In 1980 I put in a transfer request to move from the Arden Hills Control Data Corporation plant in the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities to the Normandale Inner City plant (NIC), in downtown Minneapolis. (For more context, see my first post: Factory Girl: Prologue). My one year at Arden Hills was enough for me.
At the Arden Hills plant in 1979 I started on the “push line”, where a line of workers placed small electronic components onto five by five inch circuit boards. Each of us had a map that told us which components went where on the board. We positioned those shown on our map with tweezers and then pushed the circuit board down along a plywood ramp to the next worker. Each person on the line had a different map. At the end of the assembly line someone soldered all the components onto the circuit board. Every once in a while a push line worker would accidentally bump the line and the circuit boards and loose components would go tumbling onto the floor. The line leader’s job was to sweep up all the errant components and put them back in the bins, so as not to waste any of them. This is all done in China by robots now, I think.
That job grew pretty dull so as soon as I could I put in for a transfer to the supercomputer section of the plant. Seymour Cray is a legend in the supercomputer world because he designed one of the first computers with enough computing power to (theoretically) predict the weather and do secret, bad things for the military. He started with CDC but later split off and started his own company. By the time I got into the supercomputer assembly area the Cray name was gone, but CDC was producing its own version. Each computer was big as an upper-middle class kitchen. Since I could solder like a M-F-ker by then I was put to use wiring and soldering a unit the size of a Dr. Who police telephone box. It took me a month to complete one. I discovered during this period that I really liked working with my hands, perhaps channeling my surgeon father, who never showed me how to build anything.
My next assignment was to build the memory core of the unit. It was the size of a mid-century modern closet. My job was to install some 30,000 white wires that connected one end to one slot with an 8-digit number and the other end to another 8-digit numbered slot. Click, click. Not too bad for the first 15,000 wires or so, but the last 15K were not fun. Imagine shoving your hand through a large bowl of plain spaghetti to look for a peppercorn. Not just any peppercorn, but a specific one. It did not help that the foreman forbade me drinking coffee during this work. He would walk around drinking coffee watching to make sure I was not. Ever the rebel and line worker trying to do an accurate job, I snuck my thermos into the area and secreted it under the podium where my printout of all the 8-digit slot numbers was laid out. At the end of it all, the quality inspectors came around and did a random check of 100 wires. If there were no mistakes, it was good to go. If not, I had to check all the wires. Somehow I do not remember if I passed or not. Kind of like childbirth.
This suburban plant was staffed almost entirely by white workers. Most were middle aged suburban women. It was a drab culture for me. They worked silently all day. I only have one memory of a conversation with a younger white co-worker with whom I shared a love of Bruce Springsteen. Since I was there to be a labor organizer, I decided that our whole section was worthy of a raise. The way to a raise without a union then was to get our jobs reclassified one pay grade higher. I wrote up a petition with a clear explanation of why our jobs should be grade 4, instead of grade 3. All those silent women signed it with me and I turned it into HR. We got our reclassification and our raise.
It was time to move on. It was a long commute from south Minneapolis. Other than learning about NPR and All Things Considered from the young female engineer I carpooled with, it was too grueling and too isolating. My transfer request was honored and I was able to change to a bicycle commute and a plant full of wild and crazy (literally, sometimes) guys that made me laugh and rage and help create cross-racial and gender labor solidarity over a couple of years that produced lifelong lessons. But that’s a post for another day.