White Collar To Overalls
D. MORTON STEWART
A YEAR ago I found myself unemployed. I am 42 years old and nearly half of those years have been spent at office work and specialty selling. Before reporting to the local Selective Service office I looked up the “Help Wanted” columns in the local newspapers. Many employers advertised for women bookkeepers and accountants but not a single advertisement appeared under the “Male” heading.
So it came to pass one fine morning that I sat on the hard seat of one of the regulation oak chairs in Section 5 of the Selective Service office. In due course I was promoted to a chair whose seat was softened by a felt pad. When the seeker after a job at last arrives at this chair he has demonstrated that he is the possessor of patience worthy of any job.
My interviewer was not an optimist and his gloomy attitude soon induced a state of mind in myself bordering on pessimism. While he ferreted my card out of the files we carried on a conversation. It appeared that I might almost as well have spared myself the bother of bothering Selective Service. It seemed that a veritable horde of clerical workers had descended on the city, and men with my qualifications were a dime a dozen.
No doubt existed in my mind that he told the truth, even before he opened a drawer of his desk and produced three sheets of unlined foolscap-size paper bearing the names, numbers, addresses and occupations of what proved to be a list of bookkeepers, accountants and salesmen who had very recently applied for unemployment insurance benefits.
“Well,” I remarked grimly, “I have a wife, two small children and not more money than I know what to do with. What do you advise me to do?”
“I guess you will just have to wait around until we have something in your line,” was all he could suggest.
“Nothing doing,” I told him. “I must have work now.”
The upshot was that I received an open permit authorizing me to offer my services to whomsoever desired them, always providing, of course, that the prospective employer was engaged in some branch of essential war industry.
After a few interviews with business firms it was apparent that I was wasting my time and my money. I could get a job, yes, but at wages which would not begin to pay the expenses of a family of four. It
appeared to me that I would have to change to some other field of endeavor, preferably one where there was less competition from women.
I dropped in to see a friend who manages an employment office for a large paper manufacturing concern.
“Do you need any help?” was my first question, fired point-blank as soon as 1 came within range. “Sure,” he grinned, “laborers.”
“Well, as you know, I’m an office man. I haven’ done heavy work in years. If I let you send me up to your plant, what sort of work am I likely to get?”
“Are you in pretty good shape?”
“If I were in pretty good shape I would be in the Army, but I think I could do manual work that wasn’t too heavy.”
“Chances are the work wouldn’t be too hard,” he said. “The plant has some jobs where the combination of a strong back and a weak mind is definitely not an asset. The personnel manager will try to place you at the job which will work out both to your advantage and to the company’s. You might start off shovelling gravel or handling lumber on the dock; or you might he put to work on a machine in the mill itself.”
“Okay,” I said, “write me out a slip. I’ll take a chance.”
At the plant two days later I had my interview in the personnel office. The manager put me at my ease at the beginning. Looking at my introduction slip, he asked, “Whut does the ‘D’ in your name stand for?” “Don,” I told him.
“Well, Don, I am known as Chuck around here. You will find there isn’t much mistering around this plant.”
"I’ve gone to work in the plant," says this writer, "I eat from a lunch pail and I like it"
The truth of this was borne out later on when I found that even the superintendent of my division is called by his Christian name. In most places 1 have worked this would have been considered prejudicial to good order and discipline but in his case, at leust, this does not hold true.
Chuck is one of the busiest men in the plant and while we were talking he held what seemed to be innumerable conversations over the telephone, wrote memoranda which were handed out to another office and occasionally excused himself when he had to leave for a few moments on some business resulting from a talk on the phone. Yet, in spite of the evident pressure of work, he was at pains to get my ideas on what 1 wanted, to explain in detail what the company had to offer.
He explained that sulphite is a coming thing after the war because, among other reasons, a variety of plastic may be manufactured from it. The sulphite division was bound to expand and there would, he intimated, be plenty of opportunity for an individual to expand with the plant if he applied himself and learned the work.
So it was decided that I should begin my new career in the sulphite division.
Dress As You Like
rWAS, I firmly believe, as green a man as ever applied for a job at the plant. 1 asked Chuck if 1 should buy overalls and work gloves or how I should dress.
“Wear anything you like,” said Chuck. “You won’t be conspicuous wearing gloves, because a high percentage of the men in the plant wear them. For clothes, you can get by with an old suit; or you can buy work shirts and pants very cheaply. Every man wears just whatever he feels like wearing, and once you are in work clothes no one will know but what you have done this sort of work all your life. If you like, you may wear the suit you are wearing now to work, as you will be provided with a steel locker in the locker room where you change your clothes.”
