My Summer as a Robot’s Bitch

This article was written during my time in Ohio. It’s an oldie, but goodie… enjoy

(PS – it’s kinda long, but I broke it into three parts for you)


Not often will I allow people to hold authority over my mind, body and soul. But times are tough.

PART 1 – The Bad Time

I’m not from a small town in Ohio. Getting a job back home in the big city is relatively easy when the economy isn’t such a clusterfuck. However, now I find myself in this small, but lovely little college town in northwest Ohio that happens to be one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. So job hunting is a little bit different here. Simply relying on my privileged status as a tall, white, educated male isn’t enough to allow me to be picky when hunting for a J.O.B. So when my contract at the university library ended in May, I wasn’t able to have any other opportunities lined-up. What was I to do?

I applied to, and received, unemployment benefits and food assistance from Wood County. The food assistance for a single person is $200 each month as long as your gross income is less than $1145. The unemployment was based on the amount of income received from the 2009 tax year. In 2009 I made just under what is considered the poverty line of $10,830 for a single person. Thus, the unemployment benefits were only about $530 each month. If they had based the unemployment on the previous year – during which I made a considerable amount of income – the combination of food and income assistance would have been enough to float me until I obtained my next piece of work. So here I was, $730 a month and searching for a job. Aside from the job search, I did my best to cut back on every none essential item. I pared down my expenses to rent, utilities, food, medical bills, and school loans. Of course, I was coming up short, but at least I had enough for food and didn’t have to worry about going to bed hungry like over 50 million americans had to do at some point in 2009 according to a department of agriculture study. But still, my worries ran much deeper than money.

My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February and had scheduled a surgery just two weeks after my job ended in mid-May. I needed to make the trip back home to take care of him and help my mother in any way I could. I have deep-seeded problems with my father, but in the end, he and mom would lay down in traffic if they thought it would help me. So I went home and tried to be the ‘cheerful’ one amongst my family. This was a difficult task both emotionally and visually. The image of my father’s package with a catheter the width of a dime jammed into his urethra will be burned into my brain for years to come. Although the surgery went well, he still needs two months of radiation treatment this winter. This upsets me because my father has been complaining about pain in his nether regions for years. Unfortunately, without being able to afford health-care he was forced to wait it out. And as any doctor will tell you, waiting is the worst thing to do. Here is a man who has worked his ass off throughout the years and held on to the illusion of the amerikkkan dream that hard-work and perseverance will pay-off in the end. Now he is 56 years old with a shit-ton of debt and he hasn’t been able to work for more than a year. WTF!

During this time I continued searching for a job. Unfortunately I was forced to use a credit card to make ends meet and thus ended up digging myself deeper into debt. I tried to find side jobs from friends, like hemming pants or tutoring kids, but these gigs were few and far between. In the end, I am luckier than many because I have a partner willing to go into debt with me. Without her digging herself into debt, I would have had to move into a cheaper place, gone without utilities… Basically, I was considering squatting as much more than a lifestyle-choice. In what had rapidly become a dark time, the love of my friends helped to keep my heart filled and prevented me from spiraling into a deep depression. When the phone finally rang I was relieved, albeit temporarily.

The temp agency was hiring for 2nd-shift operators on an automobile parts assembly-line. The pay was $11.28 per hour and my interviewer made it seem like a good place to work. However, I had my suspicions. It was a non-union plant that I later learned was well designed to keep it that way. I had been searching for a job for three months at this point and since this was the only interview I obtained (let alone a job-offer), I took it.

They were planning to give a tour on that Friday afternoon to 12 people. We were all told to wear steel-toed boots and long pants. Two people showed up in shorts and were sent home before taking the tour. Once we entered the facility, I understood why the pants were necessary. Weld sparks were flying and metal was moving. The plant produced quite a few different parts for different vehicles including the doors to a ford ranger, the hood to a semi-truck, something for a camaro and also the floor pan to a jeep grand cherokee. This last part would be the line that I was to work. I realized immediately that I would be helping to produce a gas-guzzling SUV that has only the potential to further destroy this wonderful planet we all reside upon. But moral scruples are a luxury afforded to those who are financially free.

