A union shop story

Shipfitter’s comment on the Lockheed-Martin strike post reminded me of my first experience of a union shop. When the structural engineers designed one particular test fixture, they assumed wrongly that the NASA plating shop would be available. By the time the work order came through, the plating shop was shut down for refurbishment (to meet EPA rules), so we had to contract out with another plating shop to anodize the aluminum panels. It was my job to measure these panels after they had been processed to make sure they met spec.

The first lesson was to time the anodizing so that the panels went in the bath just before the time for the workers’ break. Breaktime was breaktime, and you did not mess with it. If the panels went in too early and were due to come out during breaktime, too bad. They were going to sit in the bath too long. It did not matter that it would cost the company to strip off the anodize and rework it, they were on break. This was baffling to me. I’ll admit, I’m no workoholic, but I do my best to get the job done. I know we could have processed at least one more batch of panels per day, if not two, if it hadn’t been for the timing issue. I would have given them a break during the 22 minutes of anodizing, but, nope, it was 9:00 to 9:15, engraved in stone.

It was mostly male employees on the shop floor, but there were a few women working there. Only the secretaries wore nice dressy outfits. I was dressed in t-shirt and blue jeans, because this was a plating shop, and I was there to work, not dress to impress. So it was a typical Alabama summer, and I excused myself at a convenient time to go get something cold to drink from a vending machine. This manager in a tie and button-down shirt came striding up to me, yelling at me, “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! YOU’RE NOT ON BREAK! WHO IS YOUR BOSS! I want to know right NOW!” I showed him my NASA badge and said sweetly, “Feel free to call him, but I don’t think he’ll reprimand me.” The swift intake of breath and the warring of frightened-pale and embarrassed-red on his face were better than the apology that followed.

I’m glad I didn’t have to work in that kind of place all the time.