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Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by…

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991)

by Ben Hamper

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Review: Rivethead by Ben Hamper.

I would have to say the book was enjoyable, creative, but not intellectual by far. There was a lot of dry humor which I didn’t think was amusing and I thought it hindered the thought process of imagining the average blue collar worker. This book was written roughly about the 70’s and 80’s of a man who worked the assembly line for General Motor’s in Flint, Michigan. They called him “Rivethead” which suited his character.

I guess it’s hard for me to think that this person, Ben Hamper and others spent so much time mischievously causing chaos everyday they went to work without any concern about their job, co-workers or management. It was clear that Mr. Hamper’s ambitions went no further then quitting-time, whether it was 10 am, 1 pm, or 3pm. Him and his buddies would drink on the job, some did drugs and the management sometimes gave out warnings but mostly looked the other way because the workers would harassed them intensely. All their effort went into booze, drugs, and rock and roll music prominently in the lives of these men in the 70’s.

Most of the men wanted to get their thirty years in for their pension but in this time of auto making it was off, collecting unemployment and on the job working when the economy permitted. So, it was going to take years to be able to get that pension. I felt like it was a catch twenty-two situation for them so maybe their behaviors were warranted. Combinations of daily repetitious routine, lack of a clear sense of purpose, and guiltless self-destructive habits can make thirty years seem like an eternity. However, the life of Ben Hamper seemed like an endemic of downright insanity….His motto was, “to work less, make more money, and spend it all on booze and music“. The motto was the hard labor he did day to day.

Ben Hamper wrote an excellent description of the assembly line and American automobile industry but it was shocking to read how the workers behaved. However, this is only one man’s description of the blue collar job but there were plenty of reviews that agreed with his definition of the management and auto-workers at General Motors at that time. The umpteen stories, comical events, bad behaviors, and working on the assembly line kept the lives of these men surviving in order to receive their pay-checks. Yet, I have to say the authenticity to the blue collar voice Ben sometimes sounded like a fair stand-up comic with the intent of keeping the readers laughing through dry-irony and wisdom.

I also worked in a shoe factory for years in the 70’s and 80’s and I was on an assembly line; paid by piece-work and made good money, became one of the top stitcher’s, and created quality work. My co-workers and I had plenty of fun and laughter but we respected others and the company. I guess some men might have been friskier and thought a job is something you make the best of…and they did!!
( )
  Juan-banjo | May 31, 2016 |
  ngunity | Nov 23, 2014 |
Given the auto industry problems, this book, and the review I wrote several years ago are prescient.

Hamper came from a long line of "shoprats." After a school career punctuated by brief moments of lucidity, during which he wrote passable poetry and showed some promise as a writer, he found himself self-condemned to the Rivet Line. He had promised himself he would never emulate his father, a drunken bum who was rarely home, often hung-over and eventually left his family for a floozy barmaid.

Hamper despised the horribly monotonous conditions of the assembly line, its impact recognizable from the ubiquitous "monster glaze": the set in the eyes of assembly line workers when they arrive home from work. Hamper was drawn to the assembly line, however, and even came to prefer the Rivet Line. He and his colleagues devised ways to amuse themselves, like kicking rivets at each other, the score determined by how much pain is caused upon impact. One common aspiration was to "double up." Two linemates would agree to do each other's work in addition to their own. This freed one up to leave the plant and go drink while the other hurried through both jobs. This way they could relish the sensation of getting paid for doing no work. "Working on the Rivet Line was like getting paid to flunk high school the rest of your life. An adolescent time warp in which the duties of the day were just an underlying annoyance. No one ever grew up here. No pretensions to being anything other than stunted brats clinging to rusty monkeybars....We were fumbling along in the middle of a long-running cartoon."

When a supervisor tried to end this nonsense the workers deliberately sabotaged equipment coming off the line to make him look bad and he is reassigned. A "successful" supervisor looked the other way, caring only for the ultimate quality of the vehicle.

GM, in the meantime, in an effort to promote quality, created "Howie Makem," a 5'9" cat mascot who patroled around the plant with a huge "Q" for quality on his chest. Howie became the laughing stock of the plant. (Other entries in the contest to name the mascot included Tuna Meowt and Wanda Kwit.)

Hamper and his coworkers loved layoffs. It was like getting paid for nothing. Usually he was called back to work just as the benefits ran out, so it was like a great paid vacation. He spent almost all his waking hours in bars. Even during breaks workers would sit in their cars chug-a-lugging 48 oz. beers.

All this took its toll. He began to suffer from anxiety attacks, and eventually he was forced to admit himself into a mental hospital. Hamper tries to the blame his problems on the conditions of the assembly line, but it's clear he refused to grow up and willingly descended into his own private inferno. One can only hope his story is atypical. If not, we are in serious trouble.

( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
I can certainly recommend Hamper's memoir to anyone who is interested in finding out how the other half lives. Hamper started out writing a newspaper column (called, "revenge of the rivethead") for the Flint voice, which was then under Michael Moore's editorship. In it, he pretty much ranted about the mundane and repetitive routine of a factory worker and the alienated behaviour exhibited by GM supervisors. I'm not sure in how far the columns are incorporated in the book, but the book elaborated on the theme.

What happens to your dreams when you've grown up? Suddenly, you wake up one day and realize that you're neither the ambulance driver nor the DJ that you always thought you'd become. Instead you have to take any job that is thrown at you just to make ends meet. And life isn't the open sea of opportunities waiting to be explored by you, but the daily grudge of stamping your time card and drinking yourself senseless after hours.

I don't know whether the previous paragraph sounds too late-twen coming of age. For one, I could sympathize with Hamper hating his job, hating his boss, and being generally unenthused, to breaking point, with his lot in life.
Then again, he felt being a GM worker was his birth-right because of the generations of Hampers before him toiling away at the auto plant. So there is always this tension between wanting to escape the factory and being drawn to it. But to my own vexation, I was partially blaming Hamper for ending up at GM. Wasn't it his fault that he hadn't worked harder at doing something else? Where was his ambition, his determination and will-power?

It is terrible, because I realized I was under the American spell of dishwasher-to-millionairism. He didn't utilize his bootstraps enough to drag himself out of misery. It's bad because this isn't really what the book is trying to highlight. Far more, Hamper's account shows the discrepancy of power between corporations and their workforce, and also the resulting under-appreciation of their labour. It shows how biased the description of "undeserving poor" on welfare is. Workers who are very much at the mercy of their employers get ostracised by society for receiving government checks, yet the corporations' business conduct is seldom questioned - they are job creators after all!

The story of Hamper's factory life is one example of how unnatural and unhealthy our current work ethic has become over time. We are nothing more than indentured servants of the ruling classes. Being held captive by the clock and our monthly wages/salaries. At the closing of the book I was seriously contemplating moving on a farm and sustaining my income the old-fashioned way - in keeping hens, cows and piglets. Let the sun be the judge of when my work day ends!
4 vote BriannaNo2 | Jun 16, 2013 |
Hamper uses his sarcastic humor to talk about his life as an assembly worker for a car company in Michigan. As a friend of Michael Moore, the expected social commentary is interjected throughout. A funny and enlightening read. Appropriate for college aged and beyond. ( )
  PigOfHappiness | Sep 25, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ben Hamperprimary authorall editionscalculated
Moore, MichaelForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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