JANESVILLE, WI—Eagle Cooling employee Brent Festge takes pride in the semi-skilled, blue-collar job he loathes, the 39-year-old solderer reported during his lunch break Tuesday.
"I'm real proud to be doing something you don't see in America much anymore: spot welding. I work for one of the biggest union-run AC parts shops anywhere," said Festge, and beat the side of the breakroom vending machine to dislodge a bag of Corn Nuts. "It's honest work, and I can go home every night knowing that management can't just replace me with a machine, or a Mexican."
"Goddamn it!" Festge said, shaking the unyielding vending machine. "Every single goddamn day..."
For eight years, Festge has worked at Eagle Cooling, which produces air-conditioner parts for Daimler Chrysler and employs 460 full-time workers. A member of United Auto Workers Local #568, Festge makes nearly $40,000 a year, receives medical and dental benefits, and qualifies for a retirement pension after 20 years with the company. However, as he goes about the numbingly repetitive work of soldering frames to air-conditioner filters, Festge must struggle to keep these advantages in mind.
"This kind of work is challenging," Festge said. "I have to stay on my toes. Sloppy joins will get you in hot water with the foreman. Actually, I could do this in my sleep, so what the hell am I worrying about?"
Festge has been soldering frames onto air-conditioner filters for five years. Before that, he soldered casings on blower motors.
"At least my job is staying put here on American soil, where it belongs," Festge said. "I'm overqualified for it, because I'm certified in welding as well as soldering. But at the time I was hired, soldering on the frame line was all that was available. Well, it's still all that's available."
As he filled out a lengthy compensation form for the 75 cents he lost in the vending machine, Festge condemned the declining work ethic and lack of American pride among the people of his generation.
"If folks want to look down their noses at me, that's their prerogative," Festge said. "Skilled industrial labor made this country, and if you don't want to do it, there'll always be a Korean who's more than glad to step in. Just don't complain when the only jobs out there are at McDonald's or cleaning toilets."
In spite of the pride he takes in soldering frames, Festge complains of high union dues, poor break-room ventilation, near-deafening shop-floor noise, a 15 percent increase in his co-pay on prescription drugs, frequent toilet-paper shortages in the men's bathroom, and the acrid factory smell that never washes out of his clothes. He also said that Local #568 president Marsh Delahanty is deliberately under-reporting the strike-fund balance and pocketing the difference.
Another source of irritation Festge cited was his foreman, Frank Modesto.
"Last week, we had this big order to fill, but Frank forced us to take our three mandatory 15-minute breaks," Festge said. "Then, when he found out we were behind our quota, he chewed us out. What a bastard. And to think I thought things would be better around here after Frank made foreman. He was a super guy back when he was working on the line."
In spite of Festge's frustration with many aspects of his job, his relationship with Eagle Cooling is almost certainly long-term. His pride, as well as his recent purchase of a 2004 Dodge Dakota financed with a six-year loan, virtually guarantee his continued submissive compliance.
"I know there are more interesting, higher-paying careers, but we can't always do what we like, now, can we?" Festge said. "Nor should we. There's too much selfishness out there. People should work hard and shut up. That's how the world works. I'm the real deal. And at the end of a long, horrible day of backbreaking manual labor, that makes me feel pretty good."
Festge added that after punching out on Friday, he plans to get shitfaced.