Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line eBook õ

10 thoughts on “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line

  1. Dr. Detroit Dr. Detroit says:

    I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Rivethead is still in print. The bad news is that its author, Ben Hamper, apparently isn't. As far as I know, this is the last (only?) work of his to be published. Having read Rivethead no less than 10-15 times, I can say that nothing I have ever read can touch it. Hamper's tales of his and his ne'er-do-well, misfit co-workers' escpades, set in the shadowy nether world of a General Motors assembly plant, are hilarious, sad, frightening, and fascinating. Ben, if you're out there somewhere, give us a sign. I'd consider it an honor if you'd autograph my Angry Samoans album.

  2. Bookish Jen Bookish Jen says:

    You’re at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re white collar, blue collar, pink collar or no collar at all. Now imagine a grown man walking around your workspace wearing a cat costume. The name of this creature just happens to be Howie Makem (How We Make’em, get it?). Are you imagining this? Are you shaking your head and thinking, “What the hell?”

    Well, former GM factory worker and writer Ben Hamper doesn’t have to imagine Howie Makem; he experienced him. And he writes all about it (and other assorted hijinks) in his hilarious and yes, thought-provoking memoir, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.”

    Hamper grew up in Flint, Michigan and worked on the assembly line at the local GM plant. Working at GM was in Hamper’s blood. He was a third generation GM “shoprat.” His grandparents, various aunts and uncles, and his own father worked for GM. A tour of the GM factory where his father worked (when he wasn’t drinking and womanizing) made a young Ben Hamper want to avoid the factory as much as possible. Hamper wanted to be an ambulance driver and later a disc jockey, but with a less than stellar educational record and a family to support, Hamper reluctantly applied at the Flint GM plant where he ended up squeezing rivets (hence the name of the book).

    At GM Hamper had a job, not a career. It was a place to earn a paycheck, a paycheck Hamper fully reveals he often used to pay for nights at his favorite bar and punk records. The assembly line was hot, repetitive, stifling, noisy, greasy and often mind-numbingly boring. To break up the monotony of their shifts, Hamper and his co-workers came up with all kinds of shenanigans—racing to the drinking fountains, feeding the factory mice Cheetos, skeet shooting Milk Duds. Hamper and his co-workers also indulged in an activity called “double-up.” To double-up, one worker would do two jobs at once while the other worker would do something else. During double-ups, Hamper would read, hole up at a bar, and often he would write.

    Hamper would be the first to admit he and his co-workers didn’t always have the most amazing work ethic and he also knew he was making some great money for his so-called unskilled labor. Yet, there were hard times. Hamper dealt with several layoffs and the possibility of factory closings. And when actually at work, Hamper saw his co-workers do everything from overdosing and barfing their guts out to torching an innocent mouse.

    To encourage workers, GM management tried inspire them through an electronic message board, which flashed such erudite quotes such as, “A Winner Never Quits & a Quitter Never Wins,” “Safety is Safe” and Hamper’s personal favorite “Squeezing Rivets is Fun!” But to really get the workers juices flowing, it took a factory floor roaming life-sized cat to make the best quality vehicles on the planet—Howie Makem. Of Howie Makem Hamper writes:

    “Howie Makem stood five feet nine. He had light brown fur, long synthetic whiskers and a head the size of a Datsun. He wore a long red cape emblazoned with the letter Q for Quality. A very magical cat, Howie walked everywhere on his hind paws. Cruelly, Howie was not entrusted with a dick.

    Howie would make the rounds poking his floppy whiskers in and out of each department. A “Howie sighting” was always cause for great fanfare. The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by. Howie Makem may have begun as just another Company ploy to prod the tired legions, but most of us ran with the joke and soon Howie evolved into a crazy phenomenon.”

    Hmm, Howie Makem sure beats Successories.

    To cope with his job (and Howie Makem), Hamper turned to writing, which had been a passion of his since he was a teenager. An unsolicited record review to a local alternative newspaper named the Flint Voice introduced Hamper to Michael Moore (yes, THAT Michael Moore). Moore likes Hamper’s writing style, and encouraged him to write about working for GM, which steered Hamper to writing his own column. Hamper’s column became one of the paper’s most popular reads.

