April 7, 2008

The cable guy

Long ago in a land far away I worked for a few years in the power transformer division of Westinghouse, a U.S. company doing business in Canada. My job was winding the insulated copper wire into the coils that are installed over the series of laminated steel sheets that form each transformer's core. Some of them were big buggers, bigger than a house; the coils themselves were anywhere from two to nine feet in diameter, and most of the transformers contained three coils.

One time one of them fell off a train car and made a dude into a pancake. They shipped the transformer back to the plant for repair and the guy's blood and guts were still all over the side of it.

Winding was a fairly complex job because you're winding about 20 separate flat copper wires at the same time onto a cylindrical mold, and by the time the coil is done, each wire has to be the same length, so you're doing a lot of measuring and cutting and bending and welding and hammering along the way to ensure that. Licensed electricians were, if I recall correctly, labor grade 12 and us winders were grade 10, so it was as close as you could get to being an actual tradesman. And I was making as much per hour then as I make at one of my part-time jobs today.

In retrospect, it amazes me still because normally I'm doing well to successfully replace a flat tire or a light bulb.

Each transformer coil was a custom job, so it came with its own work order containing detailed technical instructions and, it being a union shop, the required "quota" per eight-hour shift of turns on the coil. In other words, each job was rated by agreement between the union and management and the coil, which was installed on either a gigantic horizontal or a gigantic vertical lathe, had to turn so many times, with completed windings on it, during the shift.

At my first day on the job the union steward, who was called Art, introduced himself and informed me that these quotas were very important, and even though in many cases it wouldn't take a lot of extra effort to exceed them, one mustn't — ever — because to do so would clearly identify me as a go-getting running lackey dog of the corporate plutocracy, and then the local members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers would make life very difficult for me.

That isn't exactly what Art said, but that was the obvious gist of it. Most of the quotas were pretty fair anyway, and in any event, because of the complex nature of the tasks and the high cost of the product, you had to be careful and take your time regardless. But there were a couple of go-getters and they were shunned. Not by me though, I figured it was all a bit silly. I always made the quota to within a tiny bit either more or less. More importantly I made a lot of great friends down there among both labor and management although one of the latter used to refer to me as "Lover," which I found a bit disconcerting.

On a few rare occasions, we got a "cable job." 95% of the coils were produced by winding individual strands of copper fed from individual spools at the same time, hence the skillz requirement in making sure all the strands were the same length by the time the finished coil was removed from the lathe and sent on to the next step in the transformer manufacturing process. But a cable was a thick, insulated bundle of individual strands which were already pre-transitioned so that each individual strand was already the same length from one end of the cable to the other.

The first time I saw the quota of turns on the "cable job" work order, I thought it had to be a typographical error. Because you only had to do about ten turns per eight-hour shift on a cable job, and that amount of work could be completed in about 30 minutes, tops. Because with a cable job, all you had to do was set up the spool of cable in a metal rack, stand in front of the lathe with your rubber mallet, and step on the pedal that turned the lathe. That's it.

The "cable job" meant that I spent a lot of time wandering around the plant, shooting the shit with the other workers, hiding, or researching that week's NFL pool picks with a couple of newspapers in the washroom. I don't think I ever actually went and found a comfortable spot to nap for a few hours, but some of the other guys did, especially when they had a "cable job." Then they could get a good night's sleep and make the quota. Hard to beat, or resist, that.

So one time very early on in my transformer coil winding days, I found myself working at the lathe next to Sanjeet, who had been winding coils for about ten years. Sanjeet, who, like most of the IBEW sisters and brothers would only ever do slightly less than the required quotas, was a very easy going guy, and a character. He would always joke with Benny, the company shift supervisor, about how Westinghouse was a slave driver, and how it was cruel and unusual to make us do so much work.

Benny got the joke — but would never acknowledge it — because he was one of the few management supervisors who was recruited from the same department where he worked on the production floor for 15 years himself, because coil winding was so complicated, the company needed bosses who knew the job intimately. But one day Benny had to haul a bunch of us, including me and Sanjeet, into his office and tell us to shape up on the cable jobs. He was going to tell us we needed to do more work than the quotas called for.

I don't know who was more nervous, me or Benny, Benny because he had to ream some of his old union buddies a new one or me because, being a callow youth unfamiliar with such delicate negotiations, I thought I was going to get fired or something. The one guy who wasn't nervous was Sanjeet, who slouched in a chair in front of Benny's desk and with deliberately unconcealed mirth assured Benny, "I'm so sorry, Benny, and we will all try to do our very best in the future, we really, really will."

For his part Benny chain smoked incessantly, clearly uncomfortable with his role in conflict resolution. Me, I was just happy I wasn't getting fired and never wanted another "cable job" again, since they placed us in a really contentious spot at the nexus between management and labor relations, which was a place I didn't want to be in those days.

Another place I didn't want to be was commenting on global politics, but I found myself there one time too. I had noticed that dozens and dozens of transformer coil work orders were tagged with the word "Libya," which I at least knew was a country in North Africa. I asked Benny about that one time, and he said that Westinghouse had just received a substantial order from the government of that country, and that was one of the reasons we had just gone on three shifts, cranking the suckers out 24 hours a day.

Coincidentally, and probably because I had already read the sports section in the washroom about seven times while hiding out from a "cable job," I noticed a story on the front page of the Toronto Globe and Mail about how the U.S. government — this was during the early days of the first Reagan administration — had imposed a complete trade embargo against Libya, thanks to the shenanigans of its military dictator, Moammar Gaddafi (I think that spelling was the Globe and Mail style, which it most likely took a special editorial board meeting to establish, given the wide range of variants).

Also coincidentally, a top kahuna from Westinghouse was visiting that week to give the boys a little pep talk. This wasn't a Westinghouse Canada big wig, this was one of the ones from corporate HQ in Pittsburgh. I don't remember whether he was the top dog corporate exec or not, but he was definitely way, way up in the hierarchy. A heavy hitter.

After his little speech to the gathered laborers, the said corporate honcho fielded a few questions from the floor, which mostly involved details of the collective bargaining agreement, potential changes to benefit packages, and so forth. At one point, abandoning caution to the wind, your humble and intrepid nascent political observer raised his hand and posed the following question:

"Sir, I recently learned that the U.S. government, in retaliation to the aggressive posturings of the dictator of Libya, has imposed a complete trade embargo against that country, according to which all American corporations are ordered to cease shipping manufactured goods there.

"Our product is not simply destined for private companies operating in Libya, these power transformers are an integral part of Libya's civil and potentially military infrastructure, and the product is shipping directly to the Gaddafi regime. How is it, then, that Westinghouse can manufacture and ship these products under the circumstances? Isn't it a flagrant violation of the trade embargo?"

Came the terse reply: "Westinghouse will build and ship power transformers to anyone, anywhere in the world. Next question."

I think that was the last attention I paid to Ronald Reagan until the Ramones put out a single called Bonzo Goes To Bitburg.


capper said...

Now, I'm really confused. First I thought you were Illusory Tenant. Then it was iT. Then it was Tom. Now you're saying your name is Larry?

illusory tenant said...

Git 'er done.