I was not a little relieved at hearing this, because a man who has for years gone to work neatly dressed in a business suit, wearing a clean shirt and a tie to match his socks, is inclined to cling to such clothes as to a badge of respectability. He is likely to feel that once he has appeared in public in soiled overalls and carrying a lunch pail he has
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! taken a long step down in the estimaj tion of bis friends and acquaintances.
This, of course, is false reEisoning. It j is the man with the lunch pail who is making the money these days. It is be who is keeping our armies supplied with all the weapons of mechanized warfare. His business suit will last him for several years because he wears it only ¡ on Sundays Eind special occasions; and I he can always afford the $3.50 or so that a suit of work clothes will cost him.
On the other hand, the white-collar man often has trouble scraping up the $50 or $60 that is now required to outfit him with his “work suit.” He must wear expensive ties, shoes, socks, shirts, topcoats and so on. All this is overhead that is not shared by the man with the lunch pail.
The personnel manager gave me a pencilled slip of introduction to the
foreman of the sulphite division and j instructed me to report for work at i 8 o’clock the following morning. I was | then turned over to a young chap who j initiated me into the mysteries of punching a time clock.
Carrying my brand - new lunch pail, complete with thermos bottle and red plastic drinking cup (the first outfit of its kind I had ever owned), and feeling as conspicuous as a one-man parade, I punched in for the first day’s work. In a way it WEIS EI reEil adventure.
The foremEin entered the locker room, as he seems to do everything, with a rush and was half undressed before 1 reEiehed his side with my slip of introduction extended. Holding up his trousers with one hand, he accepted it with the other, read it swiftly.
“My mime is Louis,” he stEited, giving me a warm handshake and a friendly grin. “What is your first name?”
I told him and he SEiid: “Well, Don, I’ll he too busy for a while to spend
much time with you this morning. For a start you can learn to run the wet machine. The boy who is running it now will be going back to college pretty soon and we need someone to take his place. After you learn this machine we’ll try you out on different jobs until you find one that suits you. When a man is on a job he likes he gets more work done.”
The wet machine mixes wood pulp, or “stock,” and water, deposits the mixture evenly, in a seven-foot wide layer, on a moving felt belt and squeezes out the excess water between rollers. The attendant must regulate the mixture of water and stock and remove the mixed and pressed pulp when it has accumulated on a roll at the end of the machine to the depth of half an inch.
Sometimes the stock thickens of its own accord, the sheet of pulp on the felt breaks up and large pieces of stock clog up the rolls. When this happens the inexperienced tender, at least once in his career, will neglect to shut off the stock or stop the machine until too late. In a matter of seconds big gobs of stock will be piled in the machine, on the machine, under the machine, on the floor all around it and up to the tender’s knees on the working platform.
Aren’t You Tired?
Finally the foreman or shift boss arrives, experienced eyes assess the damage at a glance, the cause is deduced in a twinkling, and knowing hands, working with speed, have the machine running again in a short while. Then comes the moment the green tender has been awaiting with considerable mental anguish; but there is no reprimand—not even a mild rebuke. The foreman, wise in the ways of handling men after 20 years of experience in that department, laughs it off but repeats again and again, so it will not be forgotten the second time, “When you have trouble with your machine or want to shut it down, shut off the stock first. Always shut off the stock! Before you do anything else, remember to shut off the stock valve.”
When I reached home after my first day as a workman, my wife looked at me in surprise.
“Aren’t you tired?” she asked.
“No,” I bragged, “I should have gone in for this sort of work long ago. After the hours 1 lywe put in on other jobs 1 could do an eight-hour shift standing on my head.”
She asked to see my hands.
“Humph!” she sniffed. “Not even a single blister and your hands are as soft as mine. You don’t look to me as though you had done a day’s work in the mill.”
With a feeling of great satisfaction I sat down to a good, substantial, workingman’s meal. I finished my first plate of pea soup and requested another of the same. I had always been a light eater, so my wife protested, “You had better save some room for your meat and vegetables.”
That evening I enquired if she would like to take in a show. After we were on the bus, she suddenly blurted, “I certainly hope you make a go of it at the mill.”
“Why?” I asked. “I thought you didn’t like the idea of a grimy, greasy husband coming home from work to mess up the bathroom and dirty all your towels.”
She disregarded my jibe and said, “This is the first time since our honeymoon days that you consented to go to a show without putting up an argument. Not only that, but you actually asked me to go!”
My eldest son, who is now four years old, occasionally visited me at work when I was on a white-collar
job. Somehow or other he was never impressed when he saw me standing around while others were working in a more physically active way. In his eyes I was just a drone in a hive of industry.
