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In late October of 1973, when my probation was completed, I joined the United Steelworkers.

USA logo

I attended the next union meeting to be sworn in.  These monthly meetings were held in an Odd Fellows hall, in a large open room on the second floor that smelled of airless age.  High-ceiling echoes off creaky hardwood floors, and low long windows with glass so old and wavy it would make you sea-sick if you looked at it too long.  An array of flags at ease, while many framed proclamations adorned the wide pale walls.  Several solid desks with heavy wooden chairs at the front of the room faced row upon row of empty folding chairs.  The only people present were the officers – president, vice-president, financial secretary, treasurer, recording secretary, and committeemen – and several of us new employees.  No one else ever came to the union meetings except at contract time.  So I recited the oath, the other official business was quickly taken care of, then we adjourned.

To Al’s, an old-fashioned neighborhood bar across the street.  Smoky and loud, with a jukebox and pool table and a sizzling grill.  One small TV behind the bar, no paper coasters, and overflowing ashtrays scattered everywhere.  The important union business was discussed over beers (no crafty creative indie stuff, just whatever was on tap).  The union president at that time was Ollie B., a big balding bear of a man who could yell louder than most everybody else.  Our local was 7629.  There was a union rep from the southwest Ohio district office who helped us negotiate contracts.  He also advised us on our grievances.  A grievance is a written complaint filed by a union member against the company.  The union president and committeemen attended monthly meetings in the company’s office to discuss them with the management people involved with the disputes.  If the problem couldn’t be resolved, then it went to arbitration.  But that rarely happened.  It was expensive, and you never knew how the judge was going to decide.  So most grievances were settled amicably at these meetings.

This was a new local.  It had only been in existence for 3 years prior to my employment.  The shop had tried to organize in 1969, but the company had threatened and cajoled everyone so much it was voted down.  The following year the Steelworker organizers tried again, and union was voted in.  The company refused to negotiate, so a strike was on.  Some of the employees crossed the picket line and continued working.  But not many.  After 3 months the company gave in and recognized the union, and a contract was quickly negotiated.  The scabs (what they are called) who had continued working were so badly ostracized by everyone else they all quit.  Ostracized was probably the least of it.  I wasn’t here at the time, but I heard some good stories.  Acid splashed on cars, tires slashed, you know, the usual stuff that happens to scabs in a union shop.  It was a 3 year contract, so it came up for renewal  in February of 1973.  Which resulted in another strike.  This one lasted 2 months.  And there were no scabs this time.  The new contract was signed in April, and I was hired in July.

So now I could start paying union dues.  I paid them gladly.  I had worked at a non-union shop for 3 years, and appreciated that the work environment here was much better.  There were rules the company had to go by, the language of the contract, so nothing was arbitrary.  Much is made lately about ‘workplace freedom’ laws.  What a joke.  The freedom they are proclaiming is the freedom of companies to break unions.  I can’t imagine what kind of work environment it would be if half the shop supported the union by paying dues and enforcing the contract, while the other half got a free ride.  I’m sure it would be a toxic environment.  I hope it never comes to that in Ohio.

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Once my training was over and I was working on my own – Leotis W.(Bad-Eye) might not agree that I was working on my own – okay, so once I was working mostly on my own, my next milestone at Brighton was the completion of my probation period.  Which lasted 3 months.  I couldn’t join the Steelworkers Union for 3 months.  During those first 3 months the company could fire me for any reason.  Once I completed my probation and joined the union, then the company would need just cause to fire me.  But for 3 months I could be fired for an unjust cause.

The biggest thing the company frowned upon during probation was missing work.  You were expected to work every day of your probation.  So of course I missed some work.  It wasn’t my fault.  Several weeks after I started I got a phone call at work.  In 1973 the only cell phones were found in country club prisons.  So I was called into the office to answer the call on their phone.  It was the police.  My wife had been arrested, and she and my 11-month old son were currently being held at the Norwood police station.  If I wanted, I could come bail her out.  When I told Jim D., the second shift foreman, that I needed to clock out to go bail my wife out of jail, he gave me the ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ look.  Jim was in his fifties and had probably heard all kinds of excuses for missing work, but I bet this was a first.  It was early in the shift, so I told him I would return to work as soon as I could.  I clocked out and drove to the police station, stopping en route to pick up my checkbook.  Only the police would not take a check.  Cash only.  My bank was closed and, once again, this was 1973, and ATM’s weren’t even a gleam in a banker’s eye yet.  So I stopped by a garage (auto repair shop that sold gas, full service) that had happily taken a few of my checks and knew they were good.  I explained my situation to the owner, who didn’t even bat an eye as he cashed a check for me.  Made me wonder what his wife was like.  Then I went to pick up my wife and son.

