Factory Girl: Prologue

When I started this blog, I promised it would be a travel blog “writ large”.   That means you can travel without leaving home, if you put yourself in a new situation: culture or region and stay long enough to get to know the locals, the culture and find yourself being changed in the process.  This is one of those travels.  I never left home, but I stayed for five years, got to know the locals, the culture, tried to operate in the new environment and changed myself in the process.  This is a travel diary with many chapters. Chapter 1 is Where Push Comes to Shove.  I start with a Prologue.

Prologue: In Minneapolis in 1978 I found myself in a soldering class in the living room of one of my fellow labor organizers.  We were hoping to get hired by Control Data Corporation as computer factory workers in order to try to unionize the plants. I was new to factory work, but not to union organizing.  I had spent the past three years trying to unionize child care workers with AFSCME.  Honeywell was already a union shop and Control Data nearly matched their wages in order to prevent unionization and to attract a workforce.  For those of you unfamiliar with the computer industry in the US in 1977, it was mostly “made in America”, from winding magnetic coils under a microscope to final assembly.  computerThere were no laptop computers.  A 300 MB storage unit was the size of a washing machine.  Mainframe computers had desktop monitors.  No internet, no email, no user-friendly interfaces.

I got hired at CDC in the fall of ’77, using a resumé indicating much less college and a prior computer industry job.  Anybody heard of Itel?  It’s in the Bay Area.  All in all, I worked in five different CDC plants in the Twin Cities over five years.  I soldered perfect tiny silvery joints for aerospace electronics; I built defect-free units the size of closets for supercomputers; I placed small components on circuit boards with a tweezers while a little bit high after lunch; I assembled field test units (FTUs) and soldered them using computer blower fans for ventilation by sticking the bare wires into a nearby electrical outlet; I poured trichloroethane over my hands to clean them when they became too sticky from using flux; I broke my tooth when an air drill slipped off the screw and my jaw hit the assembly unit.

Did I help unionize Control Data Corporation?  No.  Did I organize workers to take action on the job? Yes, many times. Did it improve peoples’ lives? Yes, a bit.  Did I learn anything? More than I could possibly say.

Most of the chapters for this series focus on my time at the Magnetic Peripherals (a CDC subsidiary) Inner City plant on Park Avenue in Minneapolis, across from the yet-to-be-built Humphrey (Twins) Metrodome.  It was one of several inner city plants designed to address poverty and racial turmoil following the death of MLK and rise of the Black Power Movement , while at the same time making a profit for William Norris, the founder and legendary CEO.  This was a unique experiment in “social justice meets capitalism” at the time and since.  The rise and fall of the Control Data Corporation has been the subject of many business case studies, some blaming Norris’ hapless social justice projects, but most, the rapid transformation of computers and the computer industry and the failure of CDC to withstand the changes.

The Inner City plant was a grim three-story old brown building.  In the basement were a series of computer terminals attached to the PLATO elearning system, one of the first of its kind.  They were there to provide an opportunity for employees to complete a GED, while working for a livable wage and to market the system. The workforce there consisted primarily of folks whose work lives up until then were spotty, at best.  About 50% were people of color, primarily African-American, but also American Indian, Filipino, and Hispanic.  Some were on work- release from Stillwater prison, many off the streets of Chicago and Kankakee, some with addiction histories. Local folks were living in American Indian public housing, lived over North (the heavily African-American neighborhood in Minneapolis), or had types of mental illness for which they were receiving treatment.  A few of us had work histories (alleged) or were transfers from other CDC plants. The second and third floors were computer assembly floors, primarily peripherals. I worked on the second floor. My husband worked on the first. By 1982 the plant was closed because the new Humphrey Metrodome displaced it. After I came back from maternity leave, we all reconnected at the Bloomington plant and continued as a team to raise hell and do good quality work, until I decided the revolution was over and got a new job working in a battered women’s shelter.

4 thoughts on “Factory Girl: Prologue

  1. Wow. I had forgotten. I was at Flour City and wow, for me, those factory days were a life changing experience. Those days Flour City was hiring young white and a few other guys, a lot from small towns in rural Minnesota. The work at CDC sounded very tough. I was lucky that after some grueling time in assembly I got into the boiler room and learned electrical, plumbing and pipefitting, carpentry, working maintenance-and had a Minnesota high pressure engineer’s license.

    I am still in touch with my of Leaky Roof colleague Jim King, who later became union business agent and international rep for the Ironworkers union. The brothers at Flower City were amazing, I felt so loved when we moved back to Chicago -we got all these presents from guys (we were getting married).

    Francis Hope, a welder and out Chief Steward during a very intense period at Flour City was a tough St Paul Catholic liberal unionist who I met in his 60s-went over to his house one day after work and listened to the Beatles with him. Last time I saw him I was up for a visit and we met for a Coronet and Snit at the Hexagon bar and walked around the old plant before saying goodbye..

    Thanks for this writeup Carol, goodbye to the time clock.

    Liked by 1 person

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