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Military work.

I took a temporary job and helped build the mighty U.S. military arsenal. As many a high-school graduate can tell you, a temporary-job placement service is the quick fix for the unemployed. Through such agencies one can readily acquire menial, mindless, more-than-minimum-wage jobs. I worked such jobs through college, and when I found myself in a postgraduate job hunt, I decided temporary employment could help pay my rent while my resumes found their way to serious prospective employers.

As a change of pace from my previous office jobs, I signed up at an agency offering factory positions. Soon after, the service assigned me to a company called Custom Products, located in an industrial park just south of Waukesha, Wisconsin.

The night foreman greeted me when I arrived and told me they weren't expecting me that evening. There was a huddle about what I could do, and after some twenty minutes an assistant foreman walked me through the shop, explaining that the plant made circuit boards--sophisticated, high-tech stuff. Then he handed me a broom and told me to start sweeping.

This was just what I had expected--menial, mindless. No problem.

The next night I worked in the scrub room. The foreman brought in stacks of copper sheets and I fed them through a scrubber. Each batch was labeled with a name and number: Ratheon I6, Northrop 27, Lockheed I2, McDonnell-Douglas I. I had no trouble figuring out that these "custom products" were circuit boards.

Between shifts in the scrub room, I would transfer carloads of the boards in various stages of completion to and from the plant's several departments--scrub room, routing, bake shop, etching, inspection. One day, in inspection, the assistant foreman showed me a completed circuit board that fit into the nose cone of a cruise missile. I marveled at the five-inch semicircle and at the shelves lined with similar pieces. I didn't bother to ask how a temp worker could be holding a piece of military guidance-system circuitry in his hand after only two weeks on the job.

The other workers didn't seem to care what kind of custom products they were making. They watched the clocks. But the foreman watched me. He told me I was doing a good job and might get hired for a payroll position. He had worked in board shops all his life, from Texas to the Middle West, and explained that with experience you could get a job at any board shop in the country. Contracts were lined up for the next few years, and a skill acquired now could take me places later. The foreman laid out the advantages of working in the industry: job security, unlimited potential advancement, pride in the product, freedom to travel. I nodded in agreement. My resumes were leading nowhere, and he promised me a raise to $7 an hour--which meant, in effect, that I'd be getting the cut that now went to the temp agency.

So I was hired for a permanent job. I took an OSHA course and began training in etching--the process by which copper is etched off the copper sheets in circuitry patterns, using chlorine gas.

Attached to the etching machine was a hose through which copper chlorine drained into a fifty-gallon drum. Chained to the wall were two six-foot-tall high-pressure tanks of liquid chlorine--enough potential gas to fill the surrounding suburb. A shop joke was that if there were a chlorine leak and the sensors failed, they would know to evacuate when they saw me lying dead on the floor. Everyone thought this was funny.

Two days later I quit without notice. The thought of having my lungs shredded by chlorine gas made it an easy decision. Still, I felt sorry for the foreman. He had been desperate to find a worker smart enough to run the etcher, and would have to call the temp service for another prospect.

All this was in the spring of 1990. In a way, I'm sorry I wasn't there to watch the hoopla over the Gulf war. But I don't believe it would have mattered much to those workers. After eight hours of running copper sheets through a machine, who cares whether they end up in a cruise missile or a car stereo? The workers' skills were transferable. To them, a copper sheet was a copper sheet, a circuit board a circuit board, and a job a job.

That's worth remembering when we're told we have to support military industry to protect these workers' jobs. We just have to support industry in general--and maybe the temporary-job placement services.
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Title Annotation:job safety
Author:Beyers, Daryl A.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:763
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