Toilet-paper labour

Thomas Klikauer reviews: David Macaray, 'Night shift - 270 factory stories', CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015, pp360, $17.99

Night work: affects the brain

David Macaray’s most enjoyable and very readable Night shift is an exquisite study of industrial work in a US manufacturing site between the mid-70s and the mid-90s. Being a marvel of industrial sociology, it avoids the managerialist dehumanisation of factory workers and of management studies that turn them into academic research objects.

To those trapped in the management orbit, it is a stark reminder that those who actually work on the factory floor are not ‘human resources’, assessed through head counts, or disposable commodities, but people of flesh and blood - individuals. Macaray uses the fictional name “San Remo” for the paper factory where he was working, but in reality it is Kimberly-Clark - a $20 billion multinational Fortune 500 corporation with 40,000 workers, best known for producing Huggies and Kleenex.

More than 150 years ago, Karl Marx predicted that, wherever capitalism goes, a working class will emerge and, wherever a working class emerges, there will be organisation. This applies to ‘San Remo’ as well. Very soon after Macaray started working there, he became a shop steward and eventually president of the local trade union, the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers. As a consequence, Night shift is as much a workplace story as it is a trade union story, and at the centre of Macaray’s study there are the men and women working on the shop floor.

At times this gripping book is funny, while at others it is very serious - when, for example, describing the fundamental changes in workplace culture between the mid-70s and mid-90s. Despite managerialism’s claims about positive organisational culture, these changes were not for the better - apart for the fact that better trained managers became less authoritarian and dictatorial.

For some reason, at San Remo, toilet paper was not known by that name. It was called “bath tissue”, while nobody talked about “faeces, excrement, stool. Human waste was called insult”. On the other hand, working in manufacturing means noise in the form of up to “100-125 decibels [and] paper dust smelling like a combination of boiled flannel and liniment” - which leads Macaray to comment that it reminded him of “Robert Duval in Apocalypse now: I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. Like being at war, there was a distinct separation between workers and management. Macaray writes: “they were management; we were union. They were officers; we were enlisted ... salaried and hourly”.

And management ruled over workers except when forced by the strength of the union to negotiate or seek compromises. But despite the rather common ‘human resource management’ (HRM) rhetoric of not having three or four strike rules, at San Remo disciplining workers consisted of: “informal reprimand; 3-day DLO (disciplinary layoff); 7-day DLO; and termination”. Often union stewards were part of the process, mediating and avoiding harsh punishments for workers. Next to punishment rules, “the company’s idiotic zero-tolerance policy” was also a major concern for workers and the union.

Like many workers and trade unions, Macaray experienced many negatives from HRM: for example, when observing that the “guys running HR [were] odious and vindictive”. Based on Macaray’s two decades of experience in working with HRM, he came to the conclusion that “asking HR to save your operation is like asking a bartender to save your marriage”. Like so many places, San Remo also saw changes in personnel management: “in 1971, human resources was still called ‘industrial relations’. Then, a few years later, IR was renamed ‘employment relations’. Then, a few years after that, it became the present-day HR”, marking the distinct anti-union trend away from industrial relations.

The move towards macho-management came with two-tier bargaining. This received an initial push, when the United Automobile Workers’ two-tier system (often called “concession bargaining”) arrived at San Remo. Macaray writes:

people currently on the payroll get to keep their wages and benefits, but new-hires will be consigned to a lower tier. But the worst part - besides exploiting new-hires and causing resentment on the floor - was that management didn’t keep their word.1

This is shown in Macaray’s detailed descriptions of “contract negotiations” of collective bargaining.

Macaray also writes about absenteeism, workers being late for work, high turnover, workplace violence; sex and sex scandals (“nude pictures circulating the company”) and “sexual promiscuity” in a mixed male/female workplace; as well as drug problems, alcoholism (“what amazed the executives board was how productive these people could be, even when drunk”, as well as the different treatment managers received, compared to workers - a manager “was given a full year off at full pay to overcome it”); promotion (“moving up the chain of command”) and demotion; industrial accidents (“safety had always been a major concern at San Remo”), workplace deaths; and termination. On the latter, Macaray comments: “... if the company wants to fire somebody, fine, let ’em do it, but they can’t do it on whim, and they can’t do it without due process”. Macaray also illuminates internal HR and management affairs as well as internal union affairs, when noting on the union side that “bad stewards came in three forms: lazy and ignorant stewards; angry stewards because they have not been hired into management; and borderline psychopaths”.

On his own union, Macaray also emphasises that “by far the biggest complaint was that we defended too many bad workers. In truth, “we represented them; we rarely defended them”. Management had its fair share of good and bad managers, about which Macaray tells the eagle and chicken story: “if you throw an eagle up in the air enough times, it’ll eventually fly: you throw a chicken up in the air enough times, it’ll eventually shit on you”.

On the management/HR side, Macaray faced a “racist HR rep [who was] cunning like a rat, but did not have many problem-solving skills and creativity - he was a bigot and proud of it”. There was also another “racist and homophobic HR rep [who] liked to boast that he was so virile, he could identify a homosexual on sight”. These are bosses that workers and the union did not like. However, Macaray notes that “most of us appreciated a strong, predictable boss ... what we wanted to see in a boss was consistency”.2

The company operated on the “daylight-12 (7.30am to 7.30pm) and the graveyard-12 (7.30pm to 7.30am)” - as if a toilet paper factory needs a night shift (the title of Macaray’s book). As a manufacturing place it also had many “high-speed, machine-paced jobs”. Meanwhile, the factory experienced “executives travelling the country on cost-cutting missions”. Macaray notes that “the word ‘team’ entered into our bloodstream in the mid-1980s” - cost-cutting, sweetened by teamwork. Not surprisingly, he writes, “generally speaking, the biggest complaint the union had about management personnel was their hypocrisy”.3

Macaray closes with an epilogue directing our attention to the changes in organisational culture - most of the fun has been leeched out, while “the mill descended into industrial fascism”. In the meantime, “the manufacturing sector has been marginalised and debased [but] none of us saw it coming ... we honestly believed [American industries] would last forever”.

For those remaining manufacturing industries in the USA and elsewhere, Macaray’s Night shift is a magnificent study of work, industrial relations, trade unions, the changes in organisational culture, HRM, management, and perhaps even of the new(ish) ideologies of managerialism.

Thomas Klikauer

https://klikauer.wordpress.com

Notes

1. See P Thompson, ‘Disconnected capitalism: or why employers can’t keep their side of the bargain’ Work, employment and society, 17(2), 2003, pp359-78.

2. S Marglin, ‘What do bosses do? The origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production’ Review of Radical Political Economy 6(2),1974, pp60-112.

3. R Macklin, ‘The morally decent HR manager’ in A Pinnington et al (eds) Human resource management - ethics and employment Oxford 2007.

4. See T Klikauer Managerialism - critique of an ideology Basingstoke 2013.