What happens when an entire industry exploits its workers? Leave and find another job? Then have to wait months for their health insurance to kick in, lose whatever vacation time they have,,, and for what, to be exploited again? What are the welders, fitters and helpers supposed to do about it? When an entire industry exploits its workers, there is not much that can be done.
I feel that most of the welding (fabrication) shops in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana exploit their employees. Not all of the welding shops exploit their employes, but a lot of them do.
From 1986 – 1999 I worked in various fabrication shops in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. In 2003 I went back into the welding field, in January 2004 I left the welding field again, and hopefully will never go back.
During this article I am going to re-frame from listing company names. I fear that if I list a company name, I might get sued because the company is butt hurt that a former employee is speaking out. A lot of the welding companies tell their employees, “if you do not like it, leave.” In the 1980s and 1990s I did not have a way to speak out, but now I do. I feel that I have been out of the field long enough that I can finally speak out.
Why did I wait so long before posting this article? Maybe because I have taken a long time to come to grips with my life in the fabrication shops.
This article is based on my personal experiences in welding shops from 1986 – 1999, and in 2003 – 2004.
How do you abuse employees? You work that employee 12 hours a day, 7 days a weeks for months on end. When the employees’ children are grown, the employee can look back and regret how much time he/she missed out on with the children.
There were times when some of the people I worked with did not see their kids for weeks on end.
If you work in the heat exchanger field, it is not uncommon to work 50 hours one week and 70 hours the next week. That is working 10 hours a day. Working your scheduled shift gives you 4 days off a month. When you land on your scheduled weekend off, you are so tired you do not want to do anything.
If you are really, really lucky, and I mean “really lucky” you will not be working a rotating shift. Lets say you are working a rotating shift. On your weekend off, and you are coming off of nights, you could sleep 1/2 your Saturday away. This leaves you with only 1 1/2 days to spend with the family.
Working in the heat exchanger field sucks because of the overtime.
One place I worked at, we were scheduled 50 hours one week, 70 hours the next week. On top of that the plant manager would take in every little job he could find. Sometimes we worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day for 6 weeks. Take 1 or 2 days off, work anther month of 7 – 12s.
After you work in a hot welding shop 10 – 12 hours a day, who has the energy to go to a kids baseball game, or football game, or take the family camping,,, or do anything of meaningful value with the family?
The amount of overtime the employees are forced to work sucks, big time. I fully understand that some chemical plant needs its heat exchanger fixed, but there should be a balance between work and family life. Why does my family life have to be ruined so that a chemical plant and heat exchanger company can turn a profit?
When I was working in the heat exchanger field, there was an epidemic running rampant through the employees, and that was the disease of divorce. Women get lonely just like men do. The man sees his family for a couple of hours a day, the woman will start looking for affection from somewhere else.
One heat exchanger company I worked at in the southeast Texas / southwest Louisiana area, someone drew a picture on the bathroom wall. The picture was of a lady bet over getting it from behind. The guy behind her was shooting a load of cum on her back. Above the lady were these words “fuck me again, my husband works for <insert company name> he will not be home for hours.”
That is how it was. Every few weeks an employee would turn into a basket case because his wife was cheating on him. When you are rarely home, what do you expect?
One company I was working on the evening shift. An employee asked to leave for about an hour so he could watch his son play little league baseball. The supervisor told him no. The guy left anyway. When he came back about an hour later, the employee was fired. Would it have been “that” difficult to give the guy 1 hour to go watch his son in a baseball game?
Discrimination At Its Best
There was this one company I was trying to get on with. It was a rat hole fabrication shop company that did not even provide health insurance, no vacation, and no raises. If you did not like it, hit the door. I needed a job, so I took whatever came along.
During the interview process there was a question that seemed rather odd. I was asked if I had any small children at home. I said yes, but my wife does not work so she watches the kids. The interviewer told me the company does not like to hire single parents, as the management does not want employees taking off because of sick children.
