Saturday, April 30, 2011









16 years ago I worked in a factory in Leeds.







It was a jewellery factory and the core of the day's activities was assembling orders: attaching a variety of pendants to different thicknesses of chains or backs to ear-rings, mounting them on numerous bits of card, assembling the different boxes that would dispaly them, boxing the mounted jewellery up and then passing it all on to be shipped out. There were a certain number of orders to be printed off and got through each day.








This work was done by a large group of women who, against all reason from my perspective, (my role was to run boxes over from the warehouse to the factory) seemed to enjoy their job. They got on extremely well together and the atmosphere in this part of the factory was always cordial, they were also extraordinarily efficient and had a good relationship with their boss Kath, who was in return friendly and respectful.










Higher level managers, and there seemed to be a severe imbalance of managers to workers in this place, were less respectful, often adopting unnecessarily curt and bullying attitudes toward a workforce that couldn’t have been more industrious or compliant, refusing to grant requests for a day off or peremptorily dismissing people who had been working in positions with no sickness or holiday pay, no meaningful contracts and at that point, no minimum wage, for years and in doing so often tearing people out of a social group that had become meaningful to and supportive of them.








The managers were of course much higher up the pay-scale than the women assembling the jewellery, and as is always the case with managers the question of what they actually did that was so valuable hovered around them: it seemed necessary that they bullied, sacked, monitored, and interfered in a process that was getting along just fine without them in order to combat this suspicion. Of course it did nothing to alleviate our doubts but it resolved their own basic fear that effectively they were superfluous to, parasitical on the real heart of the business, which was this core of essentially satisfied and highly motivated, highly productive workers.








One week, due to a particular confluence of circumstances, holiday, illness, sudden business trip, sudden need to take a few days off, the women found themselves effectively unsupervised. They now had to not only do what they always did but also take on the role of their direct manager, Kath. I liked Kath a lot, she was a very wise woman who realised her own contribution to the actual work process was minimal and that her job was fundamentally to absorb and displace the useless directives coming down from above, she was a kind of “handler” of higher level management, a buffer zone that tried to absorb their disruptive energies and allow the work to go on unimpeded by their “initiatives”.








So the group of women now had to: check the orders coming in, print them off, distribute them, pass on requests for chains and jewellery to one part of the factory and for boxes and packaging to us in the warehouse, fill the orders and then pass them on to the mail room to be distributed. There was some initial panic about this among the factory management in other areas: unsupervised workers, uneducated working class women taking on responsibility for the entirety of their section.








The women split the work up among themselves, some simply “boxed” all day and a couple of others who had worked there longer and perhaps felt a little more confident printed off and distributed/collected up completed orders, rang us for the required packaging, nipped down to the vault to request jewellery. The overall effect on productivity, of removing the managers, was zero. This went on for three or four days with no backlog of work building up, no misplaced orders, no logistical problems of any kind. Kath came back. She was a heavy smoker and had been laid-low with a chest infection. We mentioned that the place had seemed to run fine without her and she shrugged, of course, and chuckled phlegmily.








The next day the factory manager Pete returned and the whole place grew tense again, it had had for a few days, not exactly a carnival atmosphere, but something liberated about it: sure, the work had been the same but there was a lifting off of the pressure of surveillance, of the bad faith on everyone’s part of having to pretend that management was useful or necessary, the weight of an illusory set of distinctions, of hierarchy and rank settled on everyone’s shoulders again, the psychic stress of dealing with his petulance and the grotesque illogic of his demands. He stormed about, a short man in a bottle-green C and A suit, with a pair of rimless John Lennon specs and his blond hair worn slightly long at the back, sorting everything out, manufacturing problems out of thin air, making his presence as a manger felt.















Desperation clung to him, he was a figure of fear, powerful, clownish, futile. I both pitied and hated him, we all did and our forbearance of and coerced collusion in his wasteful ego-theatrics was something he no doubt told himself was “respect”.








Everybody fell back into the daily routine after this pleasant hiatus, reprised their roles, but of course for the first day the resentment, when the contrast was most noticeable, was at its most pungent, there was a slightly acrid taste to the air, a sense that heads were down a little more, sprits lower.








But still, in ways I couldn’t understand, they loved their jobs these women, partly because they loved each other.














And so the work went on, despite him.

9 comments:

Alex Niven said...

A fantastic read. Sharp, moving, short story-esque.

W. Kasper said...

So we're agreed Carl should return to prose? It's not like there's much else to look forward in the UK nowadays...

carl said...

honesty, you two... you'll turn me head, lawks-a-lordy....

err..it's 3:32 am.. i should go to sleep

W. Kasper said...

It's 7.30 pm here - and I only woke up three hours ago! Keep forgetting it's not winter anymore...

Greyhoos said...

Concur with Alex and the above.

And coincidentally, this reminds me of something me & my wife was talking about recently. She worked at a hospital in Chicago a few year ago. When the economy started to crater, the hospital sacked 500 people in a single day. Somehow, they'd actually figured out that the way to best trim the budget was to mostly clear out a lot of overpaid managerial types, one of whom was the supervisor of the clinic where my wife worked. Looking back, she said, "Nothing changed, really. We all showed up for work that day and we did our jobs as usual. If anything, we found that it was suddenly much easier to do our jobs, and to do them more effectively."

W. Kasper said...

At the college I worked, our 'team leader' once took three months off. For both staff and students, it was probably the most productive, enjoyable time we had there in four years. Mutual co-operation came easily without as much ego bullshit and office politics. The manager didn't show up much (based elsewhere) because the resident ass-kisser wasn't available. When both returned to the scene, they behaved like the 'crisis months' were in need of repair. They just lowered the tone, and actually ended up reversing some of the 'progress' we made. Didn't help that I'd got used to not taking orders by then (too many cop movies on my part, maybe). You only need a month or so to 'know the drill' of a given place (if it's not brain surgery or nuclear physics that is). Management can be so much dead weight (especially if you sneak a peek at their damn payslips!).

owen hatherley said...

Autobiography, please. I promise I'll nepotistically review it wherever possible.

carl said...

h,a cheers Baron.. already sort of done that though with The Begging Letter which was a straight bio that then took a fictional detour..

could rework some of that material though....

very kind offer there too but tell you what, buy me a pint and i'll just tell you all about it...it'll be lot less hassle for everyone!

carl said...

h,a cheers Baron.. already sort of done that though with The Begging Letter which was a straight bio that then took a fictional detour..

could rework some of that material though....

very kind offer there too but tell you what, buy me a pint and i'll just tell you all about it...it'll be lot less hassle for everyone!