SWEAT STAINED REVIEW: CONFESSIONS OF A BLUE COLLAR MISFIT
The 10 Year War
By Dan Denton
My buddy, the great songwriter Don Duprie, once wrote a hit song called “what am I supposed to do?” It’s about an autoworker putting 29 years in only to find out they’re closing down his factory. The song is a beautiful blue-collar hymn, but one line in the first verse has always stuck out to me, “it became the job I loved to hate.”
Like all great written lines that one is powerful because it’s simple, and so goddamned true. I worked 10 years at the Toledo Jeep Plant, and it was both, the best job I’ve ever had, and a job I loved to hate.
The life of a union autoworker is unlike any life I lived, in any other factory. If you get hired in full-time with a Big 3 Automaker in a UAW job, you’ll likely have a stable lifelong career that most Americans only dream of. You’ll make the best blue-collar wages in your city, have the best healthcare and insurance, and despite the loss of a traditional pension, you’ll still have a top tier retirement benefit compared to other manufacturing jobs. During my best year at the Jeep Plant, while working as an elected chief steward, I worked enough overtime to gross $104,500. And now I live in a travel trailer and make less than a tenth of that as a full-time writer, because that’s the thing about being an autoworker, some days you’re just going to really fucking hate your job.
First, in an assembly plant, you’ll work in an atmosphere that’s full of constant motion. There’s moving floors, where workers work on a giant treadmill basically. There’s automated robots everywhere. There’s 1,000 people in one big ass giant room that’s 1.2 million square feet, and all of them are doing something every second of everyday. There’s constant bells, whistles, honks, yells, clinks, clunks, alarms, and if the line stops for any reason, there’s 20 bosses yelling their heads off to get it back running.
Break time is signaled by a loud bell. The line stops, and 1,000 people have 10 or 15 minutes to shit, smoke a cigarette, call home, or grab a snack or drink. Sometimes you have to do all that in one break time, and if you’re back one second after the bell signaling break is over, you risk a write up from a prick boss that’s likely just out of college and been in the building several years less than you have.
Every two or three weeks there will be a new rumor that your plant is the next one on the chopping block. A boss will tell you at least once a week, “they’ll ship our jobs to Mexico in a heartbeat,” and once every other year, one of your plants does get shut down and the work sent to Mexico, so you live knowing that your almost six figure job, that you work an average of 60 hours a week at, could vanish tomorrow, and you’d be left standing in line hoping the union can find you work anywhere. Somewhere. In Toledo, there are about 500 UAW workers that have uprooted their families and moved them two states away when their factory in Belvedere, IL was closed. The company decided to stop building the Jeep Cherokee because it couldn’t compete with the more luxurious grand Cherokee and wagoneer, nor could it outsell the cheaper Jeep SUVs that are all built in Mexico and China. There are still hundreds of union autoworkers in Illinois that don’t have work, and right now they’re praying the company agrees to build electric car batteries, a new car or truck, anything, just so they can get back to that life of providing well for their families.
In every union auto factory in America, there’s a certain anxiety and PTSD that comes from living and working in the wake of NAFTA. There’s more abandoned auto plants than live ones, and we know this in our heart as we punch in and out everyday. Few careers have lived the reality of outsourcing quite like autoworkers have. Few industries have ever built great cities, like Detroit, and watched as their industry was intentionally sold off to other countries, as their city slowly died around them.
In a union auto factory, our ups and downs are legendary. We joke about it all the time. In the good years, we buy new campers and trucks, motorcycles, vacation cabins, and boats. In the bad years, when the overtime goes away, boats, motorcycles and vacation cabins are the first things to go as we sell off what we can to keep our kid’s college tuitions paid. To keep our mortgages current.
I worked at the Toledo Jeep Plant for 10 years of my life, and took a small buy out to become a full time writer. I was lucky 10 years ago, in that Jeep hired 3,000 people off the streets in 2013 in a massive relaunch of that Jeep Cherokee that is no longer built. Ten years ago me, and 3,000 other union brothers and sisters, we all jumped on the assembly lines, and started logging 60 hour work weeks.
I’ve long joked that life at Toledo Jeep ages you two years for every year you work there. But there’s some truth to that. Looking at all the folks I hired in with 10 years ago, we’re old now. We ache. We limp. We hurt. We’re tired as shit, man, from a lifetime of 3:45am alarm clocks or worse, a life built on having to work the evening shift everyday and barely getting to see your kids.
The jobs on an assembly line aren’t that difficult. Most of the time, most jobs can be learned in two to four hours, but the repetition and monotony of doing the same thing over and over again is too much to do for 10 hours, so the company has operators rotate jobs, usually every two hours, to help prevent carpal tunnel and tendinitis. And I had it better than many at Jeep. I got to spend a year as a team leader and three as an elected union steward, so 40% of my UAW career was spent off the assembly line. I still have varicose veins caused by standing 10 hours a day on a concrete floor. I’m 45 and my hands ache and wake me up at night. I have arthritis in my knees and left hip.
The life of an autoworker is unlike any other job I ever had. It becomes a part of your identity. It becomes a part of you, and takes over much of your life. It’ll eat you up. You’ll worry during slow months. Wear yourself ragged chasing overtime in the busy ones. You will never sleep well again, unless you learn to go to bed at 7pm. There’s studies in Europe that show blue-collar workers have a three year shorter lifespan, and I don’t know the lifespan of a Toledo Jeeper, but I’d bet it’s less than the national average. The job, the stress, the overtime, the work, it all takes a toll.
And then when the company soars, making record profits year after year, you’ll have to go on strike to get what you’ve already earned, your share of the pie. A chance to take your family on vacation once a year. To send your kid to college. To retire while you can still walk. And when you do go on strike, the company will scramble to hire scabs for pennies on the dollar to fill your jobs, although they haven’t been close to successful yet. How could they? How could they hire 6,000 brand new people to replace an average of 13ish years of seniority per union member? How can that company say they’re bargaining in good faith, when they try to hire scabs months before a potential strike?
How can anyone not support the UAW workers in their fight for justice? When they’re giving up so much of themselves, their health, their time, family moments, sleep, all to earn billion dollar fortunes for someone else?
Godspeed my UAW family. Stand tall. I know you’re tired and you’re worried, but all of us know you deserve so much better than those raggedy ass companies have been giving. You know you’ve been cheated by a company that bribed the very men and women that were supposed to take care of all of us, and that company has never really apologized to us for that behavior, and continues to toy with all of you on your worth and job security. Fuck them. Get what’s yours.
Dan Denton is a former union auto worker, and chief union steward turned full-time writer. He quit the Jeep plant to live in a travel trailer and chase a starving artist life. He hasn’t went hungry yet. His novel The Dead and the Desperate is shipping now from Roadside Press.