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Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

February 26, 2012

A forlorn glimpse at a career which is no longer possible in the United States

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line
Ben Hamper 

If you ever saw Roger and Me, you’ll probably remember Ben Hamper. He’s the depressed guy who was laid off from General Motors, turned on the radio, heard “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” by the Beach Boys, and broke down crying. Rivethead is the tale of Ben’s life working for General Motors.

Hamper grew up the son of a son of a Flint auto shop rat, and wound up one himself.  Along the way, he encountered Michael Moore, at that time editor of the alternative newspaper Flint Voice (which became the Michigan Voice). Moore persuaded Hamper to contribute articles to his paper, most of which chronicled his adventures working for General Motors on the assembly line. Moore eventually wound up at Mother Jones (where he didn’t last long), but he took Hamper with him (in print anyway).  Hamper became a celebrity, the blue collar columnist celebrated in the Wall Street Journal and Esquire.

This is a hilarious yet sad book.  In some ways, it’s a mill-worker’s version of MASH: men breaking rules and goofing off to alleviate the boredom.  Drinking on the job, “doubling up” on shifts (one guy covers for two, so the other can disappear for a few hours), playing “rivet hockey”–all are described in the book.  Hamper keeps getting laid off and rehired, eventually suffering a mental breakdown from the strain of being unemployed.  A true slacker, Hamper is a master at getting paid for doing as little work as he can.

One of the funniest episodes in the book describes the creation of a GM mascot to boost workers’ morale, the GM Quality Cat.  Some guy in a giant cat suit walked around the plant in a misguided attempt to inspire workers.  There is a contest to come up with a name for him (Wanda Kwit, Roger’s Pussy, and Tuna Meowt are some of the losing entries).  The grand winner is:  Howie Makem. Here’s Ben’s description:

“Howie Makem stood five feet nine.  He had light brown fur, long synthetic whiskers and a head the size of a Datsun.  He wore a long red cap emblazoned with the letter Q for Quality.  A very magical cat, Howie walked everywhere on his hind paws.  Cruelly, Howie was not entrusted with a dick.

Howie would make the rounds poking his floppy whiskers in and out of each department.  A ‘Howie sighting’ was always cause for great fanfare.  The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by.  Howie Makem may have begun as just another Company ploy to prod the tired legions, but most of us ran with the joke and soon Howie evolved into a crazy phenomenon.”

This book gives you a good taste of how mind‑numbing assembly work is, and it’s an excellent look at how the workers really felt inside one of America’s great corporations.

Michael Moore has set up a web page in praise of Rivethead and provides some generous excerpts as well here.

From → Books

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