'Working' Then And Now: 'I Didn't Plan To Be A Union Guy' Gary Bryner tells Studs Terkel about being a union member and working in an auto factory for General Motors. About 40 years later, he reflects on how factory work and the role of unions have changed.
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'Working' Then And Now: 'I Didn't Plan To Be A Union Guy'

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'Working' Then And Now: 'I Didn't Plan To Be A Union Guy'

'Working' Then And Now: 'I Didn't Plan To Be A Union Guy'

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week we're bringing you stories from the working tapes, recordings that Studs Terkel made in the 1970s as he traveled the country, interviewing people about their jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How would you describe your work?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm a processing clerk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm a carpenter from South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Boring, monotonous.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Your mouth gets tired, tired of talking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I started working when I was about 12 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I mean, you got to work - nothing wrong with it. People have been doing it for years.

SIEGEL: The result was a bestselling book called "Working," but until this week, few people had heard Terkel's recordings of these interviews. Our partner Radio Diaries along with the organization Project& went back to those old tapes to produce our series Working Then and Now. Our story today is about the auto industry and how in the 1970s robotics began to change what it meant to work in a factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: I am somewhere between Youngstown and Warren, Ohio. This is industrial area - steel, automobiles - talking to Gary Bryner. Gary Bryner is the president of Local 1114 United Auto Workers - no - 1124.

GARY BRYNER: One-one-one-two.

TERKEL: One-one-one-two - well, what sort of plant is this?

BRYNER: It's the General Motors Vega plant in Lordstown.

TERKEL: The most automated plant in the world, isn't it?

BRYNER: Right. It's the fastest line speed in the world, and they've got the most modern equipment - the Unimates. They got 22 in a row, 11 on each side of the line.

TERKEL: Can you describe the Unimate?

BRYNER: Well, it looks like a robot, you know? And it reminds me of a praying mantis. When they took the Unimates on, we were building 60 an hour prior to the Unimates, and when we came back to work with the Unimates, we were building 101 cars per hour. See; they never tire. They never sweat. They never complain. They never miss work. They're always there.

TERKEL: Yeah, so what happened to the guys in the plant that are working there now?

BRYNER: It's a funny thing, you know? When they revamp the plant, they try to take every movement out of the guy's day so that he could conserve seconds and time so they can make him more efficient, more productive.

TERKEL: Is the assembly line approach dependent upon the fact that each guy is exactly like the other guy?

BRYNER: Right. GM's reason for trying to be more efficient is if they could take one second and save a second on each guy's effort, they would over a year make a million dollars.

TERKEL: One second.

BRYNER: That's right. You know, they use the stopwatches, and they say, look; we know from experience that it takes so many seconds to walk from here to there. We know that it takes so many seconds to shoot that screw. We know the gun turns so fast and screw's so long and the hole's so deep. We know how long it takes, and that's what that guy's going to do.

And our argument has always been, you know, that's mechanical. That's not human. Look; we tire. We sweat. We have hangovers. We have upset stomachs. We have feelings, emotions, and we're not about to be placed in a category of a machine.

TERKEL: This is something new, isn't it? The workers in the plant - they feel they have a right in determining the nature of their work to the working men?

BRYNER: We do now. We have some kind of pride being able to stand up to the giant General Motors Corporation and say, look; this is what I think is fair, and I'm willing to fight to show you that it's fair. I just think they want to be able to be treated with dignity and some respect. And you know, that's not asking a hell of a lot.

TERKEL: Yeah.

BRYNER: (Laughter) Well, it takes me back. I'm Gary Bryner, retired, have been for 11 years. I didn't plan to be a union guy. I just wandered into it. In 1966 through '75, maybe later, the company and the union were bitter enemies. Every gain we made usually came out of a strike, and that's just the way it was. But the job of the union today is much tougher than it was for me in 1970 because the strength of the union has been so weakened.

And look; the union's not perfect. I'd be the first to say it. But you know, what we did in the union is to create this middle class that we're able to do things, enjoy their life outside of work. And I worry about these things that we're losing. But listen; you got to have a job. No matter what it is, you got to have a job. It's one of those things that must be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: Picking it up with Gary. You feel this is the shape of things to come?

BRYNER: I hope that it is because I think what we're doing is right. You know, we're putting humans before profits, and I think that's necessary. I think if it isn't that way in other places, it should be.

SIEGEL: That's Gary Bryner from Studs Terkel's book "Working." Our series was produced by Radio Diaries along with Project&. Tomorrow on the program we'll hear from the last piano player at Chicago's Sherman Hotel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Saloons are kind of full of lonely people trying to fill an empty hour or two, a void in their life somewhere, you know?

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