They provided the remaining new-hires with safety glasses and ear-plugs. This safety equipment was also necessary. The decibel level on the factory floor was holding steady at around 100. This isn’t as bad as a rock concert but, rock concerts are only a few hours long. They also explained the need to wear kevlar gloves and sleeves; only a month before, a worker had decided to roll up his kevlar sleeves when a piece of metal he was working with sliced through his forearms severing two arteries and three tendons. He was rushed to the hospital and survived but, obviously the need for safety was paramount. So much so, that we were required to have our hair tested for drugs prior to employment. I’ve taken quite a few urine tests in my life but, contrary to intuition, a hair test is even more invasive as it provides much more detail over a longer period of time. To add insult to such an invasion of privacy, they made me pay for the test via funds removed from my first paycheck.

After the tour, I was told I would start working at 2pm on Monday, July 19th as long as I passed the test. That would be the start of my utterly submissive and disgusting role of being a robot’s bitch.

 

PART 2 – The Worse Time
There is a phenomenon of the human body called a “runner’s high”. The body produces endorphins in response to prolonged exercise which has been associated with the modulation of this phenomenon. Basically, when you exercise, the pain and stress cause your brain to release endorphins which interact with the opiate receptors in your brain and thus reduce the perception of the pain. It’s nature’s morphine, and it was released for me after about 30 minutes of keeping-up with a 60 parts per hour pace on the assembly line. I came to resent the line when it was going slow because it allowed my body to stop producing those endorphins and thus, I would feel the pain in my feet, my hands, my back, my temples… my fucking ass-hair… everything hurt before the work-week was over.

That first day I received about an hour of training at my station, OP70. I didn’t really need an hour because a well-trained chimpanzee could have done my job just as well, but I tried to look on the bright side and realized that I would be in great shape if I could stick with it for awhile. My suspicions that in this factory only the strong survive proved true when another one of the new hires walked out at lunch break. She was either much smarter than I, or not nearly so desperate. Regardless, I continued onward.

For the most part my job consisted of the following steps, looped ad infinitum. Or at least that’s how it seemed after the first few hundred loops.

1) Weld two bolts onto the battery reinforcement plate (see pics A and B)*.
2) Retrieve cross bar (see pic C)*.
3) Place battery plate, four tapping brackets and crossbar onto sensors and confirm proper positioning  (See pic D)*.
4) Hit start button to allow robots to weld and move pieces into a buffer (See pic E)*.

*For pics, you can see the original article /here/

Of course there were other details such as calling for more material and having maintenance replace the copper welding tips every 58 cycles, but those aspects actually helped to break up the monotony of the day. It wasn’t long before I ceased feeling like a human being and simply became OP70.

The subjugation of my body to the robots happened quickly. The first day I started early and they asked me to stay late. I worked from 2pm until 2am. I would guesstimate that on a long night of work like this I walked about 5 miles, mostly in a circle within OP70.  When I came home and took off my boots I already had two painful blisters ready to be popped. I soaked my feet in hot salt water and the following day before work I stopped by the pharmacy for some foot care products. I purchased toe separators, gel inserts, and friction block which amounted to about 7% of my first week’s pay. Between the drug test, the foot-care, the insurance and the taxes to pay for two wars and a bailout of the rich, I was getting fucked… hard!

As the week wore on, my body degraded, leaving me utterly exhausted. The weekend brought with it just enough time to recover by Sunday night before having to start all over again. Of course I’m complaining about the physical labor just as all my co-workers did, however I didn’t have it nearly as bad as many of these folks. I’m not exactly an ‘unbaked and doughy youth’ (thanks William) but I’m still a fairly young buck who is in decent shape. Many people working there were not. A few of them were at least 100 pounds overweight and some others were well into their fifties. I can only imagine the pain they suffered. Why do they do it? Why not get a job that is less physically demanding? The answer is because they have to do it. $11.28 an hour is still more money than most of the jobs in this area for an undereducated or an unskilled worker. One fellow was telling me his story… And it’s not for the weak-hearted.

