For Ben Hamper it was inevitable that he would end up working in the General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan. He was a third generation “shop-rat” following in the footsteps of his family and extended family. Working on the Rivet Line for General Motors was far from what Hamper wanted to do with his life. Unfortunately for Hamper this was the only job where he was receiving good pay and was able to drink throughout his day. Hamper faced many ups and downs being an American autoworker; the working conditions, labor-management relations and psychological problems to name a few.
It would eventually be the psychological issues that would lead Hamper away from General Motors and the auto industry. Hamper did not start out with a plan to work the Rivet Line as his career. He wanted to be an ambulance driver, but that later went away as he grew older. Hamper was a smart kid who would sometimes make the honor roll; though he complains that he had nothing better to do but homework. His father, Ben Hamper II was nothing but ordinary. Hamper II was married but rarely worked, and when he was not working he was at the closest bar he could find.
Hamper’s father was also a Rivet Line worker, just like his father before him and so on. It was a family affair to work in the auto industry. Hamper describes “Flint, Michigan. The Vehicle City. Greaseball Mecca. The birthplace of thud-rockers Grand Funk Railroad, game show geek Bob Eubanks and a hobby shop called General motors” (15), most likely having to do with the fact that within the surrounding areas of Flint were ten other auto industry shops. It was as if Hamper was born into the Rivet line. Prior to Hamper working at General Motors, he painted houses.
Right after graduating high school Hamper found out his girlfriend, Joanie, was pregnant and he married her. He soon got a job painting houses, but that was not making enough profit for his family. Joanie then got a job while Hamper stayed home and drank and used drugs with his neighbors, which is when his family began falling apart. Soon Hamper would find that getting a job was going to be difficult, because in the mid-1970s Flint, Michigan went into a recession. Hamper came to the conclusion that he would have no choice but to get a job at General Motors.
This was much more difficult than Hamper would have thought. Due to the recession, Hampers attempt at applying at GM was a long shot. They were not hiring and not handing out any applications. Fortunately for Hamper his friend got hired and was able to get him a job. Out of all the stations that Hamper would have wanted to end up working, his least favorite was the Cab Shop, where General Motors management stationed him.
The job came easy for Hamper, perhaps because of its repetition it required. Hamper states that “Every minute, every hour, every truck and every movement was a plodding replica of one that had gone before” (41).
It was a job of repetition and monotony, which was eventually going to drive him crazy. The psychological costs that Hamper received due to working in the auto factories were foreseeable. The countless repetition, and the boring days were going to drive him crazy.
Drinking was one way to cope with the tedious work day. Hamper relies on his coworkers for practical jokes and banter. Though some workers were unable to take the constant repetition, was Roy. Roy was a Rivet line worker just like Hamper, but he was using drugs. Perhaps it was the drugs that caused him to capture a mouse and send it through the rivet line.
Hamper knew that it was the working conditions that sent many men over the edge. They would make up games like “Rivet hockey” or played cards to pass the time. But Hamper found other ways to pass his free time at the factory, he wrote. He wrote poems, articles and manuscripts, even the book called “Rivethead” while at General Motors. The effects the economy had on these workers was rough at first, but then Hamper speaks about the factory coming back onto its feet, “summer and fall of 1977, the truck plant was hummin’ six days a week, nine hours per shift” (44).
People were spending money again and buying automobiles. Hamper and his work partner developed a scheme they called “doubling up”. This was a way for Hamper and his partner to take longer breaks and do less work throughout the day. Things were looking up for the factory and its workers, until management claimed there was going to be a change in the way things were done. Hamper would have to put in more work, which then lead to another recession hitting, and to people getting laid off. This set the General Motor factory back into a downward spiral. There was an
announcement, given by Roger Smith, stating that many of the General Motors factories would be closing down. Hamper describes it as “My beleaguered hometown was like some banged-up middleweight resting its rump on the ropes, covering up its soft belly, hoping to only last out the round” (68). The town of Flint was facing yet another recession, and in the process of becoming the poorest town in Michigan. For Hamper, it was either stay in Flint where there were no jobs, or relocate to Pontiac, Michigan and commute for work. Prior to transferring to Pontiac, he would be laid off for about nine months.
Hamper collected unemployment and quickly found that he was getting more money by collecting rather than working. Finally the time came for him to commute to Pontiac. Hamper finishes working in Pontiac and moves back to working for General Motors in Flint. Where more layoff were occurring and at times he was unemployed for a year. While living in Flint, Hamper writes to Michael Moore, who is a man responsible for the liberal rag called the Flint Voice. Moore was pleased with Hampers writings and called him, set up a meeting and offered Hamper an unpaid job of writing feature articles.
He accepted and this was the start of Hamper and Moore’s friendship. Soon their relationship would turn into much bigger things for Hamper. His column was being read and becoming popular, even by the wall Street Journal. This seemed to be a turning point for Hamper, but his panic attacks started happening once he transferred to Pontiac. During the spring of 1988, Hampers panic attacks would get the best of him and it was the last time he would leave the auto factory. Ben Hamper was a third generation General Motors factory worker.
It was far from what he wanted to do with his life growing up. Working in the auto factories for Hamper was like it was in his blood. He picked up the job quickly and soon found ways around it. For the working class man like Hamper and his many coworkers at the General Motors plant, was hard. Many workers had jobs, and then would get laid off and so on. They faced low pay for the amount of work they needed to put in, while at times other had to commute two hours for work. The psychological problems that occurred to the workers were mostly mental and alcoholism.
Hamper being falling victim to both, knew that it was time for him to get out of the industry and move onto something he loved. He was a writer, and became notably famous for it. Perhaps it was Michael Moore who first gave Hamper his debut into the writing world, but it worked for Hamper. Hamper is a very well accomplished man for being raised by a mother who worked two jobs and a father who was almost always absent. Hamper knew that he would be more than a “shop-rat” like his father and grandfather. He has made a name for himself, and that is what he should be proud of.