Shop floor education: Working in the powerhouse

By John Martinez

I was nineteen years old in 1977, young and full of energy, walking into the industrial world of the Detroit Forge Plant located in Hamtramck. Through the years the name changed several times and now is known as American Axle and Manufacturingís Detroit Gear & Axle Plant. With a history that began in 1918, its converted production during the World War Two years was an industrial marvel. The plant has produced axle shafts, output shafts, pinions, connecting rods, rod caps, and stabilizer bars and other forged components during the years of my employment.

Experiencing first hand the hot, dirty and brutal process of the forging process in the complex, I was content to walk out of production and through the doors of the powerhouse. I had no idea that 28 years later now working at the Poletown powerhouse, I would write about the practices that changed my life.

My father had told me stories of signs not allowing Blacks to share the same drinking fountains as Whites, and of dirty, noisy, and dangerous work, but that did not prepare me as a young man to accept the segregation and danger that existed at my new job. I say this only to allow the reader to identify how difficult it was to speak up. Our communication was limited to our respective groups: the Blacks unloaded coal cars, the Mexicans worked the railroad yards, and nepotism was the basis of job promotion.

I guess I feel lucky. In those days it was not unusual to get hired in the factory if you had a relative on the inside. My father was a hard working immigrant who had an impeccable record. He put his honor on the line and got an application for his now infamous son.

My Dadís words followed me for ninety days, and as time went by, I would complain about the loud noise in the plant to my boss. He would acknowledge my complaint and would promise to look into it but nothing ever really happened. Finally I walked up to medical and told them about ringing in my ears and explained about all the noise, by chance or fate someone overheard me and took note of my situation. He jotted my name down and reassured me that I would get the protection I needed.

Next day, I was notified to report to the office, where I was handed a pair of earmuffs and was chastised about my "unnecessary" complaint. Going back downstairs where our stations were, I recall the Blacks and Mexicans saying, "be careful, they donít forget".

I cannot explain in this space how much those few words have affected me over the years. But allow me to give a glimpse of how the shop floor boss educated others and myself with similar experiences.

I could not understand why certain workers had privileges to eat on tables and some of us had to eat on garbage cans, the unofficial doctrine in the powerhouse. And I didnít understand the lack of safety. We had no protective equipment, instead it was routine to use rags to cover our nostrils while inspecting dust collectors. When we made complaints about asbestos debris seeping off steam pipes the answer was a gallon of paint to cover it up. We had to use our imaginations to come up with places to deposit used oil. Looking back on these events some things have changed.

If youíre asking about where our union officials were during those times I can only say that they needed a road map to find us and they didnít bother to look. They were so inept that calling them was like hollering at the boss.

I was asked to write a brief outline on my work experiences around health and safety issues, which led to me getting active in my workplace and my union. I truly cannot speak of health and safety without talking about the silent segregation policies that existed, the attitude of management that we were disposable, and the union safety reps that we only saw at election time.

John Martinez is the editor of the UAW 22 newsletter "The Steward" and webmaster for the Local 22 website.