Monday, November 22, 2004


A lifetime ago (roughly), I started a mini-career in the operations department at an industrial plant during the construction phase of the facility. Since I had some background and experience in the production processes, I was assigned to the operations staff - in other words, not a plant operator, and not exactly a manager. I was a non-union staffer who wrote the plant operating procedures, among other duties.

Archie was one of the guys who started with the company at roughly the same time as myself. He was a plant operator; a union guy who had to make use of the procedures that I developed. So by necessity, our 'circles' (professional and eventually personal) intersected at quite a few points, and we came to know each other fairly well.

Fast friends? I don't know about that. But we talked a lot. We held late night, third shift bitchfests about many of the same complaints regarding the company, even though we were clearly on opposite sides of the corporate fence. Still, when I needed to know something about the plant from an operators perspective, or when I needed to take the "pulse" in the trenches after I was promoted into the management ranks, Archie was my go-to guy.

We commiserated. We shared a beer or three, off hours. We played on the same softball team. Archie was the first person I sought out after one of our mutual friends, a plant operations supervisor about our own age, died from a heart attack while sitting at home alone. And I celebrated with him when he left the union ranks and took a supervisory position. The guy was good at what he did.

I ran into Archie this past weekend. We hadn't seen each other in quite a few years. I left the company in the mid 1990s for greener pastures and a higher degree of sanity. You know the drill. We went our separate ways.

Seeing Archie for the first time in many years was a bit of a shock. I still navigate in a circle of people from the plant, so I know how things have changed over the years. What was once a very stable company recently went through the umpteenth-senior management reorganization since I left. And they continue to turn the thumbscrews on the employees (particularly on mid-level managers and other non-union staff) every day of the week.

The pressure is extraordinary. I can almost physically feel the pain every time I speak with any ex-associate who still works there. One of my very close friends (and a neighbor) suffered a stress-related heart attack about a year ago - and then the company had the audacity to lay off my friend a month after returning to work. That's the type of workplace the plant has become.

But no one brought it home to me personally like Archie did this past weekend. He's a few years younger than me, but he looks 10 years older. He didn't used to. Ten years ago, he looked like a kid compared to me.

In our fairly short (10 minute?) conversation, he kept repeating the phrase "only 8 more years". He told me, "Richard, I hate to even get up in the morning to go to work."

I said, "Arch, we're not 28 anymore," all the while thinking to myself, 'only 8 more years to what, Archie?' Of course, he was referring to early retirement. What the hell good is early retirement, though, if you don't make it that far?

After nearly a decade away from the plant, even though I speak quite frequently with friends who still work there, I can't imagine what it's like. I left the plant in the mid-90's because it had become such a stressful and difficult place to work. Archie is not unique in my experience. I can physically see how every single one of these former coworkers have been literally stressed and beaten into, for lack of a better word, submission. They're hanging on...for something...for an illusion of security in retirement...for a paycheck next week...damn, I really don't know.

Maybe more to the point, I actually (most days, anyway) enjoy the job I'm doing now. It's the third or fourth job I've held since I left the plant. I'm making less money today than I was 10 years ago, but after meeting Archie this weekend I know in retrospect that it's been worth the sacrifice, and that I made the right decision. I just can't imagine waking up in the morning and dreading the next 10 or 12 hours of my life, and knowing that I'll have to turn around and do it all again the next day.

At least I'm pretty confident I'll make it through (and past) the next 8 years. I'm worried about Archie, though.