Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft (copy)

During my pre-teen years I worked for my father's carpet cleaning business. Less residential and more commercial, my time was spent cleaning offices and bathrooms. Father loved to skirt the law and those pesky child labor ones - he felt - didn't apply to a family run business.

I may have already told this but my parents' families were an exercise in opposites. My mother's privileged and father's questionable, I faced an early education in the "haves and have nots" with ample examples. Benefits for me included material wealth such as toys and clothes from one side and precious freedom to run amuck from the other. Life was good.

My dad's mother worked factory. Granny Smith filled my ears with words like skeleton shifts, mandatory overtime, assembly line, and various adjectives for a terrible thing called a manager. As I began to understand her wordage, I jumped to the conclusion she worked assembly line.

It wasn't until I began to clean the offices at Hoeganaes that my thoughts were corrected. This factory worked in metals and there were giant furnaces along the north wall and the floor space was filled with single-worker machines. On weekends we entered through the truck bay and headed to the office area. They ran a skeleton crew and every blue moon I might catch Granny Smith out on the floor or in the break room.

One day my dad asked me to pick up the trash along the machines within the factory. Granny Smith was in the middle of the room and it took me sometime to reach her. As I neared, another man was cursing his machine. It was making a horrible noise and beginning to steam. He called out, "Edna Mae, this one is breakin' down!" She hit three or four buttons on her machine and ran to his aide. With my mouth on the ground, she grabbed an oil can and began to tease and tempt the humongous dinosaur into submission.

It was the look of pride on her face as she returned to her machine that I will never forget. I closed my mouth and continued working until I reached her and she gave me a big ole hug and kiss. Her coworkers, realizing my family connection, began to spout her accolades. Smiling shyly she threw some choice words back at them and the room hushed except for the purring of the machines.

What is happening to our society as we export our factory jobs to other countries? What is left for the class of people who take pride in their own hands? Matthew B. Crawford tries to answer these in his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.