Tuesday, March 07, 2006

An American tale

Hush money


Robert L Fielding

The corner of Griswold Street and Windsor Boulevard was the place where the kids from North Manual and Trades divided and went their separate ways.  Some went up Griswold to the Projects, and the rest went down Windsor to the slightly more prosperous south side of the rumbling, grumbling city of Detroit.
  They were learning to become machine operators, and had the hum of milling machines, capstan lathes and centreless grinders still ringing in their ears as they hit Griswold and Windsor.  They had the grime of cast iron and gunmetal under their fingernails.  They were hungry and they were tired, which meant they were bad tempered too.  Their fun was the malicious sort, and they continually plagued each other all the way up to the corner of Griswold and Windsor.  This was also part of their preparation for a life in the humming machine shops of the Highland Park plant edging onto the murky waters of Lake Eerie.  It was a world of mirth, graft, vulgarity, and rockets.  If you were unlucky and scrapped a component, you got a rocket, and that was trouble.  Three rockets and you were out.  If you kept your mouth shut, did your batches and didn't get too many rockets, you got on fine. If you didn't, you were out.
   The guys working the Milwaukees and the Cincinattis weren't the only ones to get rockets.  One evening in February, 1968, the President of the Ford Motor Company, Arjay Miller, arrived at the Ford terminal to the east of Metro Airport to find a message waiting for him.  The Chairman wanted a word.  That was the night he got his rocket.  You had to watch out.  Nobody was safe.

  The young apprentices dawdled up to Griswold.  Sick of doing the dozens on each other, sick of the slack they had given one another all the way up, they looked forward to the crazy old guy sitting out on the corner of Griswold and Windsor.
  And he was there all right, right where he always was, the crazy bastard, too dumb to hit back with anything, too slow to get in there with anything sharper than a grunt, too old to do anything.  He was a prime target, easy pickings, and best of all was he went crazy when the guys started in on him.
  "He's there, old man Griswold," said one, and the rest joined in, laughing, jeering at the old man sitting out enjoying the early evening sunshine.
  As the youngsters drew closer and closer, the old man stiffened.  The hairs on the back of his gnarled neck rose, and his breath came short.  They sensed his stiffness, and were delighted.  They flew at him, stopping short, drowning him out of his evening reverie.  He hated them.  He knew he would have to do something sometime.  He would have to think.

  Dozing in the early afternoon sunshine, Mr. Gruber, Mr. Ernest Gruber, formerly of the Ford Motor Company, dreamt he was back up there in the offices of the Highland Park plant.  John Dykstra, the President, was propounding his home grown theories on what made the average machine hand deliver.  All the gearcutters, the plano-millers, and the shaping machine operators had downed tools.  In a car factory, the interdependence of each and every workshop in the plant is critical.  Stores mean space, and space is space that can hold more machinery.  Space is money, was and still is.
  "You know what keeps these men working here?" asks the President.  No one answers.  You say the wrong thing, you get a rocket, right?
  "These men work here for the dollar they make."  He looks round the boardroom.  Everybody's nodding.
  "There is no, but no intrinsic value in machine shop work of this type, large batches suck."  More nodding.
  "You pay these guys by the piece, they make more pieces.  You cut the deal on the price of each piece, you get more pieces out of them.  They gotta make a dollar."  So Gruber opens his mouth.
  "You got something to say?" says Dykstra.
  "What makes us guys perform?"  He wishes he hadn't asked.  Now he's about to find out his true worth to the Ford Motor Company.
  "You guys," Dykstra clears his throat.  This is an important moment.  He begins again.
  "Us guys," he laughs around the room.  "Us guys are the mirrors of those guys down on the shop floor. They want more, they got to pay us more," then he quickly adds, "not less."
  "And those guys," says Ernest Gruber, "their only incentive is the dollar they get on Thursday?"
  "That's about the size of it, Ernie," says Dykstra, "the cash thing is the only thing those guys understand, carrot and stick, whatever you want to call it, that's what does it for those guys.  You pay them a dollar, you get two dollars work out of them.  That's the American way."  Everybody nods.  You get rockets, and you only need three, right?

  Ernie shuffled round his apartment.  He was tired.  The weather had turned hot, the last day or two.  To top it off, those guys from North Manual were getting worse.  It was getting so's he couldn't sit out no more.  He had to do something, and soon.
  Stretched out watching Ed Sullivan giving it out, Ernie remembered his days at Highland Park.
  "Dykstra got it, got the rocket, and Arjay had taken over.  Then he got it, just in from somewhere, just off of the plane, the word was waiting for him."  
  Ernie pondered on the rockets they dished out.  "What they do wrong?"  he wondered.
Since then things had got better for the machine hands.  "Job enlargement had come in, men went home happier, output was up.  The old man was happy.  Rockets went out the window, for a time, anyway."  Ernest Gruber sat up, switched off the Ed Sullivan Show, and thought hard. He saw his reflection in the grey screen of the television set.  
He was thinking again, turning around the dispute with the gearcutters, the plano-millers, and  the shaping machine operators.  He was in there, and he was right.  Now he knew how to sort out those bastards from North Manual and Trades.

The evening was warm, but a current of cooler air was blowing in off of the lake.  "The guys would have the loading bay doors open," he thought.  His thoughts returned to those days.
  "We gotta change their focus," he had thought, "we gotta give 'em something they don't think they want.  We gotta really get to 'em.  We gotta give 'em what they really want, and take from 'em what they don't really want."   And that was exactly what they had done, and the hum of the gearcutting machines, the plano-milling machines, and the shaping machines whirred through the shops again.  And the men worked better, and there were no more stoppages.  The old man was happy again, and Miller was out on his ear.

  The guys from North Manual and Trades trudged past the old man.  Ernest Gruber leant back on two legs of the cane-backed chair.  He smiled in the warm sunshine, and felt the cool breeze coming off of the lake.
  Drucker, his pal from two blocks east came over to where his friend sat.  Gruber turned to look at him.
  "Things are quiet, too quiet.  What's goin' on?  Aint it the time those guys was getting to go home this way?"  And he pointed up Griswold and down Windsor.
  "Sure it is," said Gruber smiling and leaning back in the sun.
  "So what d'you do?"  Gruber smiled.  A row of gleaming white teeth shone in the evening sun.  "I paid 'em off."  Drucker looked puzzled.
  "Offered those idiots money if they came up this way every night to do just what they'd always been doing, driving me crazy."
  "So," said Drucker, "I don't get it."
  "That's because you aint thinking like one of them."  Drucker was still looking puzzled.
  "The dollar is everything to those guys, right?"
  "If you say so," said Drucker.
  "So I lift 'em up, pay them to do what they always been doing."
  "And then I withdrew the offer, but I never gave them nothing to replace the cash, no job enlargement for them, no Maslow's hierarchy of needs for those guys.  It worked on their fathers, and it worked on them."
  "Their pops picked up their tools when they traded cash for interest, and their sons.."
  "They never got further than the cash incentive."
  "You pay them one dollar, you get two back.  You pay them nothing, you get nothing."
Peace and quiet returned to the corner of Griswold and Windsor.  The warmth of the evening sunshine was tempered by an evening breeze off of the lake, and in the distance the soft hum of machinery whirred on the air.  That was the American way.

Robert L Fielding  


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