Thursday, July 16, 2015


High ceilings and small windows with bars way up at the top of gray walls, stale air, ear-piercing din: a vast warehouse resembling a prison where you find yourself at nineteen.  Short and slim, you look more like twelve.  Everything about the situation frightens you.  You’ve never been inside a factory before in your life.  Only a few months before you were attending the university, studying philosophy and literature.  You were going to be a journalist.  You were going to write stories about the downtrodden, the exploited, exposing the abuses of power, and calling for justice and equality.  Suddenly you’re a factory worker.  Because you’re young and speak English, you get a job before your parents do.  You’re a wiring technician at Western Electric's Clearing Plant in the Southwest Side of Chicago.  What are you doing here? you ask yourself.  You of the poetry books and collages.   You of the political demonstrations.  You of the French movies followed by long discussions in cafes.    This is not what you were promised before leaving Buenos Aires. 

The training session on the first day is short: the grumpy supervisor shows you a “gun” and points to an open spot on a long counter where more than ten young women are sitting already, working on wooden boards – panels that will eventually become the insides of telephones. 

“Insert this wire into the barrel.  See?  Like this,” the supervisor’s hand - big and chubby, holds the tool easily.  She tells you to grip it just so and shoot it around a metal screw on the panel.  The wire coils so rapidly you’re startled.  The supervisor snickers. 

“Now you do it,” she hands you the gun.  Your hand – small and weak – struggles to keep it firmly enough to discharge around the right screw without hurting yourself or anyone else.

You hesitate.  “C’mon on. You can do it,” she’s growing impatient.  You follow her instructions.      

“Like this?” you ask after trying the first one, your hand shaking.

Yes,” the supervisor replies in her husky voice, stares at you with a puzzled look, then moves on to the next new worker.  But, before leaving, she reminds you of the daily quota of boards: so many panels an hour have to be finished if you want to keep the job. 

You look to your right, to your left.  Women, mostly young, their heads bent over their small portion of the long counter where they wire coils silently, swiftly, focused on quality, but mostly, on quantity.  After a few seconds, you too bow your head to the work in front of you: wires, guns, screws, panels, the chair hard, the sounds disquieting.  Will you be able to do this eight hours a day, five days a week?  You struggle to insert the wire correctly, shoot the gun accurately, prove yourself a worthy wiring technician. 

Western Electric was established as the Hawthorne Works, in Cicero, Illinois, in 1905 by founder Enos Barton.  A large factory complex, it had 45,000 employees at the height of its operations. Besides telephone equipment, the factory produced a wide variety of consumer products, including refrigerators and electric fans. The rural Hawthorne plant became a virtually self-sufficient city, with a power plant, hospital, fire brigade, laundry, greenhouse, a brass band, and an annual beauty pageant. It even boasted a staff of trained nurses who made house calls.  Thousands of immigrant workers passed through its walls year after year, laboring long hours to provide their families a decent life.  

A subsidiary facility of Western Electric was opened later in the Clearing Industrial Park, on West 65th Street - within walking distance from your uncle’s house.  That’s where you’ve landed in the fall of 1970, completely against your better judgment.  But, of the three of you, you’re the one who finds a job first.  Somebody has to support the family.  To your parents’ dismay, signs proclaiming NO HELP NEEDED litter the fronts of factories, warehouses, and shops.  Before arriving in Chicago you were promised a virtual smorgasbord of jobs. 

The Hawthorne Works became famous in the early part of the 20th century as a leader in the “scientific management” of employees and the production process.  Researchers at the plant pioneered new technologies - the high-vacuum tube, the condenser microphone, and radio systems for airplanes. But after 1970, Western Electric started to slip, when the FCC ruled that customers could connect their own equipment to the telephone network.  These changes opened the door for independent manufacturers of telephone equipment and signaled the beginning of the end for Western Electric.

And that’s when you go to work there. 

In the lunchroom young black girls grill you with questions:
“Where are you from?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you have children?”
“How can I have children if I’m not married?” you reply annoyed.
They stare at you perplexed, puzzled by your wide-eyed confusion.  The dislocation you feel is as immense as the warehouse you find yourself in, a displacement so vast you’re not able to be who you are – or rather who you were before arriving to these shores.  Every day you beg your parents to let you go back home.  You write sad, frantic letters to all the friends you’ve left behind who reply with words of hope and patience.  Could you have stayed?  Did you have that choice?

From 1924 until 1933, the Hawthorne plant was the site of a series of experiments conducted under the auspices of the National Research Council. The initial studies involved the impact of changes in lighting levels on the productivity of several groups of workers. The most involved of the experiments, the relay assembly test room, involved isolating six women, then measuring their production, health, and social interactions in response to changes in working conditions, such as the number and duration of rest periods, length of the work day, and the amount of food they ate. 

Every morning, after breakfast, your aunt, who works there too, and you walk the ten blocks to the Clearing Industrial Plant. You cross the railroad tracks on 59th Street and keep south.  During your morning treks she likes to offer advice like warning you against Puerto Ricans who work at the plant. 

“I’m not afraid of them,” you say.

“That’s because you speak their language,” she replies and also warns you against black people.  

Stunned at her racist beliefs, you offer no counterargument.  You know the history of this country but you never thought your own family would be party to such bigotry.  Not a year ago you were marching in support of the Civil Rights Movement, appalled at the water hoses, dogs, and batons the police used to control the demonstrators. 