    Soon Moore got a job as editor of the notable Mother Jones magazine. He figured Hamper would be the perfect addition, and Moore’s inaugural issue of Mother Jones’ cover story was on Hamper. Hamper thusly became a minor celebrity. He was featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. Being an unpretentious guy, Hamper is humored by the idea of celebrity. But before he could become the Hunter S Thompson of the lunch pail crowd, Hamper had to deal with some more serious issues with both his health and his tenure with GM.

    All of this led to Hamper writing Rivethead, probably one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I have never worked on an assembly line, but I totally related to Hamper’s tales of workday tedium, silly management decisions, threats of layoffs and restructuring, and oddball co-workers. And I’ve worked in fields that would be considered “creative” where stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen.

    Hamper writes in way that is fearless and funny. He gives it to you straight, with no chaser, and dares you to drink it all in and stifle your laughter. Sure, Hamper acted like a goofball, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are reading this review while at work. Yet despite all the shenanigans Hamper describes, I don’t doubt for a moment that he also toiled very hard at a gritty, thankless job that probably wasn’t always appreciated.

    Though Rivethead was released over twenty years ago, it is a book that is both timeless and timely, and one I think should be required reading. Sure, we can read memoirs and biographies of industry titans like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But perhaps it’s time to give a working class (anti) hero like Ben Hamper the attention he, and so many other faceless blue collar Joes and Josephines, deserve.

    Originally Published at the Book Self:

  3. Don Don says:

    I read Rivethead from the perspective of someone for who lived through the time period this book was written in. Very little of this touches my direct experience except vicariously though the stories of people I've known who have lived a version of the life described herein. I mention this because, as in my reading of Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, I do have a slightly stronger connection than someone reading this to get off on Rust Belt Chic ruin porn hipsterism.

    Those sorts would paint Hamper as a working class revolutionary, an embedded journalist exposing the truth of life at the bottom of the American auto industry in Flint, MI in the late '80s and early '90s. Certainly, the book's blurbs lead you to that line of thinking. But Hamper's and his cohorts' enemies weren't really General Motors, its then-Chairman and CEO Robert Smith, or even the shop foremen of the Truck and Bus plant. Hamper writes, Our only adversary was Father Time, that is, the interminably slow second hand of the clock, plodding toward the end of your shift, during which your only choices are to either occupy your mind with plots to sneak out of the plant, inventing workplace-unsafe and semi-violent games like Rivet Hockey and Dumpster Ball, or numbing your mind with chemicals. Anything to escape the tedium of the unskilled labor for which men like Hamper were programmed. Hamper doesn't (intentionally) expose a corporation's secret agenda; he's writing about what he's living, with skills he gleaned from Catholic high school education, reading and writing poetry, listening to Mothers of Invention albums, and taking LSD. The result is prose that simultaneously delights even as it shames you for thinking, This, from a shoprat?

    Hamper is very much a product of his time and place, a Boomer writer using WWII and Viet Nam War references to talk about the Midwest cultural clashes surrounding him: Salaried employees vs. hourly employees. Foremen vs. the shoprats. Fathers vs. sons. Mars vs. Venus. Art rock vs. Classic rock. Living and writing within his comfort zone vs. the life he could've had, and actually sampled through his association with filmmaker Michael Moore. (The book is worth the price of admission just to read an account of Moore outside of Moore's narrative.) Thing is, you wouldn't think a book of pieces written in the late '80s/early '90s would be as even-handed as it is about the US auto industry's competition with Japan, and so you learn things like about how GM didn't just try to instill a fear of Toyota in its workers, but of Ford, as well.

    Consequently, being a product of his time and place, the writing shows Hamper's exposure to the background radiation of racism, classism, misogyny, body-shaming, slut-shaming, homophobia, and ableism you'd expect from someone who grew up the Midwest in the '60s and '70s. (One plus: the use of the word tranny in the book only ever refers to an automobile's transmission.) I have no reason to believe Hamper would espouse or display the above; I doubt he would in this day and age where he continues to do the occassional reading. But neither does Hamper try to disabuse you of the notion that some of his family and coworkers might.

    Hamper is often referred to as Flint's answer to Cleveland's Harvey Pekar. Hamper's output and subject matter certainly bear a resemblance, from life on the job right down to the unique cast of secondary characters from the line. Neither men particularly want your praise or your pity. But even Pekar's observations occasionally had bright, if rare, moments of optimism. Harvey wanted to show profundity hidden in the quotidian. Hamper, on the other hand, shows you absurdity hidden in the drudgery.

