At the End of the Line

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper (1992): Author Ben Hamper appears in Michael Moore’s first documentary, Roger & Me, to discuss assembly-line work and mental breakdowns. Hamper wrote for Moore’s Michigan left-wing newspaper for nearly a decade before the movie appeared in 1989, doing first record reviews before branching out to stories about his life on the assembly line at one of the GM plants in Flint, Michigan. Hamper would eventually become famous enough to write for Mother Jones and to get coverage in the Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets.

Hamper’s fame was based on his hilarious, scabrous depictions of life on the assembly line, where doing a good job and being extremely drunk often went hand-in-hand. The mind-crushing reality of repetitive line-work Hamper describes caused most of the people on the line around Hamper to find a variety of coping strategies, from daydreams to bizarre games (Rivet Hockey, anyone?) to ‘doubling up’, in which line-mates immediately beside or opposite each other would learn each other’s jobs so that one person could then do the work of two while the other person took some time off.

Hamper’s personal odyssey was that of a generations-long line of GM line employees. But as the stretch at GM stretched into years, GM itself began to close its factories in Michigan and begin the long job of eliminating much of its American workforce. Hamper was in and out of work, but the stress of the line also began to take its toll.

Hamper combines sarcasm, cynicism, and a keen eye for description into an absolutely… rivetting… read. As the American Way of line-manufacturing disintegrates, Hamper offers a ground-level view of that disintegration. Should people be paid a (relatively) lot of money to do this stuff? Well, it’s soul-crushing, mind-destroying work. So yes. But should we live in a world where people get their minds and souls crushed for our collective need for cheap automobiles and other products? Well, no. That seems pretty clear by the end of the book.

Hamper’s depiction of the petty politics of the work-floor, the ridiculous PR schemes by the GM executives (a Quality Cat mascot being only the most absurd of many absurd things), the endless self-medication by the workers with booze and drugs, and most importantly the numbing nature of linework in all its physically taxing, mentally null glory…all these things combine to make Rivethead one of the great books about blue-collar work in the industrial age. Welcome to the late 20th century’s version of Blake’s dark, Satanic mills. Now get back to work. Highly recommended.

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