Shop floor education ... strength in unity

by John Martinez

As young Latinos we knew that if we drove out of Southwest Detroit into Dearborn we had to have our stuff tight. Safety belts fastened, full stop at stop signs, tail lights working, and all the proper papers for the car and the driver. Otherwise we’d get stopped by the police and there’d be trouble.

It’s the same way in the shop, if you want to go where the boss doesn’t want you to go, you have to educate yourself and you have to follow the rules.

One of the places the boss doesn’t want you to go is getting co-workers together. Another is trying to improve working conditions. I do those things and odd things happen. Like a supervisor comes up to me, one with a history, and tells me he’ll be on my shift soon and if I’m late, if I break any rule, he’s going to nail me. That never happened when I wasn’t active trying to make the workplace better.

The 1999 explosion at the Ford Rouge Powerhouse was an eye opener for me. The fire there raged because there was coal dust in the air, coal dust left uncleaned, coal piled under conveyor belts. Fire and fuel is a simple equation. I pointed out the same things in the General Motors Poletown powerhouse where I work. Sure the company had rules against those problems but the company didn’t follow them. More than once guys got burned because of coal dust; and one time a door exploded off a boiler.

That explosion in Dearborn scared the company and for a while they responded to safety grievances. Then things went back to ‘normal’.

How do we make things better? I mean, you don’t want to be standing there when the door blows off a boiler. You don’t want to develop lung disease or get burned because there’s coal dust.

Two things make us stronger. Education. Solidarity.

As individual workers we need to take part in our union. That means know who your committee person is, talk to the shop chair, go to union meetings so the union reps know who you are. Management only gives lip service to the complaints of one worker, they respond positively when a group of union members say the same things.

We need to do the research. Common sense tells me that coal burns, that coal dust makes a fire spread and that cleaning it up and stopping the source of the problem can eliminate the problem. The internet can help back that up with facts. So can the union safety people, they’ve taken classes so they’re talking from more than just common sense. And we’re lucky that our union has one of the top safety departments in the country.

It used to be the supervisors divided us according to race and ethnicity. Poles and African Americans and Mexicans and Italians and on and on. Now they’re more likely to divide us with favoritism.

But an exploding boiler doesn’t care about race and has no favorites. Neither does a poorly designed assembly job that tears up your nerves and muscles and causes tingling and carpal tunnel damage.

When I’ve done this alone they've come to kill the messenger. Like the boss who says he can nail me for anything.

But it’s not just me that gets hurt if coal dust burns, jobs get sped up, overtime gets cut or too much, or the job is so poorly designed everyone who works it gets shoulder surgery.

What scares the bosses the most is when we hang together. Then they can’t hang us separately. In unity there is strength. And in unity we can get the union involved and give them the strength to make the change. Otherwise management is going to find someone on some shift who is some foreman’s favorite who says ‘ahh, it’s okay.’

Unity. Strength. Education.

And follow the rules. I know that when I stand up for the rights of my co-workers and making work just a little better some boss is going to look for a minor infraction. If you got your stuff tight and your buddies behind you, then you can drive through Dearborn or make a difference in the shop.

John Martinez has worked in General Motors powerhouses for 28 years. He's a member of UAW 22