees just lounged around the old place, if they're able to deliver more mail now, from smaller quarters. Then into the fading daylight of late afternoon.

In the distance, large orange letters read "M. Kallis & Company," with a smaller sign which begins to proudly proclaim "Home Of." But no words follow. The main body of the smaller sign has been painted over, and the abrupt end of the phrase rather bluntly reveals that the company isn't home of much of anything, any more.

The fact that all employee parking spaces at Allied Metal (2059 St. Canal St.) are long empty at 5:30 PM is an ominous sign that the company's current fortunes aren't exactly bright. That, and the fact that a burned-out trailer of theirs has been sitting in the parking lot, untouched, for the past month, and that the yard's main function appears to have become one of sailboat storage. The guess is that an absentee parent company somewhere will, very shortly, be cutting their losses and writing off the entire investment. We have taken certain resource actions to rationalize our capacity in light of changing market conditions. The recipients of those actions will be cleaning out their lockers shortly. Then the entire facility will be freed up for sailboat storage.

And the Holsum Bread factory, further along the line, formerly for sale but now inexplicably not, and then tens of thousands of square feet of obsolete factory space for rent. On and on through the Southwest Side, factory after empty factory. Yet these neighborhoods somehow hang on, at the expense of residents who know have to travel infinitely further distances to earn their daily pay.

A service economy, they're calling it. But who, exactly, is being served? Customer service is more about etiquette than professional skill, and employers aren't paying pipefitter's pay to people answering phones or tending a cash register. You can now buy goods cheaper from overseas, assuming you have a paycheck to pay for it. It's not certain that this global economy is entirely worth it.

Another empty factory is incongruously adorned with a vividly-colored, block-length mural: blight which a few people have figured out how to work with. So somebody's trying, at least.

---

And yet, and yet...a few signs of life. A factory building on South Rockwell, the oldest of the old, its ancient arched windows completely bricked up, thanks to technological advancements in industrial lighting. It might otherwise seem abandoned. But a side door stands propped open, and the overhead lights inside are already glaring vibrantly, before 8 A.M., the door appearing as a bold rectangle of light against the drizzly gloom outside. Through the doorway can be seen aluminum barrels, brand new but empty, their sides gleaming brilliantly in the harsh light, patiently awaiting their destined use.

Somebody must fill these barrels, use them for some unknown purpose, and draw a paycheck for doing so. A paycheck to be taken home to a young, scuffling family, putting sustenance on the table and a dry roof overhead, while they plot and strive to advance in this difficult world.

---

NAFTA brought about a pronounced outflow of manufacturing jobs from the United States to Mexico, where border-area maquiladoras thrived for a while. But the push for efficiency is relentless, and production inevitably shifted to China, where wages were even cheaper than Mexico's. But even the Chinese shouldn't get complacent; despite their plants becoming an unsurpassed manufacturing success story, their operators already have their eye on Vietnam as the next cheaper destination.

Productivity gains, sadly, only seem to accrue to stockholders--the already-wealthy attaining even greater wealth--at the expense of the rank-and-file masses. The Gilded Era has returned, with a vengeance.

---

"The factory had changed my way of thinking more in one summer than my entire education had. Beneath the who-gives-a-shit attitude there was something serious about it I couldn't even articulate to myself, something everyone seemed to accept, to take for granted, finally to ignore. It had to do with the way time was surrendered--I knew that, and also knew it was what my father, who'd worked in a factory all his life, had wanted to tell me. But he'd never been able to find the words either, had never heard them or read them anywhere, and so distrusted language."

--Stuart Dybek, "Sauerkraut Soup"
---

The layoff announcement was sudden, although it had been anticipated for months. Hundreds to be let go, many of them with the company for three decades, those in their 50s now facing bleak prospects. Prospective employers would not prove to be particularly prospective. If they were hiring at all, they were seeking younger workers with lower salary demands, not 55-year-olds who needed to be retrained. During the last round of labor negotiations, the workers gave up pay increases and vacation for the good of the company, enabling it to finance the aggressive expansion of its distribution network, and now their beneficence had come back to haunt them. The plant would close at the end of the month, the jobs lost forever.

---

"Whilst the engine runs the people must work--men, women and children are yoked together with iron and steam. The animal machine--breakable in the best case, subject to a thousand sources of suffering--is chained fast to the iron machine, which knows no suffering and no weariness."

--Unidentified Englishman, 1834, as quoted by Barbara Freese in Coal: A Human History
---

The machines were terrific, though only in the original sense of the word. Terrifying. Not in their actions, which were quiet, efficient, innocuous, but in their ultimate impact. Where ten laborers once busied themselves over an assembly line, wielding rivet guns, tightening down bolts, applying paint through hosed sprayers, one man now stood, punching a few buttons at the start of the process and standing back, then only needing to keep an eye on the machine for malfunctions. Which were so rare that he began to question the point of it all.

Vaporizing tens of thousands of jobs every year. Companies getting bang for their buck.

But what, exactly, is worse? Automating, with one-fourth of the workforce losing their jobs? Or resisting automation and going under, with four-fourths of the workforce losing their jobs?

More security for those who remain.

The machines had gotten so refined and precise and exact, even in the face of ever-diminishing tolerances, that there was no longer much need for inspectors at the end of the line. For the finished product was perfect, or as close to perfect as the customer would likely ever need.

Humans were still needed to box up shipments, and the shipping department remained well-staffed and busy. Or at least for now. Far away, somewhere behind closed doors, a team of engineers was working on the culmination of their careers: automation which would pack boxes quicker, better and infinitely cheaper.

---

Some of the factories have given up. Or, more fairly, been given up on. Surely these old buildings still want to be of use, to serve something close to their original purposes, rather than being eyesores and tax writeoffs and white-splattered havens for pigeons.

Holsum Bread is safe for now, its For Sale sign having disappeared as an executive presumably found just enough evidence of its continued relevance, and thus its continued existence. But the building just to the west, at the mouth of the notorious Bubbly Creek, is now gone, a few massive shards of cement and a single backhoe being the only hints of its former life. And a few blocks further west, an obsolete intermodal depot has been leveled down to its foundation, which hugs the ground like an enormous footprint, a fleeting reminder of the tons of freight which once passed in and out of its loading bay doors.

The outlot of Allied Metal has formally become an auxiliary lot of Canal Street Marina, the former trucking yard now choked with the hulls and masts of sailboats. Just beyond, the Canal Street bridgetender’s house is being rehabbed, presumably to ease the eyestrain of yachtsmen.

The empty windows of the industrial gas plant are being boarded up, the large sheets of plywood simply marking time, marching in place, postponing the inevitable.

The mighty factory building at Canal and Cermak has undergone a mild facelift, two ancient names from previous incarnations having been sandblasted away from the bricks which rim the roof, leaving only the ugly blue wooden signs which read Sterling Disposable Products at ground level. Sterling Disposable Products. What a bitterly appropriate name for the fleeting importance, the very impermanence of what these buildings once represented and the human lives they made possible.

---


(to be continued...)

 
 

Copyright 2004, P.J. Anderson

 

 

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