By Craig Bennett December 4, 2003
Ben Hamper refers to himself as a rivethead, as though he were nothing more than a small cog in the great automotive industry in Flint, Michigan. He claims to be a proud underachiever, living a life full of party buffoonery and drinking binges. Yet, in Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, Hamper reveals not only a desire to find meaning in his personal life, but provides insight into the autoworkers' desire to find a sense of worth while on the job as well.
Hamper and his coworkers weave acts of defiance and resistance into their everyday experiences on the job. Hamper mentions the double lunch as "every shoprat's dream scam," an example of how workers break company rules and take into their own hands their shift schedule and the hours they chose to work (Hamper, 57). Evident in Hamper's tales is a moral economy, an inherent understanding of what is right, and an instinctive inspiration to resist that which is wrong. Breaking other company rules, such as playing music in a "non-music" area of the assembly line, leaving the line while on company time, playing crazy games like "rivet hockey," or even drinking while on the job, are acts not only intended to circumvent the will of management, but to help disperse the gloom of mundane assembly line work as well. These acts might seem inconsequential or be easily misinterpreted by outsiders. But they represent a desire of the workers to exert some control over their lives while on the job. These acts can be considered the "hidden transcript" of the autoworker, creating an "invisible" collective, and leading to a sense of solidarity on the assembly line. This solidarity is ultimately essential for the purpose of the union that represents their cause when dealing with management. The workers are united by the "Infrapolitics" at work on the assembly, whether it's in response to management's demands, or defiance against the fate in which many feel they were born.
The union is important to the story because it gives the notion that these workers do have a voice. The union represents the "open transcript" that exists between worker and management. Hamper and his coworkers can call a committeeman at any moment when a conflict with a foreman or a problem with management arises at work. However, Hamper's examples of everyday resistance show there is a need not being met, a need that perhaps a union is not able to provide. The union could possibly address further how to deal with the lack of stimulation of the job. Yet Hamper accepts the fact that, regardless of the monotony, at some point the rivet must be put in place and dull tasks must be performed. Even in a pleasant work environment, the assignment would be mundane and require a certain type of personality to perform such a monotonous job. Hamper often makes light of the fact he and his underachieving mates are best suited for the task.
Still, one must wonder what the union leaders were thinking when they co-invested with management in an electric sign that flashed slogans before the workers such as "squeezing rivets is fun." (161-162). Hamper and his coworkers were not amused at the condescending nature of the sign or the fact their union was in cahoots with management. It appears the union has become yet another large, cold entity that has lost touch with the workers. Hamper paints a picture of a lowly shoprat, insignificant not only to management, but the organization that supposedly has his best interest at heart as well.
Besides a functional, yet indifferent union, Hamper and his coworkers are at the mercy of a number of other outside forces: a boom or bust economy, whims of an industry that has little regard for the community that feeds its factories with workers, and the hiring and firing practices of an uncaring employer. Hamper becomes laid-off a number of times during his story. He writes of a pattern that occurs in an autoworkers life: the workers create a bond with each other, become familiar with their task, become somewhat content with the job, and then suddenly, they are laid-off. Once rehired, management often places the worker in a different shop along the assembly line, in unfamiliar surroundings away from familiar coworkers, with a new, more difficult job to learn. When Hamper himself finally returns to GM, management places him in the unfamiliar cab shop where he is surrounded by "seasoned rednecks" (93). Thus, the worker is at the mercy of the company and kept in a constant state of fluctuation. This scheme not only helps interfere with solidarity on the assembly line, but also implies the worker is expendable and therefore should be content to have a job, no matter which part of the assembly line he is on, or how dehumanizing the task.
Hamper writes of other concerns once the worker is rehired. He dreads moving to Pontiac where their union "was little more than a charade" (227). The worker must not only tolerate the change in shops, factories, tasks and coworkers, but different unions as well.
Hamper also describes being at the mercy of foremen while on the job. GM decides to remove Gino, a favorite foreman of Hamper's, because he became "too close to his work force" (205-206). This is another example of management's desire to keep workers in a constant state of instability, limiting the connections made between workers in order to keep the comfort level down. Once the foreman is removed, a "new boss" takes over, one who denies Hamper and his coworkers the "ill-gotten" privileges that existed before, from doubling up and working up the line, to card playing and other small acts of resistance. The new foreman attempts to test the "Infrapolitics" at work on the assembly by enforcing new rules. The workers circumvent the new foreman by using open acts of defiance such as banging on metal benches, playing music, and ultimately using sabotage, sending bad products down the line and breaking rivet guns, forcing GM to send down more strong-willed supervisors to take charge.
Management's low opinion of the workforce is evident when GM chairman Roger Smith announces the elimination of 30,000 jobs, a move made to "improve" job security (164-165). Another example of management's disdain for the autoworker occurs when Smith comes to "visit" the assembly line. Hamper is excited about the idea of the GM chairman visiting his workplace, but Smith and his handlers have the factory cleared of workers, so the tour can be unobstructed by the people who actually create the cars Roger Smith is so proud to have his company make. True, this would have been a great opportunity for a little open protest, Hamper having prepared a T-shirt asking Roger Smith out for bowling, though it would be hard to interpret that as anything but another weird antic by a shoprat (or an extremely well hidden transcript!) To visit an assembly line without the workers certainly sends the message that the employees are of no interest to management. The gesture by Smith is so hollow, one wonders who was in charge of public relations at GM. It is no wonder Jack, as introduced by Hamper as a fellow known for having a "resolute hatred toward General Motors," thinks a malfunctioning cigarette machine is part of a GM conspiracy (49). Though Hamper dismisses his coworker's notion of a management's plot against the worker, the anger beneath the surface, and the persecution complex felt by some, is understandable.