At the entrance to the factory, you each go your own way.  You have no idea what she does, but you know what you’re doing is tedious; the surroundings dull yet raucous.  Disconnected from your world, your adolescence interrupted, uprooted from familiar soil, you’re not able to grow and mature normally.  Immigration forces you to start again, to be a child in some way.  At least, that’s what you feel at this time: a child who has to work to support her family, dependent on others to make sense of this new world you’ve been thrown in,

The research of what came to be known as “The Hawthorne Effect” started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace, such as, brightness of lights and humidity; and later, moved into the psychological aspects, such as, breaks, group pressure, working hours, and managerial leadership.   The study was only expected to last one year, but because the researchers were set back each time they tried to relate the manipulated physical conditions to the worker's productivity, the project extended out to five years.

“You have to work faster, the supervisor cautions you. It’s been a week already but you’re nowhere close to achieving the quota expected of you.

“I’m trying.  It’s not easy, you reply in your small, mortified voice, your accent identifying you as a foreigner.  What else can you say?  That you hate the factory, the job, the country your parents have brought you to for some reason you still don’t quite understand? 

“If you stopped looking around and concentrated on your job, you’d work faster,” she retorts, her impatient voice sharp and loud.  She’s a stout woman, always dressed in dark colors – blue, brown, gray – hair upswept and no jewelry of any kind. 

The experimenters who collected and analyzed the data determined, at first, that there appeared to be a correlation between the intensity of the lights and the productivity, which increased as each improvement was introduced, until the crucial twelfth test.  In this test, researchers removed all the special conditions, yet output increased again.  Realizing that the light levels and other enhancements may not have had any impact on the hourly output, the experimenters conducted interviews with the participants to determine the likely cause of the increases. The interviews determined that the increases in production were not a result of changes to light intensity; instead, the workers worked harder because they noticed that they were being watched closely. Ultimately, because of the constant supervision and the process of being monitored actively, productivity increased. 

After two weeks, payday arrives. It’s Friday afternoon when your aunt and you leave the factory, walk home.  In one pocket you carry your first paycheck; in the other, a letter to your friend Elena.  On your way you spot a mailbox on the corner, take out the envelope from your right pocket and drop it in the blue box. 

You arrive home to great anticipation, can’t wait to show everyone your first paycheck.  Your parents, aunts, and uncles are gathered in the living room.  Even your two young cousins are thrilled.  
You pull out an envelope from your left pocket and hold it up.

“Oh my God! It’s the letter.”

“What happened?” your mother asks confused. “Is that your paycheck? It doesn’t look like a paycheck.”

You immediately realize that your check is in the mailbox in the corner.  When you’re finally able to communicate the calamity to the family, general chaos ensues.

“Go to the mailbox and wait for the mailman to pick up the mail,” your father recommends. 

“No, no,” exclaims your aunt Sophie, “go to the post office and wait for the mail to be brought back from the box. Then you can explain to the clerk what happened.”

“We’ll go to the office Monday and ask them for another check,” your aunt Maria suggests.

Your mother shakes her head, dumbfounded, unable to speak.  Finally, she says, “how could you? What’s the matter with you?”

After much discussion, Sophie’s advice seems the best idea.  You remain speechless. 

Maria and you walk to the post office where you try to explain your predicament to the suspicious clerk. Maria adds her comments, confirming you’re telling the truth. At first the postal worker looks at both of you unconvinced but after a few minutes of explanation and pleading, she realizes you’re telling the truth and starts to laugh.  You don’t find it funny at all but you force yourself to grin, showing goodwill and hoping for a quick resolution. 

“You have to wait for the mailman to bring the bag. He comes around 4:30.”

“That’s ok,” you nod and look at your aunt. 

When the mailman returns with the mailbag your heart starts to pound.  What if it isn’t in the bag?  What if someone took it?  What if it fell out of your pocket in the street?  Maria and the clerk rummage inside. 

You hold your breath.  Why is it taking so long? 

Your heart pounds.  After five interminable minutes the clerk pulls out an envelope.  “I think this is it,” she says.   You grab it and read your name through the window.   A very deep sigh of relief escapes from your mouth.  “Thank you, thank you,” you touch the clerk’s arm. 

On the way back home you wonder if that’s an omen of things to come in this new life in this new country.

The conclusions about worker productivity were in sharp contrast to the common perceptions of that time. Financial reward was found to be much less conducive to worker output than expected. Instead, greater yield resulted when management made workers feel valued and aware that their concerns were taken seriously.  The phrase "Hawthorne Effect" has come to mean any unexpected outcome from non-experimental variables in social or behavioral sciences.  

Before the end of the month you’re fired for lack of productivity and inability to focus on the work.  Perhaps too much attention doesn’t always lead to workers feeling valued and producing more.  It will be a while before you find another job – this time as a typist for Montgomery Ward’s catalog division.  Better suited to this kind of work, you’ll make friends, start taking art classes on Saturdays, go back to writing poems and stories, and, in this way, begin the process of finding yourself again, the one you left in Buenos Aires.  It will take you a long time to realize the unpredicted consequences – your “Hawthorne Effect” – of leaving home, of starting again, of adapting to a whole new world.  As a matter of fact, you think you’re still working on that. 

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