Sunday, July 09, 2006

Working in the factory

I am working at Seneca in Cumberland, which is about 15 miles away from Rice Lake, WI. This canning plant processes green beans. There are two 12 hour shifts with no scheduled days off during the canning season. There are some days that there may not be any work. At first, work was sporadic. We'd work a day or two and have a day or two off. It appears that we are now entering full production. We won't be having days off for a long time. The thinking amongst the migrant workers here is "nomas son tres meses". Three months of 80 hour work weeks. Some people are earning minimum wage, which is $6.50/hr in Wisconsin; others are earning more. The work is easy and boring. If you can stand the monotony, there is plenty of overtime available. Jobs are demanding in one of two ways: you have to stay in one place and do the same thing every day or you have mobility and are working hard cleaning up after the machinery. Most everybody will be on their feet for 11.5 hours daily (we have 30 minutes lunch).
 
Many of the workers here come from Eagle Pass, TX and Coahuila. There are some workers from other parts of Texas and Mexico. There are legal and illegal workers. The undocumented amongst us have proof of their eligibility to work in the form of IDs and social security numbers. Some people have their new identities lined up for next year already. There are hard workers; and there are some who make you wonder why they came at all, if they don't want to work. There are even families that come to work here together and then go back to Texas or Mexico to live off their earnings. Even at minimum wage, they can earn about $2,400/month each. Those who are returning workers or have jobs higher on the pay scale can take home much more than that. For three months' work, a family can fare well for themselves. One benefit of working such long hours is that you are too tired to go out and spend your money other than to meet necessities.
 
My job is unloading the trailers filled with green beans to feed the machinery that beckons for more. I do this by operating a hydraulic dumper that tilts the trailer so that the green beans slide onto a conveyor. Each trailer is about 65,000 lbs when full. The beans themselves are about 45,000 lbs. I have dumped, at most, 18 trailers in one day. This will probably increase when we run at full capacity. It's an easy job, requiring a little bit of technique. I'm the only worker who is outside all day, rain or shine. Fortunately, the temperatures here are generally up in the 80s and may at some point this season hit 90 degrees. Mornings are between 50 and 70 degrees. It takes roughly 30 to 60 minutes to empty a trailer, depending on the speed of the conveyor. This means that I have a lot of time to fill in between loads. My job is easy, it's the side job that wears me out. I generally go around what are called Super Snippers, machines that snip the ends off of the green beans, and sweep up any that have fallen out. After sweeping the bits and pieces that fall out into a pile, I get a shovel to pick them up and toss them onto a trash conveyor. It's a never-ending process. As soon as I finish one pile, another is built up. I do this when I'm not doing my official job on the dumper.
 
I am meeting many people and making new friends. There is the beginning of camaraderie amongst the workers. I suppose it's inevitable after spending so much time together every day. There is a connection between the workers at Seneca and the previous job I had at UMOS. The latter takes care of the children of the workers at the former. This means that many of the workers with kids know my wife or one of my friends at the Head Start. It's a small community of migrants here. There are roughly 200 workers for both shifts. Not everybody knows each other, but we recognize each other at local shops.
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