Great Jobs 16-Job Advancements But Not Good
I stayed at the Cherokee Plant for almost a year. Then one day Mr. Youngbluth, the Maintenance Shop Supervisor, told me there was a job open over at the Tanning Plant, at 13th and Malamphy Streets. A sort of promotion, since I was going to be the Plant Maintenance Man over at that plant, with one helper. A raise went with that title too.
“Hey, that sounds good, I’ll take it.” I told the boss.
Well, little did I know at the time about tanning factories and the things that were done there.
“Tanning leather”? I wondered, “Guess, it is like any other factory job”.
Well, yes and no. Depends on what you have to do at those kinds of jobs.
Maintaining, motors and machines was not a problem. But, the plant had the odor of a packing plant. Smelled like a bunch of dead cows and pigs. And, one of the worst jobs was working on the ‘pickling’ floor. That floor was actually the top floor in that old building, and on that floor windows were kept open all the time to let the air blow through. Pickling hides is part of the tanning process. They are actually immersed in cypress wood tanks in a brine solution. This is also done to help remove the flesh and hair from the hide.
Cypress planks were used to line the tanks as that was the only thing that would last the longest in the highly concentrated brine. Any metal would rust out in no time. But, the planks would wear out too and begin to leak. So they had to be replaced or re-caulked ever so often. Working in those tanks was something like working in the holds of a tanker. Although they were only about 6 feet deep, you still needed a mask to work in them, and you also needed a safety line to pull you out if you passed out.
Those cypress planks would last about a year. They were about 11/4 inches think and 8 inches wide and were bolted to the sides and bottom with special lag bolts. After replacing them they had to be caulked, between the boards with a special coated fiber caulking. This prevented seepage from between the boards. Took most of a week to reline a tank, what with crawling in and out about every half hour to get a breath of fresh air. A lousy job if ever there was one. And, finally I quit.
It wasn’t all, smell and lousy tasks, some tasks were quite ordinary and equal to my abilities. But, other things did not add to my liking of this job. A lot of young women worked there, who probably really needed their jobs. And, although these were Union jobs – United Boot and Shoe Workers – A lot of work was piece work.
Which brings me to ‘skiving’ machines, a machine with ‘knife like’ hide scrapers on them which rotated at high speed? A hide was fed through them, by hand, and the machine would peel off all the hair and flesh left on the piece of leather after butchering.
And, as contracts went in those days much of the work was piece work - so much pay per piece - which led to speed and carelessness. Many years later contracts did away with piece work because of the speed required to make a decent wage and because of the carelessness that is associated with working too fast. I saw several of these young women get injured in horrible ways, skin and flesh ripped from fingers and hands down to the bone. Not a pleasant sight.
It was normal for the maintenance crew to replace belts, drives, pulleys, motors, and other parts on a machine while it was down, and a lot of that was done on the lunch break. Machines were never shut down during work periods, except in major malfunction or severe accidents. The women would complain and holler about not making enough money. And another problem which arose was that these workers were not taking their breaks, even though such work rules were written into contracts. Everybody wanted to make their quota and more, regardless of how. Many more careless practices finally led to the elimination of piece work all together. Even the companies agreed that that type of pay was a big problem, too much carelessness which led to unnecessary injury, and that would cost more than paying a regular hourly wage.
Thus it was that one afternoon, I walked out the door. I had in mind to quit on several occasions. But, this incident made up my mind. On this particular day I was replacing a drive motor on one of the machines. It was a three phase, 440 volt, motor. I had placed the required ‘safety’ postings on the electric control panel. A big red sign with the words “Do Not Use This Switch”. Lunch break had just ended but I had not quite finished connecting the three electric line wires to the three motor connections. I was holding two wires to connect in my hand while connecting them together. When the bell rang ending the lunch period, one of the young women, anxious to get back to work, never looked, threw that switch, and threw me about 20 feet against a wall. Thank goodness the jolt threw me; the current could have held me and ‘cooked’ me. I woke up with an ambulance crew pumping oxygen into me. They wanted to get me to a hospital, but I managed to get to my feet, check that no bones were broken, take a deep breath, and walk out the door, never to return.
“What happened”? asked Audrey and the family, that evening.
“Piece work”, was my reply. “It’s a hell of lot safer peddling booze in Arkansas than being around a bunch of piece workers”.
Watch for Helmer's next chapter on Great Jobs in the April issue.
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