He has a wife and child. There used to be two children, twins. The unthinkable happened a couple years ago when his wife was repositioning the car in the driveway. One of the twins ran behind the car and was killed. The trauma involved in such an accident would be too much to bear if I were in her shoes. Her husband, my co-worker, was busting his ass to keep his family afloat in the sea of shit that their lives have become. There is no way out for him. He can only worry about saving enough money to move out of the home they had made into another place. A new place that I hope will allow them to move forward from that terrible incident and start fresh. He does not have the luxury of taking an easier, lower-paying job.

Stories like these made me realize that I have very little room to complain. It may even be considered unreasonable for me to do so. But I will continue to complain because, as George Bernard Shaw says, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” In my eyes, fixing problems starts with talking about them and ends with taking action to change them. But what actions should I take? It turns out that there are more problems to identify before we can tackle that question.

On the second day of work I realized another problem that would take its toll over the course of my employment. The robots are indeed mindless zombies constantly needing both food and attention. Unlike the zombies of film, the food in their world is specifically shaped metal parts and the attention is in the form of maintenance. The assembly line was not robustly designed and thus, it was constantly breaking down. There are 82 robots in total on the assembly line to make the floor-pans and if one of the robots stops working, they all stop working. This creates downtime for not just one station but for everybody. The line would be down from anywhere between 1-5 hours each night. Some might think that this isn’t such a bad thing as it gives you a break from the physical labor but, as I mentioned earlier, if you aren’t moving fast enough, your brain is able to feel every ache and pain. Not only is physical well-being a concern, but when the line shuts down you can rest-assured that you are going to have to work overtime in order to make up for that downtime, which means adjusting your psychological outlook to cope with additional time and pain. For this reason, nobody on the line wanted the robots to stop working. Unfortunately, they were constantly getting screwed up. What caused them to get messed up? EVERYTHING! The list is too long and not all that important to include here but, it would range from things as simple as having dirt in a sensor to having two robots collide into each other.

In order to keep the line running, there were at least two, and as many as four, maintenance technicians walking up and down the line ready to fix any problems that would come up. Unfortunately, the technicians working on the second shift were largely inept. On one incredibly frustrating night when the line was going down frequently, one of the technicians approached me as I was wondering why the robots had stopped and where the problem might be. He asked if the line was down. I was amazed at this question because, when the robots aren’t moving, the line is obviously down. I said ‘yes’ and told him that it must be closer to the beginning of the line. He then asked me a question that caused me to lose all faith in the ability of the technicians. “Do you think I should go see what the problem is?”  Are you fucking kidding me!!!! That is his job description… find the problem and fix it!

Perhaps we folks on the line wouldn’t have cared about this so much if the technicians had to work overtime along with us, and the disparity in our pay wasn’t so large – they only worked eight hour shifts and they made over $20 per hour. But as it stood in this non-union, capitalist plant, we were all fucking pissed! The nickname that the technicians received were ‘tweetle-dumb’ and ‘tweetle-dumber’. Did I mention that one of them had a mustache? But that’s beside the point.

I realized that my psyche was becoming that of an angry, worn-out, grump. These thoughts are not the way I normally think about things. And yet, I was forced to the point of hatred and disgust simply because a man wasn’t particularly great at that particular task. Even though I had specifically tried not to allow it, my mind was slowly, but surely being subjugated by the robots.