At the time, we rented the bottom apartment in a two-unit house.  The people above us were insane.  Late one Friday night, long after I had come in from work, the man took a baseball bat to his own car.  We assumed he was drunk.  The woman wasn’t any more stable.  She was insanely jealous of my wife.  That my wife was 19 at the time and had nicely-recovered from the birth of our first son and, this being August, liked to lay out in the back yard in a bikini probably had something to do with it.  Anyway, there had been a fight between my wife and this woman, and the woman had gone to the police to press charges, and the police had showed up at the apartment to haul my wife in, and my wife had been allowed her one phone call, and had called me at work.  Jim had told me she was crying when he answered.  So I paid the bail with cash, took her and our son to stay with her sister (she did not want to stay at the apartment by herself that night), and returned to work.  I missed about 3 or 4 hours.  After that I was known as the new guy with the wife who was an ex-con.  But of course she wasn’t.  We went to court two weeks later.  Since court is generally held during the day, I didn’t have to miss any more work.  The judge thought the whole thing was ridiculous, dismissed charges, and suggested we separate ourselves from each other.  We gladly moved the next month.

Another reason for probation – my probation, not my wife’s – was for the company to evaluate your work.  During those 3 months the company could reassign you to another job if they didn’t think you were working out on your original job.  Once you got in the union, it was much harder for the company to do that.  But I did okay on a flanging machine, despite Bad-Eye’s slander.  One young guy hired shortly after me didn’t.  Dennis T. had been hired as a flanger operator.  He hardly ever finished a head.  He was one of those guys who has to have it perfect.  Perfectly in size, perfectly straight, absolutely perfect.  We don’t flange perfect heads.  We form them to within specs, then quit on them.  Because to make them perfect takes too much time.  I can hear you now – “but you said they didn’t expect you to make good time for at least 6 months”.  That’s not the point.  Metal is malleable for only so long.  If you work it too long it loses it’s elasticity.  It becomes hard and wrinkles, cracks, thins out, all kinds of bad things happen to steel if you work it too long.  All those things were happening to Dennis’ heads.  So before he finished his probation they transferred him to the metal cutting department, where his need for perfection was appreciated.  He worked there for nearly 30 years.

But I made it.  By the end of October I completed my probation, and was still operating a flanging machine.

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While searching for images of flanging machines to use on my blog I noticed something strange.  None of the flanging machines had machining arms.  Since the flanging machines at Brighton have cutting arms mounted on them, I assumed all flanging machines have cutting arms.  Apparently not.  At Brighton the machining, or cutting, arm is mounted on the side opposite from the controls.  Here is a photo of me on the flanging machine I operate most of the time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am on the flanging control side forming a carbon steel head.  Once it is in size, I will come around to the other side to machine, or trim, the edge.  The cutting arm is painted cream colored, while the rest of the flanging machine is blue.  The cutting arm is on a horizontal screw that you crank by hand to whatever angle you want.  The idea is to keep it pointed to the center of the head, so you adjust it according to whatever size head you working on.  An electric motor runs the entire arm up and down on a vertical screw.  On the smaller arms, like what is mounted on the flanging machine I run, an air cylinder brings a roll up against the head, allowing the cutting tool to follow the surface it is cutting.   On the larger machining arms a hydraulic motor moves a roll up against the outside of the head, while another roll, a pinch roll, comes down to press against the inside of the head.  And instead of moving up and down a screw turned by an electric motor like on the smaller arms, the larger arms remain stationary, while the part of the arm with the cutting tool and pair of rolls is moved up and down manually on a chain, then locked into place.  In all the arms an electric toggle switch moves the cutting tool up and down and in and out.  We use tool holders, such as these:

machine cutting tool insert holders

fitted with carbide inserts, such as these (we use the square and triangle types):

machining tool inserts

to machine the tank ends.

It wasn’t always so.  These machining arms appeared in the early 80’s.  When I first started, in 1973, the machining arms were cruder.  There were no electric or hydraulic or air controls.  Everything worked manually, on screws.  The operator adjusted the angle by hand, then bolted it down.  There were two large screws, one for up and down movement and the other for in and out, and you cranked on a wheel manually while you machined.  A very physical process.

Also, we didn’t use inserts.  They came along with the new machining arms.  We used carbide tools such as these:

cutting tools

These were long rectangular pieces of steel with carbide tips affixed to the ends.  As you can see, the carbide tips are all different shapes, for different cutting applications.  They didn’t come this way.  We ground the tips on a floor pedestal grinder to get the different cutting surfaces you see.  Then we had to grind on them to keep the cutting edges sharp.  Which was very frustrating.  You spend time grinding a cutting tool the way you needed it to be, then while you were machining it chips.  Which sends you back to the pedestal grinder to repair it.  Or worse, it breaks.  Which sends you back to the pedestal grinder to start over with a new cutting tool.  Many many hours I’ve spent grinding cutting tools.  As you can imagine, once you fashioned a good cutting tool you took care of it, because it would take a long time to replace it.