The question and reason behind the question made me take a step backwards. What kind of trashy ass company does not hire single parents?
On top of the single parent issue, what kind of sorry ass company does not provide any kind of benefits?
That is what happens when you have people almost begging for a job, the companies get to bend the people over and screw them in the ass.
Anyway, I got the job, worked there around 18 months, then got called to go on another job.
Lack of Decent Benefits
After the oppressive overtime, the next issue was the lack of proper benefits. When I went to work in a heat exchanger shop in 1987, the only benefits the company offered was health insurance and vacation. No dental, no vision, no sick time, no comp time, no flexible work hours, no three day weekends, no retirement.
Around 1992 I landed in a pressure vessel shop in southeast Texas. The company offered a type of 401k, but the company did not contribute anything to the 401k. The 401k management lost money every year. There was no sick time, no real vacation, mandatory overtime, rotating shifts. Their idea of a raise was 25 cents, which barely covered changes in the price of gas. Every year I worked there I would be losing money, so I left. I work to improve my standard of living. If my standard of living starts going down, something has to give. But the rat ass company wanted its employees to slowly lower their standard of living through inflation.
Instead of offering quality benefits to attract quality workers, it seemed the pressure vessel, heat exchanger and structural steel companies offer as few benefits as they can.
One company I worked at, when they hired me I told them I was going to college at night. I was assured that I could leave by 4:30 – 5pm to make it to my college classes on time. The classes were 2 nights a week. After about a month of me leaving between 4:30 – 5, the weld shop supervisor fired me. That was the only job I have ever been fired from. We were working 10 – 12 hour shifts. We started to work at 6am, and worked to either 4pm or 6 pm. So it was not like I was taking off a lot of time. I am still bitter about the dumb ass weld shop supervisor firing me for trying to improve my earning ability.
The supervisor that fired me for my college schedule conflicting with the work schedule is a good example of the welding shop line of work. I feel that this goes back to the discrimination towards a single parent issue.
One of my biggest complaints (besides the overtime) has to be the absurd working conditions. There were times when a chemical plant would send a heat exchanger in for repair, and there was not a single Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS) included with the shipment.
The boss would almost run out of his office yelling to get the truck unloaded. Several times I asked what was on the exchanger bundle, and the boss would say something like, “dont worry about it, just unload the truck.”
That same supervisor died a few years ago from cancer.
A lot of the bundles we dealt with were strip and retube. This included removing the tube sheets, bumping the tubes out of the tube sheet, machining the gasket surface, then rebuilding the bundle with new tubes.
I do not know how many times I saw chemicals leaking from bundles, or spill out of plugged tubes.
Who knows how the dust and the welding fumes will affect your health in decades to come.
The dust from the grinding wheels gets into your nose so that your snot is black. If your snot is black, what will your lungs look like?
I can honestly say that just about everywhere I worked worker safety was important.
There were two places I worked were an employee was killed. If those two deaths could have been prevented, I am sure the companies would have taken every measure possible.
One job a turn table flipped and landed on top of an employee. The date was 8-9-1989 and it happened at 3:00am.
One job a 2:1 elliptical head fell on an employee. This happened on a Saturday and I just happened to have been off that day.
At the first of the article I asked what happens when an entire industry exploits its workers, what are the people supposed to do?
The answer is, you leave that line of work.
Companies complain they can not find qualified workers. If the companies treated workers like people, instead of machines, finding qualified people would not be an issue.
What do you call being on the job 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 – 8 weeks at a time, one or two days downtime, then repeat? Do you call that working, or is it one step above slave labor? What do you call it when your life is consumed by your job? No family time, no time for hobbies, no time for anything besides sleep and work?
Welding is good honest work. There is something about leaving at the end of the day, and seeing something you built. Working with your hands, fitting the body flanges, nozzles, supports, heads, pass plates,,, gave me a certain level of satisfaction.
If the fab shops paid more and provided 21st century benefits in align with living in a first world nation, I would still be building heat exchangers.