An insightful look at ‘toilet paper labour’

Night Shift: 270 Factory Stories
David Macaray
CreateSpace Independent Publishing
Los Angeles, 2015
360 pages, US$17.99

David Macaray’s enjoyable and readable Night Shift is an exquisite study of industrial work in a US manufacturing site between the mid-1970s and the mid-’90s. Being a marvel of industrial sociology, it avoids managerialism’s dehumanisation of factory workers — e.g. human resources (HR) and of management studies that turn into an academic research object.

To those trapped in the management orbit, it is a stark reminder that those who actually work on the factory floor are not “human resources” or disposable commodities, but people of flesh and blood – individuals.

Macaray uses the fictional name “San Remo” for the paper factory where he worked. In reality, San Remo is Kimberly-Clark, a US$20 billion multinational Fortune 500 corporation with 40,000 workers. It makes products such as Huggies and Kleenex.

More than 150 years ago, Karl Marx predicted that wherever capitalism goes, a working class will emerge, and wherever a working class emerges, it will organise. This applies to “San Remo”.

Very soon after Macaray started working at San Remo, he became a shop steward and eventually president of the local trade union, the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers. As a consequence, Night Shift is as much a workplace story as it is a trade union story. At the centre of Macaray’s study are the men and women working on the shop floor.

At times, the gripping book is funny. At others, it is serious, such as when describing the fundamental changes in workplace culture between the ’70s and ’90s.

At San Remo, toilet paper wasn’t called what it is. It was called “bath tissue” and nobody talked about “faeces, excrement, stool. Human waste was called insult.”

Working in manufacturing meant noise in the form of up to “100-125 decibels [and] paper dust smelling like a combination of boiled flannel and liniment”. Macaray says it reminded him of “Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’.”

Despite managerialism’s claims about developing a positive organisational culture, these changes were not for the better.

There was a distinct separation between workers and management. Macaray writes: “They were management, we were union. They were officers, we were enlisted … salaried and hourly.”

Management ruled over workers, except when forced by the strength of the union to negotiate or seek compromises. Despite the rather common HR rhetoric of not employing three-or-four strike rules, disciplining workers at San Remo consisted of: “Informal reprimand, 3-day DLO (disciplinary layoff), 7-day DLO, and termination.”

Often union stewards were part of the process, mediating and seeking to avoid harsh punishments for workers. Next to punishment rules, “the company’s idiotic zero tolerance policy” was also a major concern for workers and the union.

Like many workers and trade unions, Macaray experienced many negatives from HR, observing that the “guys running HR [were] odious and vindictive”. Based on Macaray’s two decades of experience in working with HR, he came to the conclusion that “asking HR to save your operation is like asking a bartender to save your marriage”.

Like so many places, San Remo also saw changes in personnel management, marking a distinct anti-union trend away from industrial relations. He writes: “In 1971, Human Resources was still called ‘Industrial Relations’. Then, a few years later, IR was renamed ‘Employment Relations’. Then, a few years after that, it became the present-day HR.”

This shift came with two-tier bargaining, often called “concession bargaining”. Macaray writes: “People currently on the payroll get to keep their wages and benefits, but new-hires will be consigned to a lower tier.

“But the worst part — besides exploiting new-hires and causing resentment on the floor — was that management didn’t keep their word.”

Macaray also writes about absenteeism, non-punctual workers, workplace violence, sexism and drug and alcohol abuse among the workforce. He notes: “What amazed the executives board was how productive these people could be, even when drunk.”

He also looks at the double standards in relation to disciplinary issues between management and the workforce, as well as the constant threat of industrial accidents (“safety had always been a major concern at San Remo”).

Macaray also illuminates internal HR and management affairs as well as internal union affairs. On the union side, he says that “bad stewards came in three forms:

  1. lazy and ignorant stewards;
  2. angry stewards because they have not been hired into management; and
  3. borderline psychopaths”.

On his own union, Macaray also emphasises that “by far the biggest complaint was that we defended too many bad workers. In truth, we represented them, we rarely defended them.”

Management had its fair share of good and bad managers. On the difference between the two, Macaray offers a story about an eagle and a chicken. “If you throw an eagle up in the air enough times, it’ll eventually fly: you throw a chicken up in the air enough times, it’ll eventually shit on you.”

Macaray describes facing a “racist HR rep [who was] cunning like a rat but did not have many problem-solving skills and creativity — he was a bigot and proud of it.” There was another “racist and homophobic HR rep [who] liked to boast that he was so virile, he could identify a homosexual on sight.”

Most of all, Macaray notes that “most of us appreciated a strong, predictable boss … what we wanted to see in a boss was consistency”.

The company operated on “daylight-twelve (7:30am to 7:30pm) and the graveyard-twelve (7:30pm to 7:30am)” — as if a toilet paper factory needs a night shift — thus the title of Macaray’s book.

Meanwhile, the factory also experienced “executives travelling the country on cost-cutting missions”. In the meantime, “the word ‘team’ entered into our bloodstream in the mid-1980s” — cost-cutting sweetened by teamwork.

Not surprisingly, Macaray records that “generally speaking, the biggest complaint the union had about management personnel was their hypocrisy”.

Macaray closes with an epilogue directing our attention to the changes in organisational culture. He notes that most of the fun has been leeched out, while “the mill descended into industrial fascism”.

In the meantime, “the manufacturing sector has been marginalised and debased [but] none of us saw it coming … we honestly believed they [American industries] would last forever.”

For those remaining manufacturing industries in the US and elsewhere, Macaray’s Night Shift is a magnificent study on work, industrial relations, trade unions, the changes in organisational culture, HR, management, and perhaps even into the new(ish) ideologies of managerialism.

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