Poster: Hank @ Fri Jul 25, 2008 8:51 am
As it happened, I was driving through the Midwest to meet up with some folks in the industry who wanted to talk about the feasibility of setting up a leading-edge wafer fab in southern Iowa around or about the year 2013. It was generally felt that the rising costs of shipping and travel combined with tighter oversight by foreign governments as their currency strengthens relative to the dollar and the declining price of domestic labor meant that the smart money was on forgetting about the shift to global sourcing and sticking with primarily domestic wafer production.
An additional benefit to this plan was to be the relative ease of maintaining QA and other corporate standards in domestic plants. In the plants on foreign soil, you have to either pay for nearly 26 months of intensive training for managers and line overseers culled from the local industry (if it exists), or wait until some hot-headed young in-house cowboy with a big ego and a desire to push around some foreigners can learn the language with sufficient fluency to go over there and run the darn thing while training other guys from the foreign pool. Either way, it's a bogglingly expensive nightmare that rarely results in the kind of tight controls that maintain a respectable bottom line in the long term. I've seen guys groomed for thirty-six months, getting paid upper management salary while sitting in Tagalog classes for eight hours a day, only to finally get over there and be so overwhelmed by the workload and difficulty earning the foreigners' trust that they let a whole fab run at 8% under target capacity, sweep injuries and violations under the rug, and simultaneously ignore the QA process while telling everybody back home that things are absolutely jim-dandy. It's like a mini-Great Leap Forward. Eight months and four lost contracts later, the brass starts looking at sourcing reports and finds out that this champ has been quietly having a nervous breakdown, they can him, and eight times out of ten the guy ends up in a foreign prison after committing some craime during his post-firing drinking binge. The other two times out of ten, he runs off with some hot-bodied little foreign filly he met on the line and shacks up with her, frittering away his severance pay while she breathes microscopic fibers in a shirt factory after the fab is sold.
Anyway, this was the thinking behind the Iowa proposal, so I was going on up there to take a look at the figures and the labor pool to see if this goose might fly or if it, like 85% of proposals I look at, is a doomed pipe dream fuelled by greed and fear. These trips are always a nice break from the grind, but I admit that they also kind of tick me off, because I know that as soon as I'm done advising the execs, investors, and other flab-chinned vampires, I'm going to be back on the line just like Joe Schlabotnik from Duluth. Seems to me that if a man knows enough to tell the brass what time it is, he ought to be tiptoeing up that ole dollar ladder himself. They keep telling me the same thing : Company policy prohibits guys with felonies from getting into management, and that I should be grateful that I was even grandfathered in for production when the company was bought a while back. Security regulations, blah, blah. I say, bull feathers. I know for a fact that the regional director went Chapter 13 eight years ago after getting pinched for sports betting, and the line manager at our fab is divorced three times, which to me screams "abuser!" So whatever with that. I get paid lump sums as an independent contractor for these analysis jobs anyway, so in the end, I guess I come out ahead.
I was about 250 miles away when I came up on the meat processing plant where my college roomie Ed Schrempkin nabbed a cushy job as plant manager six months after graduation (when I was mopping floors in the fab cafeteria as part of my so-called 'internship'). It was cloudy in the west, but I figured I'd stop in for a bit anyway. They usually don't let folks in there just to pass the time, I guess, but as an avid bacon eater (I put the stuff on every dang thing from salad to filet mignon), I wanted to take a gander and of course say "Hi" to old Ed.
The guys at the front desk kind of seemed like I was interrupting their day when I got there and asked to see Ed. I didn't hear the phone ring once when I was waiting down there, though. Finally, Ed's assistant Hector, who looked almost exactly like a fat version of the guy from 'Juanes,' took me up to Ed's office.
Ed greeted me with his customary bone-grinding handshake and gleaming toothy smile. He was glad to see me, he said; I said likewise. He offered me a glass of milk and asked how I'd been, how long ago I got out, and all that. We shot the bull for a while and I asked him to take me on a tour of the plant. He showed me around some of the packing facilities, up high on a catwalk above a rendering tank (that was a heck of a smell) and in the cafeteria. I asked to see the killing floor; he said he didn't think I'd much enjoy watching pigs get slaughtered and that they didn't let folks in there, for safety and security reasons, anyway. I told him that was a load of hooey and reminded him that we used to shoot pigeons and stray critters with .177 pellet guns from our dorm room window. Ed laughed and called me a freak, and warned me that I might be put off somewhat by the whole scene. I told him not to worry about me and to just show me the doggone thing. He grinned and told me that there was a facility about 50 miles east that processed five hundred horses a day, mainly for hides and pet food, and that I'd probably enjoy spending some time in there. I told him that pigs would do just fine and to lay off the horse thing.
