Knowing from experience
One Monday, a new wave of employees entered our line. A middle-aged man from Punjab came to move printers alongside Jivan, Christopher, and me. He strolled in at 6 a.m., dressed for an office job, not to be a conveyer belt appendage. He looked like most indian men at the plant, who sometimes even wore penholders in their shirt pockets.
On his firstand what proved to be lastday, he kept saying "Vhat is this?!" disgustedly after big, nonstop runs of printer loading. I asked him what he had done in india, since he clearly seemed unfamiliar with printer carry loading. He said he was an engineer, and that he deserved better. All three of my box-loading cohorts felt this way, although they were less vocal. Christopher had an associate degree in international banking. Jivan used to run a manufacturing plant in Kerala and had a bachelor’s degree in economics.
But Jivan, Christopher, and the Monday-then-gone Punjabi gentleman shared a strength with most workers on our line. Because of previous, better jobs, many immigrants and those who had worked as permanents for several decades in Silicon Valley could verify the gut feeling that "things can be better" with real personal experiences. Maybe every worker in the Valley is not a Norma Rae waiting to happen, but these reference points can increase commitment to what is possible and what is deserved.
The subtle mumbling rumors of a line shutdown to be forced on useither line 1 or line 4were like the slight breeze before a storm. The rumors dominated lunchtime discussion, and the break room was filled by "when?" and "which line?" All this madness was going on while employees were getting systematically shorted on weekly paychecks. The strategic management response to employee concerns about missing paychecks and possible layoffs was certain: Never answer questions.
Our supervisors were so good at keeping workers running in circles that I started to believe all management personnel received this training:
A young mother named Kuldit, recently immigrated from Punjab, became the line symbol as to how far the cheating could go. Kuldit was missing a full week’s payand the Manpower rep, Mark, looked annoyed whenever she asked him about it. From my spot, I could see her trooping down from her builder position to Mark’s desk. Like a phone line, the question would travel from one end of the conveyer belt to the other: "Did the indian lady get her money yet?" A couple minutes later, "Nah, Mark told her to check in next week." But since she didn’t look frustrated, I assumed that she finally got her money. How could Manpower lose her check for so long?
That week Ana called a line meeting to scold us for defective printers sent out. I asked about the paycheck problems. She said to ask Mark. She shouldn’t have mentioned his name: This foul four-letter word brought on a roar of complaints. Ana drew the only card she could: "Alright, everybody get back to work." She ran off. I asked those who remained if they would sign a letter to Manpower summarizing our concerns. Almost everyone said yes. That night I typed up basic questions about payment for work completed and about the future. When I came in the next day I took the letter out and handed it to Barbara to see what she thought.
Barbara looked it over and gave a thumbs-up, though the letter was less candid than one she would have written. I told her that it might be safer just to write "Manpower Employee" instead of identifying herself openly, which would paint a target on her back. She looked at me the way my mother looks at me when I’ve said something especially foolish, with eyes that said I ought to have known better than to try to advise her on such matters. She was right. She took out a pen and started to sign it. Barbara Smith.
I went back to slipping informational CD-ROMs into printer boxes. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Barbara showing the letter to the rest of the accessory load team and pens being handed around. She told me to watch her station for a minute, and she took the letter to the folks over at carry and box load. She came back shortly with a few lines that read, "Manpower Employee," and about ten names. Some even put down their phone numbers. The draft letter had become a petition.
David made extra copies and stapled sign-on sheets to the original document. Our stations ran right along the walkway to the break room, so we were in a perfect position to talk to other workers as they strolled by on their way to the coffee machine (which dispensed brownish water, along with a mysterious white powder if one unadvisedly pushed a certain button).
The covertly distributed folded papers and hushed discussions developed into a plant-wide action. After two days, our question shifted from "Who should we get to sign it?" to "Who hasn’t signed it yet?". An impressive seventy out of one hundred signed.
Barbara asked a question I had not really considered: "So, what are you going to do with it now?" "Give it to Manpower, I guess."
Ten people volunteered, but, in the end, just three of us looked at each other at the foot of Manpower’s steps: Miguel and I from Line 1, and Joel from Line 3. We were all under twenty-five and all fellas of color (they were from Mexico). We trooped up the stairs.
Sue, the recruitment manager, was a white lady whose face was a patchy red from rage, in combat mode from the moment she entered the room. Like a teacher who had found a cheat sheet, Sue told us she had heard about the letter, as if this foiled our plans.
While she was reloading for a breath, Joel and Miguel jumped in and starting explaining the hardships of shorted paychecks. Rent wasn’t paid. Checks were bouncing. I told her we sympathized with Manpower’s situation, but its actions were illegal. That took some aggression out of Sue’s voice. She told us that "Manpower has been doing everything possible to fix the system," and that "everything will be back to normal soon." We took the list of names with us, so that those brave enough to sign on would not be punished.
Almost every paycheck problem was resolved within two weeks, including missing back pay. With that victory, our demands escalatedfor higher safety standards and resolutions to other injustices.