    In the end, Rivethead is the story of a man embracing his destiny, for better AND for worse, and ending in a place you don't expect but by which you shouldn't be especially shocked.

    The truth was loose: I was the son of a son of a bitch, an ancestral prodigy born to clobber my way through loathsome dungheaps of idiot labor. My genes were cocked and loaded. I was a meteor, a gunslinger, a switchblade boomerang hurled from the pecker dribblets of my forefathers' untainted jalopy seed. I was Al Kaline peggin’ home a beebee from the right field corner. I was Picasso applyin’ the final masterstroke to his frenzied Guernica. I was Wilson Pickett stompin’ up the stairway of the Midnight Hour. I was one blazin’ tomahawk of m-fuggin’ eel snot. Graceful and indomitable. Methodical and brain-dead. The quintessential shoprat. The Rivethead.

  4. Fred Forbes Fred Forbes says:

    To get through college I worked in a New England factory that manufactured miniature precision ball bearings. When I applied I was told We tend to not have much luck with college students so don't expect you will last long, but we are desperate for help. So, I was proud of the fact that I made it through 3 and a half years until graduation, moving from metal grinding machine operator to set-up machinist to quality control technician and tough as it got at times, I would not trade the experience. It is a different world but I found a lot of commonalities among my co-workers and found some very bright people among them who would have done well in other professions had they been able to pursue training/education but could not due to costs or would not due to lack of interest in formal education. Surprising how well some were able to educate themselves through a lot of outside reading.

    Some years later, working Chicago as a territory for a consumer electronics firm, I was introduced to the articles of a blue collar writer named Michael Lavelle who wrote a column for the Tribune and provided some interesting insight of the world of the common laborer. He passed in '96 at age 64 but I remember his writings fondly so when I came across mention of Rivethead, I knew I had to give it a try.

    This book is made more interesting due to his relationship to Michael Moore and his publications. Michael later went on to film some rather interesting documentaries regarding General Motors, the U.S. healthcare system, etc. For a time he was the editor of Mother Jones and brought this writer along to promote him to the big leagues relative to the small Flint Michigan market.

    While I am not a big fan of vernacular profanity, as used here it is at least realistic, the real world being what it is. I can identify with his preference for the night shift as mine was the second shift, 3-11 and we always enjoyed it when the executives and supervisors headed for the door at 5.

    Fortunately, most of the tasks I faced were not as tedious as those he portrays but still some interesting observations in the games people play and the inanity of the management mind. Read it for some insight, or if you have been there, for the remembrance. Or if you are still there, for the possibilities.

  5. Jo Jo says:

    This autobiography covers the career of a shoprat working at GM. It covers his reluctance to work at GM, through to his reluctance to leave. I will be honest and say I read the book from cover to cover in a matter of days. I was certainly interested in where Ben's life may lead him. I'll give the book 4 stars simply because it kept my interest and created a very strong emotional reaction.

    Although a major fan of sarcasm, I actually found the book to be quite sad and I was concerned for Ben's mental condition pretty early in the book. The book brought about a lot of debate between me and my husband. His grandfather was a shoprat at GM before he had retired in 1986. He said he could see where monotony could lead to a great deal of frustration and possibly into alcohol abuse.

    I came from a family who farmed and drug-abuse/alcoholism was a very quick way to get fired or lose an arm to a PTO. I was sickened by the thought of my mothers 1985 GM pick-up being made by this bunch of miscreants, alcoholics, and drug-addled employees. Ben often complains (as his buddy Mike Moore did) about Roger Smith moving operations out of the Flint plant to one that is more robotic. Well, robots don't get drunk at lunch, work 1/2 days (while sitting at home on the clock for the remainder of their shift), and certainly don't kick rivets at co-workers for sh*ts and giggles. His inability to see that he was part of the problem for plant closure was astounding to me.

    I suppose I would recommend the read to others to get a view of manufacturing from the worker's perspective....but I don't think I would recommend as a riot or a rollercoaster ride of sarcasm. I would actually recommend with a warning that you will have an eye-opening read about negativity and years of pent-up anger.

