I was a welding operator. I worked in a factory that produced parts for a major car brand, a tier 1 supplier for four of the most popular models. Until around 2008-2009, when the auto industry tanked, we were on mandatory 12 hour shifts, seven days per week. There were only two shifts at my plant, day and night, so the guy I took the welding cell over from at 7:00 AM was the guy who took it over from me at 7:00 PM. On Sundays, we got a “break”, being allowed to start an hour early so we had more of our evening to spend with our families.
I had a part time job, too. Between these two jobs, I squeezed more work into a week than most people I knew did in a month. Cuts and scrapes, smashed fingers, broken toes, ruptured discs, and biceps like boulders. I earned my paycheck. The physical and mental toll that this kind of working inflicted drove me to self-medication. With increasing ease, I became enraged by things. My knowledge of my machines came from endless hours of co-laboring. Yet, so often I was observed and adjusted by people wearing khakis and visitor’s hardhats who got to leave every day at 5:00 PM. What could they possibly tell me about this process that I didn’t already know? One time, a Ford plant in a nearby suburb closed down after negotiations between the union and management failed. We had an influx of previously-unionized auto workers who hadn’t a clue why they were responsible for maintaining their own machines AND operating them while being paid less than half of what they used to make. Most of them quit within a few months. Worse than any of this is that when I walked out the doors and entered the regular world at the end of the day, there were people out there who hadn’t lifted a finger and yet they got a place to live and food to eat and myriad benefits paid for by the sweat of my brow. Takers.
Fast-forward nearly a decade and, from a calmer perch, I can see so clearly how I was manipulated. My easy anger was stoked by polemics in the news and channeled toward straw men and foils. I became enemies with the “elites” in the front office. I became enemies with the union worker. I became enemies with the impoverished and oppressed. I became the victim of countless others. Ideas of supporting people or an environment that didn’t “pull their weight” were a conspiracy against me. Only now is it clear that it was me and the people I was pitted against who bore the harm of the economic catastrophe of that time. Only now are my eyes opened to the fact that it is the least powerful among us who bear the physical harms of the unsustainable empire we’ve built. Outrage is the smokescreen that allows the powerful to abscond with our future while we are stuck in a circle of finger-pointing.
After a gradual education and evolution over several years, I’ve inoculated myself against agitators. My anger is now persistence and determination. I’m a full-time college student with a full-time career in the commercial insurance industry. I own my home. I have a wife and a new son. I work hard. I can still make every personal responsibility argument in the book, but my conception of what I’m responsible for is vastly greater than before. I hope that you can idle the outrage engine for a while and be open to dialogue. Sustainability is not a conspiracy. You are not my enemy.