Compelling stories from the assembly line

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'Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant' By Lolita Hernandez Coffee House Press, 2004 Softcover, 180 pp., $14

By Armando Ramirez

During the decade of the 1980s, with the economy spiraling into a deep decline and the auto industry in a crisis of overproduction, an avalanche of plant closings began in our country.

One of the first plants designated for closing was the giant General Motors Cadillac plant, as well as its sister plant Fisher Body Fleetwood. The two Detroit plants employed about 20,000 workers. It is about these workers that Lolita Hernandez writes in her book, “Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant.”

Hernandez worked in the Engine Assembly department at Cadillac. Her stories take place here. She writes about the sights, sounds and smells of the place. Mostly, she writes about the workers. She talks about their lives, their problems, their hopes and aspirations. These people are her friends, not just people she worked with for 30 years.

Assembly line work brings people together, shoulder to shoulder, more than almost any other kind of work. Every day, year after year, these workers rub elbows, sweat and hurt together, help each other and come to know each other like family. It is with this feeling of family that Hernandez writes her stories.

Other books have been written about assembly line workers. Most of them focus on the oddballs, the drunks and dope addicts, the jerks and clowns. There are these, but as Hernandez shows in her stories, most autoworkers are just ordinary people, striving to make it at a most difficult job.

We meet workers such as the “Pound Cake Lady,” so named because of the homemade desserts she brings for her co-workers. Then there’s “Garlic Baloney Joe,” who pulled off his work gloves, hurled them to the floor and shouted “F—- this s—-,” as he walked out. There is Manuel whose unrequited love for Rosario spans 20 years before he finally has some success.

One of my favorites, “Crazy Marge,” always greets her overweight foreman with “You Pillsbury Doughboy muthaf—-a you.”

Hernandez, in her introduction, asks the question “Why am I working in a factory?” There is very little that is good about working on an assembly line. Thanks to the union, the wages and benefits are the best of any manufacturing industry, but working on the line is a deadening experience. It can be physically hard and mentally tough because of the repetitive and boring nature of the work.

Hernandez answers her own question this way: “That was my real family: the living and the dead in that place.”

I knew Lolita Hernandez slightly when I lived in Detroit. I worked at the Cadillac sister plant, Fleetwood. Both the children of immigrants, we lived in the same neighborhood of southwest Detroit.

I wish that Hernandez had said something about the great struggle that Cadillac (Local 22 UAW) and Fleetwood (Local 15 UAW) workers put up to keep the plants open. Their fightback inspired a national movement in our country to stop plant closings. Nonetheless, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to work on the line, or if you just want some good reading, go to your nearest bookstore or order it online at .