Campbell had been at Tenere for three years. He earned $13.50 an hour. He had a bad back, a shaved and scarred head, a tear duct that perpetually leaked after orbital
He lived 50 kilometres and 40 minutes away, provided he didn’t stop. The problem was, sometimes he did. Along the drive home there were a dozen gas stations and mini-marts selling beer, and Campbell said he couldn’t figure out why some days he would turn in. He’d tried everything he could think of to stop himself. Calling his daughters, calling his wife. Turning up the music and listening to Rod Stewart.
He’d been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he said. He’d spent 28 days at a treatment centre. He’d looked for jobs that would cut down on the commute. He’d faced a family intervention where the whole family read him letters, as he sat there feeling like what he called a “kindergartner.”
Sometimes, Campbell said, he almost thought he was through the worst — sober for weeks at a time — but then came Saturday, when he was supposed to work an eight-hour shift and instead clocked out after three hours, stopping on the way home and downing a 12-pack of beer before sundown. Then came Sunday, another 12 beers out on the lake. Now it was Monday, and Campbell said he was sure he’d be OK if he could just get home. There, his wife only allowed him to have non-alcoholic beers. But that was 50 kilometres away. “Just the uncertainty,” Campbell said, and he tried not to think about it, with the lunch break over and three hours and 40 minutes to go.
He stepped onto the floor pad in front of the press and got back to work. A box of flat metal pieces was to his left, a hopper of finished claws sat on his right, and Campbell’s hands moved in a rhythm, grabbing and inserting. “As long as I’ve got parts in front of me, I’m all right,” he said. Twenty minutes without looking up. Then 40. Then nearly 60. The gauge said 912.
“All right,” Campbell said, when there was an hour left to go, still pressing the buttons.
He hummed a song. He whistled. He fed 11 pieces of metal to the machine in a minute, and then 13, then nine. His eyes darted from left to right. He nodded his head.
The press’s clutch was hissing and exhaling, hissing and exhaling, and Campbell added a last pump of oil to the machine with 15 minutes to go. Out came a few more parts, and he fed them into the hopper, checked the gauge, and shrugged. “Not so bad,” he said.
Time to go home. He had punched the buttons another 1,376 times, 384 shy of his target, and now he got in the car.
Robot 2 had a different job from Robot 1. It was to be part of a team — the assembly line. The team worked along a 23-metre row of tables lined with workstations that were always at least a few workers shy, where employees snapped and riveted metal pieces, building silver, rectangular containers. Each container, by the time it reached the last assembly workstation, was outfitted with either 13 or 15 miniature drawer slots. It was the job of the third-to-last worker on the line to fill each with a claw. That would become the sole task of Robot 2, one that it started to test out after days of programming and setup.
The claws arrived at Robot 2’s station on a conveyor belt. From there, the robot made a one-metre motion of its own. Grabbing the claw with its gripper. Swiveling 90 degrees. Reaching its arm toward the container. And then, inserting the claw into one of the drawer slots with an intricate push: forward 80 millimetres, down five millimetres, forward another 20 millimetres, up eight millimetres, forward another 12.
“A delicate move,” Bush said.
One that Robot 2 would be able to make every seven seconds once it joined the line.
Days earlier, Annie Larson, the woman who would work alongside Robot 2, had been at home, the end of another shift, laid out in a recliner sipping a Mountain Dew mixed with what she described as the cheapest vodka she could find. There’d been six years at Tenere of days like these. Trying to unwind. Alone in her one-bedroom apartment. Bedtime at 9. Alarm at 5:40 a.m. Out the door at 6:20. Into her old Chevy. Ten kilometres up the street. Then into the Tenere parking lot, clocking in just before 7, the next day of trying to keep pace. Except this time, as a forklift came to a stop nearby, she saw four boxes being dropped off at the end of the line.
“What in the hell?” she thought.
Her line supervisor, Tom Johannsen, had told workers a few weeks earlier the robots were coming. But he hadn’t said when they would arrive, or what exactly they would do. He hadn’t described how they would look. He’d just said nobody was losing their jobs, and not to worry, and that Tenere was “supplementing some of the people we can’t find.”
Now, though, the boxes were being opened up, wires everywhere, and Larson started to worry. The machines looked too complicated. Maybe they’d break down. Maybe they couldn’t keep pace. Maybe they’d be just one more problem at the factory, and already, their boxes were getting in the way. Only six people were on the line, which meant Larson was leapfrogging from one workstation to the next, trying to do the work of two or three. She could feel everybody falling behind.
She nearly tripped over a floor mat that had buckled to make space for the robot. Larson turned to one of the robot engineers and said, “We have no room over here. It sucks.” When the end-of-the-shift buzzer sounded, the line had made 32 fewer containers than it was supposed to, and that night, Larson said, she had more drinks than her usual one or two.
But then came the next day: back again, on time. Always on time. Larson was one of the steadiest parts of an assembly team in which so many other workers had lasted for weeks or months. “My line,” Larson called it. Her supervisor called her “old school.” A manager called her “no nonsense.” Others moaned about the job during lunchtime breaks. Larson, wanting no part of that, pulled up a stool to the assembly line every day and ate by herself.
“If the job is that bad, go!” she said.
She was 48, and she had no plans to leave. Rural Wisconsin was tough, but so what; she couldn’t start over. Her roots were here. Her mother lived four blocks away. Her father lived six blocks away. Her son, daughter and grandchild were all within 25 kilometres. Larson couldn’t afford vacations or new clothing, but she paid every bill on time: $545 for rent, $33 for electric — every amount and due date programmed into her phone.
But it was the numbers at work that had been leaving her feeling more drained than usual lately. The team felt as if it was forever in catch-up mode. She and her co-workers were supposed to complete 2,250 containers per week. But with so many jobs unfilled, they missed the mark by 170 the week before the robots arrived. They were off 130 the week prior. The line got a pep talk from the supervisor, Johannsen, who said he could notice Larson in particular “getting frustrated.”
“Are there any claws in that box?” Larson said now, motioning across a table.
Another worker checked. “No.”
“Ugh,” Larson said, and she grabbed the empty box and darted down the line, ponytail bobbing. She returned 15 seconds later with an overflowing pile of claws. “Here,” she said, dropping the box on an assembly line table. She reached over to the pile of containers and began filling them. Fifteen claws. Then 30. Her shirt was darkened with sweat. Forty-five claws. Sixty.
“You’re power-hauling,” another worker said.
Her co-workers were always changing. For now, they were a Linda, another Linda, a Kevin, a Sarah, a Miah, a Valerie and a Matt. Valerie was a good worker, Larson said, and so was one of the Lindas. But a few of the others struggled to keep pace. Larson told them sometimes how they could be more efficient in their jobs. How they could line up rivets in parallel rows, for instance. But who was paying attention?
“There’s no caring,” Larson said. “No pride.”