We walked down to the killing floor after putting on hard hats, goggles, facemasks, and some overgarments apparently designed to prevent us from contaminating stuff. I had a skin tag above my ear that that was really irritated by the goggles, but Ed told me to sack it up.
Ed opened the door that led down to the floor, and it was really an impressive sight. The whole thing was different that I pictured and far more efficient-looking, and the whole joint was filled with the sound of squeals and grunts from the 'porks,' as Ed called them. The first thing that caught my eye was a long, winding, sort of snakelike structure that guided the pigs to slaughter. Ed told me that it -- the 'chute' --had been designed by an autistic but brilliant woman in the mid-20th century during the first era of modern meatpacking, and it was cleverly structured to avoid unnecessarily terrorizing the animals as they went to their doom. The idea is that if they're marched single file down this thing and they can't see what's up ahead, they won't get as freaked out. Made sense to me, but I asked whether the squealing and stuff wouldn't worry the hogs to begin with. Ed said that they can't really hear all that well, and anyway, most of the dang things don't squeal at all because they get stunned before getting stuck. Only the ones that get a faulty "No Country For Old Men" treatment are squealing.
The second thing I noticed, which probably should have been the first thing, was about two dozen guys in blood-streaked white coveralls and what looked like welding masks that were in charge of moving and killing the porks. These fellas looked almost exactly like what you might see in a really overdone 'Friday the 13th' sequel if they decided that one terrifying guy in a jumpsuit with a knife wasn't nearly enough. It's a funny thing, because I actually expected that the swine would get exterminated by a robotic arm or some kind of machine. That was far from the truth, though -- these guys were right in there with electric prods, meat hooks, captive bolt pistols, and big knives. I thought my job kind of sucked, but I tip my hat to these folks.
Also down there were some guys walking around with clipboards and PDAs (if you know what I mean); Ed said that these were USDA inspectors. As we walked down the metal stairs to the floor itself, they started having some problems. It looked like one of the swine was having an attack or something as it reached the opening of the chute; it started squealing like crazy and fell down and started writhing around. This caused the hogs behind it to start wigging out and bunching up. It got itself all turned around in the chute and was kicking like a sonuvagun.
"Whoop," said Ed, "He's caught in the chute." One of the workers who was at the chute opening put down his captive bolt pistol and grabbed a meat hook. I was surprised when he put that hook right up the downed swine's rear end and out through its haunch and dragged the darn thing right out of the chute as it went totally ape; the hook ripped right out. It was wrenching around so wildly that they couldn't get a good stun, so they just strung the howling porker up and stuck it just like that. I asked Ed if there would be trouble from the USDA guys about that.
"Naw, they're more looking for stuff like intentional or systematic abuse, obviously contaminated product, stuff like that. They specifically said that we can still process downers some years ago. You gotta get 'em out of that chute somehow, and you don't wanna spook the whole line. It's usually like the pork has a heart attack or gets hurt while in the chute -- we're pretty good about not letting diseased hogs get in there," Ed told me.
It was abut time for me to hit the road if I was going to make it to my hotel before the rain hit. Ed said he didn't figure I'd be hungry for lunch, and I told him no I wasn't, but said I'd call him on my way back and we'd go get a beer. Ed said that sounded like a pretty good plan and saw me out the front way.
The clouds were coming in pretty fast as I drove out. I took a couple of Vicodin that I had left over from when I busted my hand to smooth me out for the drive to my hotel in West Union. The wind was whistling in my ear, but I didn't roll up the window because it was pretty humid and my AC was on the fritz. I stopped at a gas station outside Dunkerton to fill up and get some coffee. Behind the counter was a five-year-old towheaded brat and some old Swede with a crooked jaw who informed me that his register's credit card machine was broken and could I please pay with cash. I told him that I didn't carry cash around, especially on the doggone G_d-forsaken Iowa highway. He asked me to please watch my language and said I could pay him for the coffee next time I passed through. I mentioned that I didn't intend to pass through this fucking hell-hole again, dumped the coffee on his hand, and walked out as he yelped and and kid started to wail.