New Process Gear

It’s probably a sign of my age cohort that I can’t remember that place as “New Venture Gear” or whatever it is they call it now. My dad worked there (it’s where I got my “blue-collar baby” ID card) and it’s been 25 years, this past October, since he walked out. (Technically, 24 years, but that’s a long story that could fill a sad book.) Here’s a discussion thread in which the same old laments about management and globalization and the same old curses about unions are trotted out — 20 years after Allied folded, you’d think people around here would have learned, would have thoroughly thought over the aspects and had something new to say. Nope, doesn’t seem like it.

I heard it all as a kid growing up; my dad clearly saw the writing on the wall (all of it, the stuff about unions included). He’s the kind of guy who once drove back down to NYC to fight a traffic ticket, so he didn’t let management get away with anything either; all the same, I never heard anything but increasing gloom from him about the people who ran unions, how self-absorbed and helpless they were to not see the writing on the wall, particularly during the Reagan years.

What really annoys me is how many people on that thread seem utterly convinced that people who work in factories are lazy. Granted, it’s been 25 years since I had any association with the place or someone who worked there, but… My dad worked second shift (2 to 11, I think) and so I didn’t see him on a weekday until I was maybe 14. When he was awake, he told tales of boiling heat, incredible noise, dangerous metal punch machines, slippery oily walkways around heavy machinery that could break your arm, and then when he really wanted to gross me out, he’d show off his “iron whisker,” which was a shard of metal embedded forever in his skin. I visited the plant just once – on family day – and had to be taken out because even with the machinery not going full tilt, it was too loud and too frightening, and I wasn’t even that little.

Perhaps my dad got out before he turned into one of the legendary “lazy old guys” at the plant who were just there to sit and wait for their pensions to mature. In any case, he correctly predicted that in the end they would be put over a barrel and – well, there’s no delicate way of putting it, so I won’t.

So, what do you do with all these people who are possibly going to lose their jobs for good? Something else that’s annoying is the “Let them eat cake” attitude: as if there’s really a place for a laid-off 50-something industrial worker in the new “knowledge-based” economy. That said, anyone at NPG who is shocked at this has got to be nuts. There really isn’t a neat answer for when you find yourself being officially labeled expendable. My dad spent the rest of his working years as an electrician selling used autos on the side, but then again, he chose to leave when the writing had barely been put on the wall. I haven’t read anything lately about how ex-Carrier workers are doing, but I got the impression there was an understanding there that a lot of individual re-training or enhancing of existing skills had to be done. It would be interesting to compare the experiences of ex-Carrier and ex-NPG workers and I suspect we would learn a great deal about the cultures of both companies.

I wish I could say that such stories always have a 100% happy ending, but they don’t. I enjoyed Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo a lot and found it a highly observant book, but it was written from the point of view of someone who’d found support and success existing between two worlds. That’s not how the story ends for everyone. Maybe not even for very many.

There was a hoot of an article in the Post-Standard earlier this week about “decentralized networks” – some happy corporate idiot going on about how you should run your business lighter, faster, and with less loyalty. (Which is a pretty old gospel to preach, at this point.) According to him, “traditional organizations – those with a chief executive officer at the top making most of the decisions – [are] spiders. Cut off a spider’s leg and you’ve maimed it. He describes decentralized networks as more like starfish. Cut off one of its tentacles, it grows right back.”

Except, you can’t do that to an individual worker; cut off their arm (their way of making a living, their sense of identity and dignity), it doesn’t grow right back. People are not squid. And it certainly doesn’t work that way in working families who are affected by such master plans. Cut it up, and it doesn’t ever really grow back. The same is true for any kind of worker, “knowledge-based” or not – which is a way of saying to any worker out there, that they’re living under the same risk. I think individual workers can make out well under such circumstances, but I don’t know if you can raise families with such institutionalized instability for workers. I think a nation full of workers that can’t rely on any job or anyone for any real amount of time, is an unstable nation that can be all too easily manipulated by central authority.

5 Replies to “New Process Gear”

  1. beautiful take.

    a good friend of mine worked at new process who was one of the most motivated, hard-working people that i knew. like anyplace, i’m sure you could find folks on both extremes. but also sure he was not alone.

    i also have a good friend in the union ranks who is simply wise and a great human being, and who has been working for a long time to do what he could about what he sensed was coming. there are stories within stories, and gross simplication is always easier than stories inevitably shaded gray.

    finally, the story is also about american corporate insanity, isn’t it? SUVs come out originally as a toy for the very rich, at a time when fuel prices were low but americans knew damn well sooner or later that golden goose would croak. they were akin to big fat station wagons and cadillacs just before the first gas crunch 35 years ago or so, the ones that soon filled up gas station parking lots, selling for a few hundred bucks because no one could afford to pay the gas. the fact that the things sold to the masses – with terrible mileage and when they are no safer than any other vehicle (but felt like they were) remains one of the great and curious tales of the american consumer. new process was there to catch the benefits, but it suffers now locally as part of an industry that never bothered to learn a lesson it should have learned countless times – see what’s coming and be ready for what’s next.

    there is nothing to say except that i feel badly for every man and woman inside that factory who worked hard every day, and i hope there is some decent conclusion at the end of this rainbow for them.

    sean

  2. Very descriptive of industrial culture’s relationship to workforce, on a community- not global- level. Insecurity does not help people do their best; not doing their best, in aggregate, means less productivity.

  3. One of your best posts.

    You’d said, “I don’t know if you can raise families with such institutionalized instability for workers.” They can’t. My husband has had a string of jobs– union and non-union– and it’s been tough.

    But it isn’t the same old fight between Big Government and Big Business, Ellen, like it used to be even up to thirty years ago. It’s even scarier now: Big Government and Big Business are merging into one– a “Big Brother,” if you will. They’re creating a whole new slave class. This instability benefits both business and government, but makes the workers mere peons, tossed to and fro with the latest merger or welfare check.

  4. Sean: About SUV’s, I totally agree. My dad admired Lee Iacocca, who was taking over at Chrysler (NPG) just around the time my dad was leaving. Although Iacocca closed plants, he also shook up the management culture, and killed some of the gas-guzzling products they were making at the time. These days, it seems like CEO’s are only admired if they cut great deals or inflate their company’s assets, rather than show good sense related to production. It used to be that there would be renewed desire for small, efficient cars. Today though, it seems like people still want big cars, no matter what. Even if they’re hybrids, they still want big cars.

    (I note that Iacocca has a blog on Blogspot…)

    Mrs M: One further thought… as poor and exploited as they are, at least workers in Third World countries have strong ethnic, religious or village ties. Can be a good thing given its proper place, or a bad thing, but we Americans don’t even have THAT any more, it seems.

  5. I still have strong religious ties. Our conviction has kept us going through some very difficult times. As far as village ties… well, this is New York State, also known as the “frozen chosen,” lol. I suspect that there are stronger community ties south of us. Don’t give up on the Americans yet.

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