Ghosts of Eldon Avenue

Before being torn down, they painted over the name and gave the front wall a new coat of paint. Not unlike being buried in your best suit in hopes of absolution.

 As far back as I can remember I have been a little different. I was either the last one to “get” the joke or I was the first one (sometimes the only one). Somehow I was always a “half click” out of sync with the norm.

During my teen years this gave me a mild feeling of being an outsider. Later in my life, the “half click” became an advantage. Not only did I see things differently, but I saw thinks others sometimes didn’t.

While going through college I worked in the auto plants of Detroit during the summer. The work was tough but I could work all the hours I needed and the pay was better than your average intern “gig”. As it turned out, it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

Walking into Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle for the first time was like being led by Virgil through the circles of hell. The plant smelled of grease cake and the blue haze of welding smoke obscured my vision. Fire belched from furnaces and oil covered the floor. Somewhere off in the distance I swear I could hear Cerberus howling.

The first thing that struck me was the “vacant” nature of the workers. They were there, but then again, they weren’t. Their eyes looked like dark sockets, void of light; void of any reflection of the world around them. I wondered how people got like this.

I routinely worked 12 hours a day Monday through Friday, 10 hours on Saturday and 8 hours on Sunday, 78 hours a week. Since I was on the low end of the seniority list, I worked 89 days straight without a day off. This was tolerable because I knew that at the end of the summer I would be back in school. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. My co-workers didn’t have that luxury. Like Dante’s inferno this was their eternity.

Most of the time, I worked on the axle assembly lines. Decades later I still wake up in the middle of the night mimicking those motions; pull the left side brake cable, wrap it around the differential, pound the right side brake shut, slide the right side drum on and secure it with jam nuts, then repeat – 216 times an hour; 2,592 time a day.

While this was mind numbing, brutal work, it was about to get surreal. About one weekend a month a couple of my “low seniority” cohorts and I would be assigned to work the “Repair and Reclamation” area. This is where all the rejected axle assemblies were stockpiled. Thinking back over the numbers, the inline rejection rate was slightly higher than 25%.

During our R&R effort we noticed that well over half the rejections were the result of missing differential hex nuts. This was considered a scrap condition because if the nuts weren’t in place when they were machine tightened it would force the gasket and sealant out of place.

Missing hex nuts were caused when a worker at one of the tougher work stations fell behind and didn’t have the time to thread all the nuts. An easy solution was to position a box of hex nuts at the next work station and if a worker saw a missing nut they could thread one on. Three of my more dewy-eyed coworkers and I suggested this to the foreman where the idea was immediately dismissed (in terms my young ears had not heard before). We then decided to “just do it” (after all, how bright could a foreman nicknamed “Toad” be? We envisioned accolades for our insight; maybe even a raise.  A couple of hours later an inspector came sauntering up the line to see why there were no missing hex nuts.

While I was pleased that we had made an impact, I sensed (“half click”) that Cerberus was about to howl again. Within minutes we had several foremen, a gang of engineers and a half dozen union representatives descending on the line (which was now stopped).  I wasn’t sure if we were going to get fired by management or shot by the union. We were no longer thinking about raises. Working as an intern was looking better all the time.

In the midst of this heated discussion I was yanked aside by an irate engineer who shouted, “Kid you may think you are something special but you’re not. You aren’t paid to think, you are paid to do what you’re told.” After the yelling, gnashing of teeth and finger pointing (various fingers) had subsided, the hex nuts were removed from my workstation and we were back running a comfortable 25%+ reject rate. My value to the organization was returned to that of a “beast of burden” and balance had been restored to this dark universe.

For the remaining three weeks that summer, I kept my mouth shut and cashed my checks. The last week before returning to school, I was washing up at the end of shift when I looked up into the restroom mirror. Looking back at me were the dead eyes I had seen my first day at Eldon.

The vertical corpses I worked with hadn’t come to Eldon Avenue with those eyes, they were created by a management that believed intelligence and creativity only existed in the front office.

Management hadn’t learned that with each worker comes a brain. Intelligence and creativity aren’t a result of education; they are a result of an engagement with your work, an ownership in the process. The unions hadn’t learned that every new idea doesn’t result in a layoff. Neither the management nor union understood the value of the sacred relationship between a worker and his work.

Today, more than ever, we need the labor and minds of all our workers. Our people are the only thing that makes us unique in a world of “me too” innovation.

During my time with Eldon, I learned what true waste is. Not the 7 wastes we’ve learned about from lean principles, but the waste of a human mind. No one comes to work to see their talent wasted. When that is all that is left, workers will define their value in other terms. If you bargain only for their physical efforts, you are negotiating for a commodity. When you take satisfaction and ownership of effort away from the employee the value proposition now becomes “more money – less work”; the exact opposite of what we are looking for.  Don’t blame the worker; they are just playing by management rules.

At the time I worked there, Eldon had about 2,000 employees, occupied 48 acres and had a manufacturing foot print of 1.2 million feet. It was a behemoth. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not pro union. However, I do believe that unions exist as a result of poor management.

In 2012 Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle (later renamed Detroit Axle) was torn down. A fence went up around the property. The machinery was quietly removed and the building was leveled. The old girl had lived almost 100 years (built in 1917). While she is gone, her lessons live on. But only for those that are a little “different”.

Barry Stuart

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