GM hosts a number of insipid pep rallies sprinkled with motivational speeches and a "State of the Factory" address to the workforce. (45) The paternalistic view of management is evident during the portion of the meeting where workers are scolded for absenteeism (47). It seems natural to resist in such an environment where the management treats the workers like teenage delinquents and Hamper does a good job showing that if treated as such, the worker will oblige. Yet Hamper states, regardless of the antics and behavior of the workers on the assembly line, or how many petty company rules were broken, quotas were being met for General Motors. So if the products were created properly and produced on time, the concerns of GM become that of control. GM did not want merely quality automobiles, but also an obedient workforce that bowed to the trivial demands that existed in their hierarchical system. A world, as Hamper describes, of pecking orders on the assembly line and the "bully mystique" of supervisors. As Hamper illustrates, people on the assembly line are at the mercy of things out of their control, often, things they don't understand. Hamper asks: "Who is buying these cars?" And when the threat of being laid-off arises, Hamper states, "Somebody forgot to buy the gleamin' Suburban" (67).
However, Hamper describes a desire to actually create something for someone, putting a face on the person who buys the product he helps to make. Though he seems to be making fun of himself for caring, working on a car for a country music star, a Mandrel sister, gives Hamper a thrill. It shows a desire many assembly line workers must feel: a desire to connect with the outside world and the human being that actually purchases the product on which they work, as opposed to the faceless masses for which they serve.
The collective ethos that develops on the assembly line is not only a work-related phenomenon, but a class related one as well. There is an "us vs. them" mentality to Hamper's writing: the lowly shoprat fighting against some known (management) and unknown (ones own fate?) forces. Hamper, when searching for permission to be interviewed at his job site by a Wall Street Journal reporter, describes his encounters with management as the "Alien frontier." He is well aware of the difference between his world, the noisy jungle of the shoprat, full of half drunk, yet proud underachievers, blasting sounds of dead rock stars vs. the suits in the "glass tomb" offices of GM, stiff from protocol, in a world of neckties, belt beepers and Muzak (174).
But in Hamper's "us vs. them" view, the "us" is divided and attacked as well. Though Hamper is proud to include himself in the working class of Flint, he is equally proud to shed light on all of their flaws. He describes the workforce on the assembly line as drug addicts, drunks, perverts, psychotics and losers, and is quick to point out all of these qualities within himself. He makes jokes about the "highbrows" trying to look brilliant at the GM pep rally, which displays his attitude toward college educated "egg heads" (46). He also laments over the "prissy New Wave bands" that invade his favorite bar (82). Hamper's identification with the blue collar shoprat shows not only a working class view, but a masculine, male identity as well.
But there is something special about Hamper. His desire to write poetry shows a sensitive side that one would not normally associate with a blue collar autoworker. In finding an outlet for his rage and despair, he discovers a talent for writing. Hamper claims he began writing because he was bored while unemployed. But his gift for words shows he's more that a mere shoprat scratching out daft prose between drinking binges and lay-offs. Though Hamper claims to share little of Michael Moore's interests in political issues, he finally gives in to his editor's wishes and begins writing his shoprat articles for the Flint Voice, often during breaks at work, thus providing readers insight into the daily life of the autoworker.
Hamper is happy being the "official Voice buffoon" and sees his contribution to the Flint Voice as providing nothing more than a "loony wedge" between "weighty, leftwing prattle" (100). Once again, his self-deprecation hides the fact that, though he is a small cog in Michael Moore's grand scheme of leftist journalism, his contributions are substantial. His writing serves as another act of resistance, as many of his shoprat articles for the Flint Voice are often written during breaks at work. He becomes the voice for the assembly line worker, providing reader's insight into the daily life of the autoworker, eventually garnering nationwide recognition for his writings.
Yet this new found recognition never seems to change Hamper. He returns to the assembly line and continues to not only resist management, but battle the passing of time as well. Throughout the story, Hamper makes a point to list full dates of certain moments in his life. As the story concludes, Hamper states that "there was always gonna be an April 7, 1988," as if his last day on the assembly line had been determined by some force well beyond his control. Throughout the book, there is a constant reference to the clock ticking, sometimes painfully slowly on the assembly line, other times, passing too fast before an unfulfilled life. Hamper jokes about his birthright, and how he comes from a family of shoprats, his father, grandfather, and great grandfather having worked in the industry before him. At times he seems content to accept his fate, recognizing all of the negative aspects of his job, yet believing it to be his job, his fate, his birthright, if only GM would not interfere.
Hamper's story is of the small that makes up the larger whole: the rivet that leads to the making of a car, the small acts of resistance that lead to worker solidarity, a collective ethos and survival on the job, the seconds passing on a factory clock that lead to generations of workers, and the simple scribbles of a shoprat that lead to Wall Street Journal interviews and book deals. Using self-deprecating humor and brutal honesty, Hamper's Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line shows the day to day agitation and despair that exist in the life of an autoworker and explores how an autoworker can question and sometimes come to acceptance his own fate, as though working in isolation and performing dull tasks on an assembly line should ever be anyone's fate.