Towards the end of Netflix’s documentary American Factory, the owner of Fujua Glass says, “The Purpose of Life is to Work” as if it is yet another Chinese proverb that is an understood. A saying, like the handful that various Chinese managers in the movie drop in that points to a differing world view that undergirds and provides the tension in the movie. Yet, it is more than just a simple story of culture clash as the last few minutes make clear. Right before the credits role, that same chairman now walks through the factory floor looking at the robots that have replaced the 2–4 humans who once did the work. At the end of the day, no job is safe and with the rise of AI, even the managers that struggle to find ways to motivate Americans may find their jobs gone as well. It’s a scary prospect in a fair but scary movie.
Yet, as I watched the story, a nice, if unintentional, follow-up to PBS’s Frontline episode on Dayton (where American Factory takes place too) I couldn’t help but remember another, short lived crappy job I had as a young adult. Before I go there, however, it’s important to know what American Factory is about. In 2010, GM shuttered a factory in Dayton, Ohio. In 2015, Fujua Glass repurposed the factory into an automobile glass manufacturing plant. The documentary follows the inevitable culture clash to raise some interesting points about the world we live in now.
What’s also important to remember is that the world we live in now was developing in other pockets of the country and shaped the kind of jobs that many people can no longer find, including me. In 1986, I was a recent college graduate from the University of Colorado with an English degree, and my job skills were pretty much focused on working in restaurants because that is what I did to pay my way through school. Yet, now I had a degree, and the world should magically open up to me and let me tackle more “adult” jobs, which it stubbornly refused to do. Yet, I was also hoping to stay in my college town while my girlfriend finished her Linguistics degree. And I wasn’t having much luck. About the only other experience I had was as a student employee where I manned the PbX switchboard for the University (a job that would be automated out of existence in a few short years). There was at least that, so I applied to work at a company called Prologue.
Prologue’s business model was to advertise heavily in several major metropolitan areas and encourage people to call (in the Denver area it was 4-HEALTH) to find out about their doctor. This was not an out-bound call service job, but one where people would call in wanting to know more about a specific doctor or for help about finding a new doctor. After a few brief questions, my job was to try and steer people into not only finding a doctor in their area but one that could see them right away. If I managed to schedule an appointment, I got a commission and the company got paid. It was basically a deceitful advertising company because people would call and not even realize we are only giving out information on doctors we contracted with and they wanted people to see them rather than just “find out about” their doctor.
After going through the two week training, I was assigned the seven in the morning shift, which was not a time that set well with me but I was trying to be an adult so I gave it a go. I became a coffee addict and just couldn’t do the job very well. As I struggled to hold it together, I learned that the PbX board tracked data on me. My calls were recorded; the amount of time I “busied out” to finish paperwork was recorded; the time I signed in and out for lunch was monitored; and I basically sat in my cubicle chained to my desk by my headset. And if I didn’t schedule enough appointments they’d pull me into the supervisor’s glas-enclosed office to point out how my cohort (people who were part of my original training class, which included a guy who bragged after being the quickest new employee to ever top the sales chart that he could, “Sell snow to an eskimo”).
It didn’t take long for me to figure out the hole in their system. As you sat there the calls would work their way around the area such that the first person on got the first call and the second the second and so on. But if you “busied out,” you’d be bumped to the bottom of the queue. To address spending too much time “busied out” they tracked that as well and if it varied from the expectations, you’d be pulled into the glass-enclosed office and showed how you were deviating from the metric. At first glance, it seemed like a system designed to keep lazy people on task. But they’d never met me.
I’m the king of getting out of work. It really is one of my super powers. As a boss, I’m the best delegator you’ll ever meet, and my tolerance for dirt and grime ranks up there with a pig’s ability to tolerate mud. I don’t like doing things that don’t interest me. At all. So, what I figured out was a pretty simple trick. If I just toggled between the two main functions on the PbX board: “Call Ready” and “Position Busy,” I’d be bumped to the bottom of the queue again and again but my time “off task” would not register any more than anybody else’s. I was basically just flipping between the two positions in rapid succession and bumping myself to the bottom of the queue but not registering any excessive amount of time. This strategy led me to reading all three of William Gibson’s Neuromancer series on the clock in a matter of days. And for a while it worked.
As my evening habit of enjoying live music blossomed into an obsession, however, getting to work at seven in the morning proved to be much harder, and sitting in my cubicle reading books was almost impossible. So even the relative time I had for reading was not enough to keep me from wanting to move on. As it turns out, during those the first few months the atmosphere in the call center started to change too. Evidently, some employees were agitating to unionize. And Prologue, a fledgling company who hadn’t quite turned a profit, had to dump a whole lot of money pulling us off the floor and into bigger conference rooms where the CEO would tell us about why we didn’t need to unionize.
This too is a sub-plot in American Factory and watching it took me back thirty years where the same archetype (a corporate CEO) made the same arguments. After remembering that, I then jumped to my own culpability now of being on the negotiating team of my college with one of the bargaining units that I supervise. While I don’t have much say in how much the union members are paid, I do make arguments that try and limit the union’s ability to tie my hands. In that role, I feel like I empathize with the manager in American Factory when he quotes the Chinese proverb and says, “One mountain cannot contain two tigers.” I’m the tiger now, and my corner office, where I delegate to people via email or phone, is my quiet cave, but instead of bones scattered about I’m surrounded by piles of paper, a bureaucratic pig pen if you will, and now wonder how long it will be before I too am replaced with a robot.