Grinding cutting tools is a lost art.  Thank God.  I don’t know how many times I’ve burned my fingers holding cutting tools that were getting hot from the grinding.  Or how many times I’ve trimmed my fingernails on the grinding wheel.  And the rapidly-spinning grinding wheels can explode, but that never happened to me. If you look at the inserts, you’ll see the square ones have 4 cutting surfaces on a side, for a total of 8, while the triangles have 3 cutting surfaces on a side, for a total of 6.  So when a cutting surface gets dull or chipped, you merely rotate the insert to the next cutting surface.  Or if the insert shatters, you merely replace it.  No more time-consuming grinding.

Or leaning on long wooden four by fours.  We did this to keep the cutting tool tight against the surface it was cutting.  If we didn’t, we’d get chatter (a rough notched surface instead of a smooth cut), or the tool would chip or break.  The old machining arms were worn-out and allowed a lot of vibration.  So to machine a head you would grind the tool you needed, then position the cutting arm, then crank the screws by hand to move the arm up or down and in or out, and you had to crank very hard to get the arm tight enough against the spinning head.  Then you threw on your 4×4 and leaned down on it with all your weight in order to get a good cut.  Of course, the vibrations from the maching arm passed through the wood into your bones, jarring you for hours.  A very tiring process.

Now all we have to do is line the machining arm up, change the inserts, and manipulate switches.  Not only is this much easier, but it is much faster.  Amazing how that old adage ‘work smarter, not harder’ always proves out.

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Elmer’s injury was extreme.  One of the worst I’ve heard about at Brighton.  I’ve certainly not had a workplace injury near that bad.  In fact, my worst workplace injury didn’t even happen at Brighton.

I grew up in Mason, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati.  At the time it was a farming community in transition to a bedroom community.  But in the 50’s and 60’s it was mostly farms.  I didn’t grow up on a farm.  I wish I had.  What farmland around Mason ended up selling for was astronomical.  But I worked on farms.  About the only kind of part-time work a teenage boy could find in Mason at that time.  For two summers, bailing hay.  Hard hot dirty work.  So as graduation approached in 1970 I wanted something different.

The third place I put in an application at, about a month before graduation, was Deerfield Manufacturing.  They wanted to hire me on the spot.  I told them I wanted a job for the summer, after I got out of high school.  They told me the job was available now, and maybe wouldn’t be come June.  So I took it.  For a month I went to school by day and worked second shift, from 3:30 to midnight.  It was a rough month.  But I was 18, so I could handle it.

About the injury.  I was running the first press on an assembly line.  I fed stainless steel circles into a hydraulic press.  These circles were stacked up on a skid on a table next to the press.  When I finished a skid of them one night, I tossed the empty wooden skid onto the floor to get it out of the way, then walked around the table in search of a forklift driver to bring me another skid of material.  When I opened my eyes I was in the backseat of a car.  A woman was driving.  I asked her what was going on.  She told me I had a head injury and she was taking me to a hospital.  When next I opened my eyes I was prone on a table in the emergency room getting my scalp stitched up.  I later learned I had thrown that skid so hard it had slid across the floor all the way to the wall.  Where it struck a long steel pry bar leaning up in a corner.  Which started toppling over just as I was walking around the table.  And hit me on the top of the head as I walked under it.  People claimed they found me wandering around the factory babbling nonsense.  I was out cold on my feet.  Only time that’s ever happened.

I worked at Deerfield Manufacturing for 3 years.  Grueling tedious assembly line work.  But it made me appreciate Brighton once I got there.  The difference between those two places was night and day, with Brighton being the sunshine.  And it helped me get hired there.  Ken, the soon-to-be-fired personnel manager who hired me, said he liked that I was so young, yet still had years of experience around heavy machinery.

What also helped me get hired at Brighton was Curt H.  He was a guy about my age I worked with at Deerfield.  He was funny and easy-going, and we worked well together.  Until he quit and went to work at Brighton.  He came by Deerfield about a month later at lunch break and told me about the place, and that I should put in an application.  The rest is history.

And so is Curt.  He ran a small spinning lathe.  The spinning lathe had a large assortment of dies of all shapes and sizes that could be mounted on it.  As the die spun vertically, a small roll moved horizontally across the circle of steel affixed to it, forming the steel to the shape of the die.  The initial run would get the head close, then he’d measure and make several more passes with the forming wheel across the icr and flange area to put it into size.  There was a small tool holder that he trimmed the edge of the head with.  Then came the fun part.  The head was now on the die so tightly that the only way to get it off was to force it off with the forming wheel as the die spun.  This would send the rapidly spinning tank head flying off the die and rolling away in all directions, at very high speed.  It’s a wonder Curt, or anyone within fifty feet of the machine, was never hurt.