I finally realized just how far I had fallen when I woke up one Wednesday morning in a state of gastro-intestinal distress. I was sick and on the toilet for most of the morning. As the clock ticked closer to the time I was due to start my shift, I realized I had better call off work. A sudden pang of anxiety and fear arose from within and nearly paralyzed me as I realized this may be the first step towards them firing me. Being an “at-will” employee of a temp agency means they can come up with whatever weak excuse they can find to get rid of you. When I spoke with the temp agency I asked whether they might fire me if I decided not to work. I probably could have worked, but I definitely would have needed a few extra restroom breaks and many gallons of fluids. She told me I shouldn’t worry about it; that I was a good worker and that they liked me at the plant; that if I was sick I was sick. So I didn’t go to work.

Regardless of whether they would have fired me doesn’t matter. What matters is that I was put into such a position of uncertainty that I was fearful of being fired for something so inane. Nobody should worry that they won’t be able to pay the bills simply because they had the runs! I realized how pathetic my fears were later that same day and I was disgusted with myself. What kind of person had I become? I willingly allowed myself to have my freedom – my anti-authoritarian, egalitarian aspirations – the very fucking essence of who I am as an individual – crushed. Perhaps some would call it the subjugation of my soul – whatever ‘soul’ happens to mean. What it meant for me was the strengthened convictions that I need to do everything in my power to change the root of these problems.

PART 3 – Making It Better
There was one particular period of down-time when we were made to clean the robots. I joked to myself about how I had become the robot’s bitch. However, I knew then, and know with an even greater level of intimacy now, that the robots have nothing to do with it. The root of the problems lie at the need for the robots in the first place. Whether the problem is that of unemployment, remunerations, divisions of labor, non-union factories, environmental destruction, health-care, poverty, or the dismantling of self-identity; the root of all of them, is the capitalist model of economics that holds dominion over every aspect of life.

While I was working I would try to keep my mind busy with a chuatuaqua. There are many translations of this native word but, I think ‘the place where one is lost’ will best suit this article, seeing as how I was attempting to find a way to go from the insanity of capitalism to a place of stability via a journey of thought. I would use the chuatuaqua to think of a variety of things I could do, including: ways I could hack the company’s local area network to gain trade secrets, different ways to shut down the power in order to prevent CO2 emissions, how to begin organizing the work-force to obtain better quality of life; other times I would just sing. One night I spent two or three hours singing the chorus to a song from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie; “Cheer up Charlie”. It was on this night that one of the workers who was not just a temp worker and was actually an employee of the corporation began relaying some of the same concerns that I mentioned earlier regarding the decision-making process in this capitalist economic model. He was ranting during a period of downtime and so there were four of us listening to him speak about the unfair practices at the factory. I figured I would take the opportunity to bring up organizing. Yet, when I mentioned getting together with everyone on the line, two people ignored me and the fellow who was just then complaining looked at me as if I had a phantasmagoric growth protruding from my forehead. If these were the looks I was receiving regarding even the thought of unionization, I had little hope of ever bringing the workers together.

I’d brought up the topic of organizing because I am always looking for solutions to the problems I identify – it’s in my nature. For the capitalist, only one problem existed at the plant and that was the lack of efficiency due to robot downtime. Of course, the capitalist defines efficiency solely based on the percentage of profits made for the shareholders. It has nothing to do with increasing the quality of life of the workers and consumers. Thus, the solution is a simple one for them; hire more competent technicians. Unfortunately, that would not alleviate the vast majority of the problems that exist. The most important of which is the decision-making process.

In order to eliminate the subjugation of mind, body and soul, and attain the goal of a fair workplace, I believe the most important aspect in any workplace needs to be a participatory decision process. I think that all persons should have a say in each decision that needs to be made in proportion with the degree to which they are affected by that decision. For example, on many days at the beginning of our shift we would be told that we had to produce a certain minimum number of parts regardless of how long it took us to complete. This directly impacted the workers on the floor, but hardly impacted the people who made the decisions at all. The workers have no say in this. This is fucking bullshit! It boils down to a dictatorship of those who wield power via ownership and/or special talents that usually gained through privilege. Of course this all seems fine and dandy as long as you hold to the norm that only a special elite ought to decide the fate of the rest of us. However, if you aspire to the goal of self-management, the capitalist decision-making process is wretched and needs to be changed. This type of decision-making norm I am suggesting would also apply to the unemployed. It seems to me that there is plenty enough money being made that unemployment would be a choice. Instead, in the capitalist world it is wielded as a weapon against workers to ensure our subjugation. In fact, in order to keep the capitalist economic system stable, economists have argued that the unemployment rate should be kept to levels at around 6%, if not slightly higher. This is just more of the insane thinking that is driving civilization to collapse.

