Banana Time

(a case about working)


V Introduction
V The Work Group
V The Work
V Informal Social Activity of the Work Group: Times and Themes
V Themes



This case undertakes description and explanatory analysis of the social interaction which took place within a small work group of factory machine operators during a two-month period of participant observation.

My fellow operatives and I spent our long days of simple, repetitive work in relative isolation from other employees of the factory. Our line of machines was sealed from other work-areas of the plant by the four walls of the clicking room. The one door of this room was usually closed. Even when it was kept open during periods of hot weather, the consequences were not social. It opened on an uninhabited storage room of the shipping department. Not even the sounds of work activity from elsewhere in the factory carried to this isolated workplace. There were occasional contacts with outside employees, usually on matters connected with the work but, with the exception of the daily calls of one fellow who came to pick up finished materials for the next step in processing such visits were sporadic and infrequent.

The clickers were of the genus punching machine; of mechanical construction similar to that better known as punch presses, their leading features were hammer and block. The hammer, or punching head, was approximately 8 inches by 12 inches at its flat striking surface. The descent upon the block was initially forced by the operator, who exerted pressure on a handle attached to the side of the hammer head. A few inches of travel downward established electrical connection for a sharp power-driven blow. The hammer also traveled by manual-guidance in a horizontal plane to and from, and in an arc around the central column of the machine. Thus the operator, up to the point of establishing electrical connections for the sudden and irrevocable downward thrust, had flexibility in maneuvering his instrument over the larger surface of the block. The latter, approximately 24 inches wide, 18 inches deep, and 10 inches thick, was made like a butcher's block, of inlaid hardwood; it was set in the machine at a convenient waist height. On it the operator placed his materials, one sheet at a time if leather, stacks of sheets if plastic, to be cut with steel dies of assorted sizes and shapes. The particular die in use would be moved by hand from spot to spot over the materials each time a cut was made less frequently, materials could be shifted on the block as the operator saw need for such adjustment.

Introduction to the new job with its relatively simple machine skills and work routines was accomplished with what proved to be, in my experience, an all-time minimum of job training. The clicking machine assigned to me was situated at one end of the row. Here, the superintendent and one of the operators gave a few brief demonstrations, accompanied by bits of advice, which included a warning to keep hands clear of the descending hammer. After a short practice period, at the end of which the superintendent expressed satisfaction with progress and potentialities, I was left to develop my learning curve with no other supervision than that given by members of the work-group. Further advice and assistance did come from time to time from my fellow operators sometimes upon request, sometimes unsolicited.


The Work Group

Absorbed at first in three related goals of improving my clicking skill, increasing my rate of output, and keeping my left hand unchecked, I paid little attention to my fellow operatives save to observe that they were friendly, middle-aged, foreign born, full of advice, and very talkative. Their names, according to the way they addressed each other, were George, Ike, and Sammy. George, a stocky fellow in his late 50s, operated the machine at the opposite end of the line. He, I later discovered, had emigrated in early youth from a country in southeastern Europe. Ike, stationed at George’s left, was tall, slender, in his early 50s, and Jewish. He had come from Eastern Europe in his youth. Sammy, number three man in the line and my neighbor, was heavyset, in his late 50s, and Jewish: he had escaped from a country in Eastern Europe just before Hitler's legions had moved in. All three men had been downwardly mobile in occupation in recent years. George and Sammy had been proprietors of small businesses. The former had been "wiped out" when his uninsured establishment burned down. The latter had been entrepreneuring on a small scale before he left it all behind him to flee the Germans. According to his account, Ike had left a highly skilled trade which he had practiced for years in Chicago.


