January 09, 2010

The Reluctant Scab

Prior to graduation, I was repeatedly told that college would prepare me for the working world. It only took me approximately two weeks post graduation to understand that everyone dropping this particular pearl of wisdom on me were full of shit. And it wasn't until much later that I regretted choosing "business" as my major in school. My favorite classes in college were those relating to history, political science, English literature and earth sciences; and I know now that I would have been much happier in life had a chosen to major in any one of those fields of study. Honestly, the only knowledge that I gained from "business" related courses that I have ever used in real life are from economics and typing classes. And I really learned the basics of those in high school, not college.

Two days after I graduated, I started work for, what was at the time, the largest manufacturer of pet food in the United States. My home base was a huge manufacturing plant situated on the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa. For the first few months, I learned the ropes of pet food manufacturing by sitting in a communal office shooting the shit with other trainees, making amateurish drawings of the plants manufacturing flow systems (most of which were wrong), filling in ineffectively for absent supervisors and, perhaps my most important role, taking visitors from our home office in St. Louis to the gazillion or so strip clubs that seemed to be on every corner in the river town the plant occupied.

One day a group of the plant's trainees were herded into a conference room and informed that we would be traveling to Oklahoma City in a few days to "fill in" for the plant employees there who had indelicately decided to go on strike. There we would be joined by other trainees and a number of experienced management staff from the company's other facilities across the U.S.

Well, this sounded like great fun, so I packed my bag, got on a plane and winged my way to OKC. There, a fleet of Hertz owned Chevy Novas had been rented to whisk us between the plant and our secret motel hideaway. I was chosen as the designated driver for my group of four and drove my lime green monstrosity to the local Ramada Inn, where the marquis in front of the motel proudly welcomed all employees of (my company) in neon glory. After we informed the manager that we were, in essence, strike breakers, the sign was quickly changed to "Vacancy". We enjoyed an evening of fine food and lots of beer in the Ramada restaurant, and the next morning we groggily went to our cars in the parking lot to find most of the tires slashed. This necessitated the first of many trips to the local tire store, after which we drove to the plant to receive our welcome and orientation. We were split into work groups and sent on our way to run the plant and produce dog food.

The next month was a blur. Almost no one knew how to run the machinery, so we either broke or plugged up most of it. We were forbidden to leave the motel in the evening, so we subsisted on the horrible motel food, or took delivery of too many pizzas. We couldn't wash our clothes more than once a week, so we stunk. There weren't enough rooms in the motel for everyone, so we "hot bunked" in other peoples beds while they were at the plant. We were bombarded with trash, nails and various farm implements whenever we entered or exited the plant gates.

Since there were more "chiefs" than "indians" in our group, no one cleaned the plant. More dog food was on the floor than in the bags, the restrooms overflowed with sewage, the lunch rooms were choked with trash. One night, to escape the stench in the cafeteria, I took a cold piece of pizza outside and sat on a step to eat it. The strikers lined along the fence called out to me from the dark ... yelling very scarey shit and lobbing rocks in my general direction.

After a month, our production output had come to almost a complete standstill, and it was decided to send us all back where we came from. I drove my car to the airport. In the one month since I had pulled it out of the airport parking lot, it looked like it had been through the Baja 1000 ... twice. I had replaced all of the tires at least once. One headlight was broken, the front and back windshields were cracked and there were too many dents and scratches on the body to count.

I turned my keys in at the Hertz counter, and as part of the protocol at that time, a man went out to look at the car and report back to the counter on any damage that might have occurred. I don't remember too many specifics about my time in OKC, but I do remember the look on the guys face when he came back to the counter. He looked at me and said "What in the name of God did you do to that car?" I half-smiled at him and said that I hadn't done anything to it ... and to charge the company for any damage. Then I walked to my gate, got on the plane, and left.

I know that the strike was settled several weeks later. I don't know if either side "won". But I sure did get an education.

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