But Curt missed work a lot.  He pushed the envelop, missing every day he was allowed.  And more.  So he received a 3-day suspension.  Which I never understood the logic of, give someone 3 days off because he took off, that seems like a reward to me.  To keep Curt from enjoying it too much, the 3 days were Tuesday through Thursday.  Naturally, he missed that Friday, which gave him a nice, although unpaid, vacation.  So the next step in this escalating struggle was 6 month probation, which meant if he missed 1 day during those 6 months he could be fired.  He made it through several probations, but eventually failed one.  And was promptly fired.  He moved back to his home town in southeastern Kentucky, and I never saw him again.  But he is the reason I found Brighton.

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Elmer D. had something going for him.  Besides bad luck.  Or carelessness.  Which led to good fortune.  Before I get too mystical, I’ll explain what happened.  Elmer was hired to work in shipping.  This mostly entailed loading finished heads onto trucks to go out and unloading metal coming in, and also unloading supplies.  This all happened before I was hired, so I don’t know how long he worked in shipping before the accident.

I haven’t talked much about machining yet.  Machining refers to trimming the edge of a head on a flanging machine, with a square cut or a bevel or a taper or a bore-up, or any combination of these.  A bevel can incorporate a land, which is a flat part of the edge not included in the bevel cut.  The land can be any size, but the most common is 1/16th inch (yes, we are Americans, we still work with inches and feet).  Also, the customer can request no land, which is called a razor cut.  For a good reason.  The top of the bevel ends in a razor-sharp edge.

A quick note about pickling, which I also haven’t said much about yet.  Stainless steel tank heads are acid-cleaned.  To do this, they are washed, then flipped upside down, so the machined edge is on the floor.  They are then picked up by an overhead crane via a steel hook that is inserted into the center hole, and lowered into a tank of acid.  The hook is left in them as they soak.  When finished, an overhead crane hook is inserted into he eye of the metal hook and the tank head is lifted out of the acid, then rinsed off.  You’d be amazed how clean this gets them.

Elmer was using an overhead crane to lift a tank head with a razor edge bevel that had already been pickled, preparing to load it onto a truck.  The head was flange-down, the way it had gone into and out of the acid tank.  As he lifted the inverted tank head up off the floor, a second tank head was stuck to the inside of it.  We often run orders of multiple heads of the same size, and we stack them together inside each other.  Being the same size and shape, sometimes they stick together.  He didn’t notice the second head.  I don’t know how high he lifted the two heads before gravity took over and the inside bottom head came loose.  It landed on his foot.

We wear steel-toed work boots.  They are required, part of our personal protection equipment (which includes safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves, face shields, respirators, etc.)  The razor cut beveled edge of the head that came loose landed just behind the steel toe of his right foot.  I don’t know the height from which it fell, but I imagine it wouldn’t need to be all that high.  And it weighed several hundred pounds.  Most of his toes were sliced off.

To his credit, Elmer didn’t take a disability.  Now unable to do much physical labor, the owners promoted him to shipping supervisor.  I don’t know if such a position existed before the accident, or if the owners created the position for him.  Anyway, he ran shipping very well.  He negotiated with the trucking and rail lines, scheduled trucks to deliver metal and pick up our tank heads, and arranged for rail lines to do the same for larger material.  Then after the incident between Charley F. and my partner, he was promoted to plant supervisor.

Elmer was wily.  It was rumored he got all kinds of gifts from the trucking lines he selected to use, when he was shipping supervisor.  And I know for a fact when he was plant supervisor he would hide orders when he went on vacation, so that work became all screwed up in his absence, so he could then return from vacation and straighten the mess up, making himself indispensable.  Despite this, the shop ran smoothly while he was in charge.  He retired in the late 70’s, because of heart problems, not his injured foot.  I don’t think his badly-injured foot ever slowed him down.

Was it worth it?  To Elmer?  He was hired off the street to load and unload trucks, and he ended up plant supervisor.  Quite an improvement in his position.  Which never would have happened if he hadn’t been severely injured.  I often wonder about NFL players.  Many sustain serious injury while playing their brief careers.  But a few of them amass small fortunes while doing so.  Is it worth it?  To them?  These injuries will plague them for the rest of their lives.  May be very painful or crippling, or lead to paralysis, or early onset dementia.  Yet many have achieved their dreams, and a few have been well-rewarded for doing so.  Is it worth it?  I would say no.

But I wonder what Elmer would say.  I lost track of him after he left.  I don’t know how long he enjoyed his retirement.  I hope it was a long long time.