Not long ago he was on a bus with his little brother, my wife and myself, bent on a shopping expedition. As we came in sight of the plant the whistle blew, calling the faithful to labor.
Pleased and excited, he shrilled, “Hear that! That’s the mill where my daddy works.”
Then to a clergyman across the aisle, “And do you work in the mill with my daddy?”
After having spent a week or so on the wet machine 1 was assigned to a job in the screen room, where the pulp is strained, at a few more cents per hour. My job here was to wash the screens at frequent intervals, utilizing a fairly powerful hose for the purpose.
While on this job I became well known to at least one shift boss. Almost every time he happened to come near me 1 would inadvertently turn the hose on him or manage to wet him in some fashion until at last he learned to give me a wide berth. Often he would declare, “Of all the men 1 have ever seen handle a hose, you are the most dangerous!”
My next move, again at a small increase in pay, was to the digester house, where wood chips are cooked to sulphite pulp in t hree-story-high kettles. There, as second helper, I was faced with the most formidable array of valves it had ever been my misfortune to come across. There were small valves, many middle-sized ones, lots of big ones, and a few whoppers which had to be operated with an eight-foot, wrench. Every metal projection seemed to sprout valves whose sole purpose was to trip up green men like myself.
The second helper, myself, had to learn which of the 25 valves attached to each digester 1 was to operate and which to leave alone, guided by a battery of temperature and pressure charts on a panel. The first helper had his own duties but also kept his eye on the second helper. The cook, too, had his own duties but he also helped the first helper watch the second helper.
A new helper need never worry unduly because he may make a mistake since there is always a senior man on the scene ready to right whatever he has done that is wrong. If he worries for fear he may unwittingly do something to cause some irreparable damage, he is told, “There is no new mistake you can possibly make. Every error has already been committed many times over by men who have worked here before you. When you open or close a valve wrongly, or shut off a motor when you should leave it running, we know exactly what to do to counteract it before any harm can be done.”
When a senior man talks in this way he is not idly boasting. He started at the bottom and worked up, so that there is nothing connected with his job which he does not hold at his finger tips.
More Freedom, Less Worry
On my first and second days in the plant I felt fine after working my shift; but on the morning of the third day muscles which I had long since forgotten creaked and groaned. Thereafter, for about a month I would often arrive home pretty well tuckered out. As I was shifted from one job to another, each successive one seemed to call new muscles into play which were sore in their turn until they finally succumbed to the hardening process. Even when they protested most loudly I could console myself with the t hought that it was preferable to return home
with tired muscles rather than a fagged brain.
I work an eight-hour shift, which includes time for lunch that is eaten on the job as opportunity offers. When I get home I forget about the plant. There is no telephone to jangle and call me back to an office emergency, as so i often happens to the white-collar worker on many jobs. There are no long extra hours to be worked at the middle and the end of the month. Neither must I canvass during the day and spend my evenings closing sales. At the end of my eight hours of labor I 1 am free to put in my time at reading, listening to the radio, enjoying a show, digging in my garden or visiting. There are no strings attached to a labor job.
When I first went to work in the plant my monthly wages, after taxes had been deducted, averaged about $140. After six months of experience they averuge about $170. I may expect
to receive, in due course, three more promotions. These will raise my wages successively to, in round figures, $200, $220 and $250 per month. An office man must perform how much hard work per month, at what long hours per month, in order to command such a salary? What seniority must he have?
In labor, as in other lines of endeavor, the more knowledge and experience a man has stored away, the more money he is paid. In the plant division in which I work the man who receives $250 monthly does little else than walk around and keep his eye on things generally. His duties are the nearest approach to the “life of Reilly” that I have ever come across.
When first I started out on my present job I was somewhat apprehensive that my fellow workers, having somehow been advised of my office background, might indulge in jokes at my expense. Everywhere I went about the plant the news seemed to precede
me, and many men showed an interest in the reasons which prompted me to discard my white collar and carry a lunch pail. But my fears proved groundless. From the superintendent of my division down to the lowliest helper’s helper, every man appeared to put forth a special effort to help me learn my work and to make that work as pleasant as possible.
After a year of manual work I am much more content and satisfied than when doing clerical work or selling. My muscles are hard and I feel fit. I sleep at night with never the difficulty which I formerly experienced when having my office worries as a bedfellow. There is twice as much in my lunch pail as I used to eat at the lunch counter—it costs less and tastes better.
Today 1 can be truly thankful there were no jobs for me as a salesman or accountant a year ago. I have made the jump from white collar to overalls, and I like it.