Decision-making is just one of the problems to be addressed. How about the problem of remuneration? On what factors should we base the amount of money people are paid? In the current model the first basis of remuneration is property ownership. The second is power. Finally, there is a bit of truth to those people who argue that in a capitalist model you get paid based on how much the output of your work contributes to the social output. However, this last argument leaves out so many key factors in the output equation as to be warrant-less. There are at least four factors they conveniently leave out, including: your organizational power such as unions or professional organizations, laws regarding minimum wage and property rights, gender and race and other social classifications, and finally your access to information and skills that allow for bargaining power.

In order to attain a more egalitarian society we must base remuneration upon effort and sacrifice with the following factors used as metrics: 1) onerousness, 2) knowledge base, and 3) time. The fact that as an operator, the onerousness of my job was extraordinarily higher than that of the robot technicians or floor managers or forklift operators, should weigh heavily when deciding pay. The knowledge base of an operator is very low; you don’t need an education to do the job. Thus, other positions should be weighted heavier in this factor. Finally, the time commitment was higher than the technicians, who only worked eight hour shifts. For any person involved in the company that does not own the means of production, the outcome of any re-weighting of these factors could remain nearly the same to the current status quo. Thus, I believe a simple re-evaluation of these factors isn’t enough to bring about a fair workplace.

The division of labor needs to be addressed in conjunction with remuneration. Part of the subjugation of mind and soul is due to the monotonous routine involved in doing the same thing over and over each minute of each day of each week of each month, etc, ad nauseam. Because being a floor manager and a robot technician and a human resources clerk and any other job at this factory simply requires a bit of training and practice, I think a balanced job complex is essential to creating a better, and classless, economy. Of course this would lead to many other problems that need to be resolved and while I have glossed over and greatly simplified how a business works, these ideas are not new. They have been discussed and written about in great detail by economists, academics and activists. They have even been put successfully into practice. I intend to continue putting these principles into practice where and when I have the power to do so.

I’ve asked throughout this article what actions I could take to fix these problems and it turns out, there are too many to review in this not-so-short article. The first step which I have begun to do in this article is to identify the root of the problems, which is quite obviously the capitalist economic model. Once we begin thinking critically about these problems we can then begin to change them by bringing down the system of global destruction and creating something sensible, sustainable, and just to help guide humanity to a better world. Unfortunately, it has been said, and sometimes I have trouble disagreeing, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. While my views may seem bright-eyed and optimistic due to the seeming hopelessness that capitalism has created, we must continue to fight. As a hero of mine once said, “If you decide not to make use of the opportunities you have; not to live your life in a way which is constructive and helpful, you end up looking back and saying, ‘Why did I bother living?’” Never again will I be a robot’s bitch. Never again will I allow capitalism to enslave me so thoroughly. How about you?

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Nick Napoli

Nick is the fella who crosses the line and drags you, kicking and screaming, to the other side. Once there, he hopes you will begin to realize how liberating it is to cease incessant worries and let go of the mindless social norms that have been so firmly ingrained in our brains. He has held many titles in life: robot's bitch, designer, rocket scientist, gummy candy shot glass manufacturer, asshole, Zine maker, and most recently, ThePotLuck Contributor. "I wouldn't say I've become more radical: I was born radical." -Ai Weiwei

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  • Elsie Puig

    I really like this piece of writing. Real, raw and intellectually stimulating. Thanks for sharing.