In the Heart of an Industrial Maelstrom


This Labor Day has brought back memories of my first full time job. The summer before I went off to college, I got a factory job to pay for school. It was in an aerosol products factory in Franklin, Kentucky, on a night shift assembly line filling, labeling and packaging products like window cleaner, furniture polish, spray starch, and more exotic things like spray de-icer and penetrating oil. Since everyone took vacations in the summer, I was the fill-in all along the 20 to 30 person assembly line, so I had to learn every job along the line, everything from inserting the sprayer heads with their long plastic tubes to capping the cans to packing the finished product into shipping cartons to stacking pallets of filled cartons. I worked every extra overtime hour I could, even double shifts, to save enough money to get me through the college year. I even took extra hours packing rail freight cars in the July heat.

I came back each summer during college. Having learned every job along the line, I was made assistant line manager and finally manager of my own line.

Being susceptible to motion sickness and working on an assembly line with things whizzing by at the rate of hundreds of cans per minute, this job was a challenge. I learned to work by habit, without actually looking down at the assembly line and what my hands were doing. I would stare off across the huge factory, across the many other assembly lines, to the far wall, where everything was stable and unmoving, letting my hands automatically go through the motions of doing the work. It always helped that the people around me chattered away, talking and joking as if they were sitting around the kitchen table and not in the heart of an industrial maelstrom.

In addition to factory work, I’ve done farm work and worked as a janitor. I’ve parked cars in a parking garage. I have the deepest respect for the people who do this kind of work all their lives. And I have the deepest respect for all the unions who have made this and many other kinds of work safer and fought for workers’ fair pay. I celebrate Labor Day for laborers everywhere and the unions that protect them.

In the Heart of an Industrial Maelstrom
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