    The book is still relevant. With the recent economic downturn the lay-offs will hit home. (I, too, have felt that anguish). And with the recent debacle with the drinking during lunch breaks at Chrysler, this book would indicate that drinking at lunch is a very common practice for some employees...maybe a bigger problem than originally thought.

    If you were a fan of Michael Moore's Roger & Me, this would be a good companion read to the movie. But, as you can probably tell, I was not a fan of Mr. Moore's movie, either.

  6. Lisa Dunckley Lisa Dunckley says:


    This book was recommended to me, and got fairly good Amazon reviews, and I can't see why. The author's writing is sooo self-congratulatory—the book is a mix of Ben Hamper describing all the ways in which he got out of doing any work while still getting paid, and remarks and vignettes that Ben clearly thinks are incredibly funny. I would have enjoyed it more if there was more information about the assembly line work, the way the plant operated, maybe stuff about the cars that they were building. Instead, it's repeated stories about how he figured out how to trick his bosses into thinking he was working, or how he would work 2 hours and then fake it for the rest of the day.

    The writing wasn't good, the humor wasn't funny, and telling me over and over again how great you are tends to make me think the opposite. It reads like something that maybe your buddy's alcoholic father wrote and self-published. I feel like I wasted my money :(

  7. Espen Espen says:

    Ben Hamper worked on the production line of the General Motors bus and truck plant in Flint, Michigan from 1977 to 1988, and wrote about the experience in this book. It is a rambling and often funny account of mind-numbingly dull work, schemes employed by the workers to make it less dull, and the equally inane managerial schemes to, well, manage. Witness Howie Makem, the Quality Cat mascot, an actor in a cat costume showing up at various intervals to get the workers to produce higher-quality vehicles.

    The books should be required reading for business school students (and is in some courses) showing the sometimes vast difference between the managerial and worker view of the world. Hamper ridicules the ways of top management, while at the same time showing how, with relatively little effort (such as, when the factory in-house magazine reports that a country music singer was going to buy one of their cars, Hamper wants to know which car it would be and realizing that that was the first time he ever heard anything about who the customer was). In the end, the dull and hard work: Hamper develops anxiety attacks and eventually drops out from the assembly line. You kind of suspect it is from under-use of his brain - he likens it to forever dropping out of high school, staying in suspended animation in a never-ending adolescence, seeking relief in alcohol and mindless games.

    Highly recommended because it offers a different view of things, sorely needed as something of a counterweight to all the starry-eyed management books out there. And it leaves you wondering, as Hamper does: If not the assembly line, what else can a middle-aged autoworker with no marketable skills do? Hamper can write and do auto shows. Most of his colleagues, you suspect, cannot. Given the current state of General Motors (at present, bankruptcy seems inevitable within a year) this is a question of more than fleeting interest for a sizeable portion of the US workforce.

  8. Marc Marc says:

    A look into factory life from the perspective of an assembly line worker. Hamper wrote articles about factory life for Michael Moore's Flint Voice. The author effectively portrays the average worker as a cog in the machine of GM. Along the way, he tells stories of shoprats drinking on the job, devising ways to share work, and creating ways to battle the urge to watch the clock. The stories become somewhat redundant, but that could be unavoidable since he writes about life on the assembly line and cyclical unemployment.

    On one hand, one must sympathize with the factory worker who deals with the daily grind of a meaningless job that pays well and the lack of concern their employer shows for their safety and job satisfaction. Conversely, one could think that they are not trapped and have the free will and determination to alter their paths rather than using their energy to find more creative shortcuts and ways to drink unnoticed on the job.

  9. Ocean Ocean says:

    this guy is a super unlikeable character, and i can't imagine how annoying he must have been to work with. however, his observations can be pretty sharp and funny and this book is a real page-turner. occasionally, he will come up with a great one-liner (when they heard of the layoffs coming, the whole factory turned into one giant tremble-fest). and i laughed aloud when he told the television reporter who wanted to film him on the assembly line that he was more likely to get private footage of the pope taking a dump. ha!

  10. Joseph Joseph says:

    I remember reading this book for a college class at CMU it gave me a bit of the picture that my dad has seen everyday since 1975 (dad's been a blue collar GM employee way to long). I brought it home and both of my parents read it. My Mom gave Dad steak dinners for a week. He was one of the guys that went straight home after work and didn't blow his check in the bars on Dort Hwy. My dad's only comment after he read it was yep its pretty much just like that

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