Looking for fingers in the drains: The fantasy of leaving work in the same condition as when we clocked in | Street Jazz

Looking for fingers in the drains: The fantasy of leaving work in the same condition as when we clocked in



Back in the 1970s, I worked for a time for the Campbell Soup planet in Fayetteville, where the Swanson TV Dinners were produced. It was a good job for a man who was quite a bit younger and stronger than the pathetic wretch who dashes these words out this morning.

I worked in a department referred to - perhaps not officially - as the “Cut-Up Department.” That is what we did, literally. We never made the acquaintanceship of the chickens as they came to the plant to meet their final end, which was in the Eviscerating Department - and truer words were never used to describe the work that anyone ever did.

After the chickens went through their tender ministrations they were frozen overnight in tanks of water, and then brought to us, where the carcasses would be cut up on the assembly line by knife and saw so that they could be sent into the kitchen, where thousands of pieces of chicken were cooked every shift.

Though the chickens we saw resembled what you would buy in the grocery store, there was still a fair amount of blood, only in our department it wasn’t chicken blood.

In the “Cut-Up Department” the blood all belonged to human beings.

The birds would be hung and go down the line where those with knives (and they were mainly women) cut off wings and dropped them into plastic buckets. Occasionally a knife would slip and someone might get cut, especially the hapless individual whose job it was to slip the plastic tub out and replace it with an empty one.

With as much blood as these cuts might produce, they were always superficial.

But the most spectacular blood came from those working the bandsaws, who would grab the chickens from the assembly line and shear them in half as quickly as they could before reaching for another chicken just as quickly.

Though steel mesh hand guards were often worn by those working the saws, it failed to prevent the inevitable accidents, whixch seemed to occur on a regular basis.

What happened then? When an employee (I hope to god they are still called employees, and not associates), rubber gloves and mesh guard slippery with chicken slime is shoving chicken after chicken after chicken under their saw, and tossing the remains into a plastic bucket?

Most of the time, nothing. But imagine if you will, the hand or finger slipping under that spinning blade (which were replaced on a regular basis) along with the chicken. Where does it go?

In all too many situations, one of the drains that ran along the floor. In any case, production would be shut down, and men and women would be on their hands and knees, feeling through chicken remains, seeking out a human finger.

Lots of times it could be reattached.

Other times? Well, the good news was that you got paid for the finger that you lost.

I like to think that perhaps things might be a little safer at the plant these days, which goes under a different name.

I have been thinking about my finger-less friends lately, especially since March, when Fort Smith Whirlpool employees were exposed to staph, with at least one person ending up in the hospital. How did the company let the workers know about the situation? They wrote them a letter.

I guess maybe they were afraid to actually have a face-to-face meeting with employees.

Ammonia leaks, of which this area has seen may too many, can be hazardous to the health of a human being.

The construction industry can be hazardous to the health of its employees, as the obituary pages will affirm.

Many of California’s dairy farms, according to “Hidden Horrors: California Dairy Workers Face Danger and Abuse, by R.M. Arrieta, violate safety and health standards, treating their workers in a manner that Charles Dickens might well recognize.


Coal miners die. Eleven men died on BP’s oil rig. No one has - or ever will, for that matter - see a day of jail time over the loss of these worker’s lives.

They are, in the parlance of industry, “Human Resources.”

Like a screwdriver, or a wench, or an office chair.


The Old Lady with the Knife and the Efficiency Expert

This is a true story, and while I don’t recommend it as a bargaining ploy, at time and place, it was the perfect response, I think.

For a time at Campbell Soup I was a Union Steward, what some would refer to as a Union Thug.

This being a Right to Work State (Right to Starve State) our union was like a lot of other unions. We really didn’t do a whole hell of a lot, and we did it pretty well. In Pennsylvania I had belonged to the United States Steelworkers Union, which was a different kettle of fish altogether.

I quickly discovered that very few people actually read the contract between the union and the company. I also discovered, much to my chagrin, that the role of Steward seemed to have devolved into collecting money to buy flowers when there was a death in someone’s family, and organizing a coffee klatch whenever anyone got married or retired.

If anyone from the department got written up by the supervisor, the steward (or the assistant steward) was supposed to sit in as well - not to speak up for the employee, but just to watch them get screwed over, which sometimes they were.

There is an advantage in being the only one who knows the rules; you can make up new ones, if you can get away with it.

Pretty soon, I had everyone convinced that no one from the company (bar the supervisor) could talk to them without me being next to them. It wasn’t as though folks from the front offices were coming out in a steady stream to talk to folks on the line, but it did happen on occasion.

One night I was called over and witnessed a conversation which still warms my heart to this very day. A young man had a clipboard and calculator out, and was watching the chickens pass by the women who were cutting their wings off. It was at that moment that he asked an incredible question:

“Do you think that if we turned the line speed up just a little, and took away one wing cutter, you could keep up just as well?”

Oh, the innocence of sheer stupidity.

In 2012 this poor woman (who was in her early 60s) would probably be arrested and charged with terrorist threatening, to say the very least. In the 1970s, however, she just waved her knife in his direction and told him what he could do with his idea. The other women ;laughed.

He scuttled away, probably off to the safety of others who thought a callous on the hand was the first sign of a terminal illness.

It was a small thing, but it made me happy. And the memory of it still makes me happy, especially in a time when more and more workers are ground beneath the heels of those whose only use for them is to make a political point at their expense.


Quote of the Day

Learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail. - Luciano Pavarotti


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