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The Way it Was: Writer describes career working as foreman

by John Straka Published: June 18, 2014 12:00 AM

I began working in a machine shop in June of 1941, just six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. I worked up from machine operator, to doing my own setups, to full-time setup man and to foreman, in about two years. The business was sold 26 years later.

By then, I was in charge of one half of the shop and the man who had been my foreman when I started was working for me as my setup man.

During the next 20 years I worked as foreman at two other companies. At no time was I allowed to hire my own workers. I am sure that was because hiring meant negotiating wages, and that was not part of my job.

During those years, I followed the advice of a very wise boss, who explained the job of foreman this way: I was to use machines, tools and people to fashion parts that would be assembled into products that would be sold at a profit.

I was told to never forget I was the one in charge. It was up to me to teach, train and direct the activities of my people. As time went on, I saw how other foreman didn't do that. They did not explain what was to be done and how it was to be done, and then complained when the job didn't turn out the intended way.

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I learned what each employee liked to do, what they were good at, and assigned tasks with that in mind. I assigned difficult jobs to those who enjoyed a challenge. Easy jobs would go to those who would rather do the same thing over and over, day after day.

For about half of my foreman years I supervised men, and the other half, women. I survived two labor union strikes.

Some people do not believe that for many years I was both shop foreman and union member. The company and the union had a clause in their contract that said if a union member is promoted to foreman, he must continue to be part of the union and pay union dues. The union claimed that without that clause, the company would promote all their workers to the position of foreman and no one would be left to pay union dues.

Since the personnel department did the hiring, there were times when they would hire a person who in no way could do the job. One new hire, a young man, was having difficulty with hand/eye coordination. I was afraid he would drill a hole in his hand. When I noticed he was making frequent trips to see the shop nurse and that one of his eyes was tearing, I asked the nurse what that was all about. She said, "Don't you know?" She then told me he had only one eye.

Another time a new man seemed a good prospect until I asked him to go ahead and try to drill a hole in a piece of cast iron. When he crossed his arms to pull the handle with his left hand I stopped him. There is no way a left-handed person can operate a right-handed drill press. I told him to do nothing until I came back and went to find out what to do with him, since he could not work in my department.

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He was determined to prove he could do the job and a minute or two later, when I returned, his hand was bleeding.

Another time a young man was hired and I learned quickly he was illiterate. He could not measure, count, or read or write. I think he didn't understand English very well, either.

One physically challenged man worked out very well. He was missing part of one leg, but he worked on his feet all day every day and did good work, too. I don't know how he did it.

One day my boss came to me with good news. He had hired a woman with several years working experience. Besides that, she was more mature than most women looking for work. I caught that right away and asked how old she was. Turned out she was 62 and her experience was from when she had been a teenager. Instead of running a machine, she was given a job in shipping, but the union guy didn't know that. He accused me of firing her because of her age.

Another new hire with four years experience on a big radial drill press had all of his experience drilling holes in magnets. But he knew nothing about running the machine, since all the setup work was done by someone else.

Once in a while, one of my people would come to me with a personal problem. "Gene" asked my advice when his wife left him. Later on, he got a new girlfriend and after she also left him, he was stuck with a $400 phone bill for long distance phone calls she had made. There was nothing I could do for him.

A young man from the South wanted to know if he would have to pay alimony after his newlywed bride left him.

One happy moment came when Annie got a phone call at work. I was standing just a foot or two from her when she answered the phone. I was the first to know that her doctor had just informed her she was pregnant.

Straka can be reached at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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