Workin’ at the Heinz Plant

August 7th, 2011 by nick

It was 1966 in Iowa City. Susan and I had just gotten married and our first child was on the way. We were flat broke. Victor said he knew where I could get a job. He had worked there before, at the Heinz plant in Muscatine. It was tomato season, and anybody could get a job there. Victor and I worked there for two weeks, which made us some of their most reliable employees. Most guys didn’t last that long.

We worked 14 hour days on the assembly line, stacking boxes of ketchup onto palettes. The pay was $1.65 an hour, no extra for overtime. We slept in the barracks and ate in the company cafeteria. A charge for room and board was deducted from our pay. Ketchup and mustard were free though.

The barracks had a communal shower and a big room with bunk beds. The migrant workers in those days weren’t Mexicans. They were middle-aged white guys who followed the ripening of fruits and vegetables around the country, from Oregon to Iowa, what we used to call hobos. It was hard to get much sleep for the constant sound of coughing all night.

The compound was surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with barbed wire that pointed inward. After our shift, Victor and I would crawl under the fence at a hole we had found, crawl over a culvert across the creek, and hike into town. We only had time for one beer, but it was worth it. Then back under the fence and into bed. If everyone else was more or less asleep, sometimes we would go into the shower room and smoke a joint. The sound of giggling in the shower room and two guys coming out sometimes got us a few funny looks.

We had three guys on our box-stacking crew, me, Victor, and another guy. Victor had worked there before, and he had a system. By working together and stacking the boxes in a certain pattern, it made it so much more efficient that we could do it with only two men. So we took turns wandering around the plant, stealing pickles, having a smoke.

Eventually the foreman noticed that we were doing the job with only two guys, so he came over and took our other guy away. Victor told me to just stop and let the boxes fall off the end of the line and smash on the floor. Pretty soon we had a pile of cardboard, ketchup, and broken glass at our feet. When the foreman came around again, Victor threw up his hands and said, “We just can’t handle it with only two guys.” We immediately got our third man returned to us, and life was good again.

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