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Assembly-Line Blues

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Summer 1998
Assembly-Line Blues
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The outlook is bleak for industrial workers in a postindustrial society.

By Dan Gordon ‘85
illustrator by Marc Rosenthal

Fresh out of high school, Edward Salerno took a job on the assembly line at General Motors in Linden, N.J. There was nowhere else that an unskilled worker like Salerno (not his real name) could find such good pay and benefits. But after eight years, he traded his economic security for a measure of dignity and accepted a buyout offer from GM.

"Working there was very belittling," he told UCLA sociologist Ruth Milkman, who studies labor trends. "It seemed like they were always trying to play games with you, always trying to degrade you.” Among the complaints: Workers had to ask permission before going to the bathroom. Supervisors were verbally abusive. One employee, who hadn't missed a day in more than six years, was discouraged from visiting his baby niece in the hospital after she was hurt in an accident.

In "Farewell to the Factory: Auto Workers in the Late Twentieth Century" (University of California Press), Milkman paints a disturbing portrait of the plight of industrial workers in a postindustrial society. The combination of unrelenting regimentation, inhumane supervision and a lack of interest in their input left even the well-paid workers in Milkman’s study comparing the factory to a prison, a yearning to escape.

To compile her case study, Milkman was given access to the GM-Linden plant in the mid-1980s. It was a tumultuous period for labor: The American auto industry was struggling to cope with international competition, while unions, including the once-powerful United Auto Workers, were starting a precipitous decline.

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