Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Blue-Collar Writer Sounds off Ben Hamper Writes of an Auto Worker's Grim 'Line' Life

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Blue-Collar Writer Sounds off Ben Hamper Writes of an Auto Worker's Grim 'Line' Life

Article excerpt

RIVETHEAD: TALES FROM THE ASSEMBLY LINE. By Ben Hamper, Warner Books, 256 pp., $19.95

YOU know that ad for Ford that shows the diligent workers passing back and forth in front of the camera, to and fro in their tasks? As they pass they look into the camera and give a half-frown, half-smile of sincerity, while they tell us that at Ford, "Quality is Job One." They are clean and neat, wearing sparkling uniforms with blue Ford insignias. We are led to believe that they are real Ford employees. And they may be. It's a good ad.

Have you ever wondered why General Motors never did an ad like that? Read Ben Hamper's account of life on the assembly line and you'll know why. At the plant where Hamper learned his trade, quality was not job one. Drinking was. Boredom was job two. Trying to figure out how to double-up the work so half the workers could sleep was job three. Way down the list, after playing jokes on each other and trying all sorts of other shenanigans to relieve the stultification of the work, was building vehicles, job 47.

Hamper is merciless in his narration of life at the Flint, Mich., truck and bus plant. He begins by scarifying his father as a man trapped by assembly-line work. His compatriots at the noisy, dirty, gloomy plant get only slightly better treatment. They are willing to put up with almost any indignity and stupefying boredom building Chevy Suburbans just to get the paycheck, which for the most part they spend foolishly. Hamper has little praise for anyone or anything at the plant, but he's toughest on himself. He is a third-generation "shoprat," which he considers third-generation hopelessness. He describes himself as having actively wasted what educational opportunities he had, and as having messed up an early marriage.

But somewhere in the part of his mind not numbed by the pounding of the rivet guns in the factory or ruined by heavy drinking, he constructs a feral analysis of the economy and society in which he lives. The company regards the workers as tools and machines and the workers' opinions of themselves are not much higher. The management's abuse is answered by workers' abuses; the entire relationship becomes one of half dependency, half revenge.

Leavening this lump of malice and outrage is Hamper's sense of humor. It's tough and knowing. He is a powerful writer; his eye misses nothing. He walks readers down the assembly line in the truck-cab shop, where the sparks are flying and the drills screaming, and shows the odd collection of men doing the same job over and over while the clock lags through the shift. The workers have funny nicknames, and they say and do funny things, but behind Hamper's jokes and sarcasm is sadness on a good day and horror most other days. …

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