The Work

It was evident to me before my first workday drew to a weary close that my clicking career was going to be a grim process of fighting the clock, the particular timepiece in this situation being an old-fashioned alarm clock that ticked away on a shelf near George's machine. I had struggled through many dreary rounds with the minutes and hours during the various phases of my industrial experience, but never had I been confronted with such a dismal combination of working conditions as the extra-long workday, the infinitesimal cerebral excitation, and the extreme limitation of physical movement. The contrast with a recent stint in the California oil fields was striking. This was no eight-hour day of racing hither and yon over desert and foothills with a rollicking crew of "roustabouts" on a variety of repair missions at oil wells, pipelines, and storage tanks. Here there were no afternoon dallyings to search the sands for horned toads, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes or to climb old wooden derricks for raven’s nests with an eye out, of course, for the telltale streak of dust in the distance, which gave ample warning of the approach of the boss. This was standing all day in one spot beside three old codgers in a dingy room looking out through barred windows at the bare walls of a brick warehouse, leg movements largely restricted to the shifting of body weight from one foot to the other, hand and arm movements confined, for the most part, to a simple repetitive sequence of place the die, punch the clicker. place the die-- punch the clicker--, and intellectual activity reduced to computing the hours to quitting time. It is true that from time to time a fresh stack of sheets would have to be substituted for the clicked-out old one, but the stack would have been prepared by someone else, the exchange would be only a minute or two in the making. Now and then a box of finished work would have to be moved back out of the way, and an empty box brought up. But the moving back and the bringing up involved only a step or two. And there was the half hour for lunch and occasional trips to the lavatory or the drinking fountain to break up the day into digestible parts. But after each momentary respite, hammer and die were moving again: click -- move die -- click -- move die.

I developed a game of work. The game developed was quite simple, so elementary, in fact, that its playing was reminiscent of rainyday preoccupations in childhood when attention could be centered by the hour on colored bits of things of assorted sizes and shapes. But this adult activity was not mere pottering and piddling; what it lacked in the earlier imaginative content, it made up for in cleancut structure. Fundamentally involved were: (a) variation in color of the materials cut, (b) variation in shapes of the dies used and (c) a process called "scraping the block." The basic procedure which ordered the particular combination of components employed could be stated in the form “As soon as I do many of these, I'll click some brown ones." And with success in attaining the objective of working with brown materials, a new goal of "I'll get to do the white ones" might be set. Or the new goal might involve switching dies.


Informal Social Activity of the Work Group: Times and Themes

I began to take serious note of the social activity going on around me. My attentiveness to this activity came with growing involvement in it. What I heard at first, before I started to listen, was a stream of disconnected bits of communication that did not make much sense. Foreign accents were strong, and referents were not joined to coherent contexts of meaning. It was just "jabbering." What I saw at first, before I began to observe, was occasional flurries of horseplay that were so simple and unvarying in pattern and so childish in quality that they made no strong bid for attention. For example, Ike would regularly switch off the power at Sammy's machine whenever Sammy made a trip to the lavatory or the drinking fountain. Correlatively, Sammy invariably fell victim to the plot by making an attempt to operate his clicking hammer after returning to the shop. And as the simple pattern went, this blind stumbling, into the trap was always followed by indignation and reproach from Sammy, smirking satisfaction from Ike, and mild pattern of scolding from George. My interest in this procedure was at first confined to wondering when Ike would weary of his tedious joke or when Sammy would learn to check his power switch before trying the hammer.

Most of the breaks in the daily series were designated as "times" in the parlance of the clicker operators, and they featured the consumption of food or drink of one sort or another. There was coffee time, peach time, banana time, fish time, Coke time, and, of course, lunch time. Other interruptions that formed part of the series but were not verbally recognized as times were window time, pickup time, and the staggered quitting times of Sammy and Ike. These latter unnamed times did not involve the partaking of refreshments.

My attention was first drawn to this times business during my first week of employment when I was encouraged to join in the sharing of two peaches. It was Sammy who provided the peaches; he drew them from his lunch box after making the announcement, "Peach time"' On this first occasion, I refused the proffered fruit but thereafter regularly consumed my half peach. Sammy continued to provide the peaches and to make the "Peach time!" announcement, although there were days when Ike would remind him that it was peach time, urging him to hurry up with the midmorning snack. Ike invariably complained about the quality of the fruit, and his complaints fed the fires of continued banter between peach donor and critical recipient. I did find the fruit a bit on the scrubby side but felt, before I achieved insight into the function of peach time, that Ike was showing poor manners by looking a gift horse in the mouth. I wondered why Sammy continued to share his peaches with such an ingrate.

Banana time followed peach time by approximately an hour. Sammy again provided the refreshments namely: one banana. There was, however, no four-way sharing of Sammy's banana. Ike would gulp it down by himself after surreptitiously extracting, it from Sammy's lunch box, kept on a shelf behind Sammy's work station. Each morning, after making the snatch, Ike would call out, "Banana time!" and proceed to down his prize while Sammy made futile protests and denunciations. George would join in with mild remonstrances, sometimes scolding Sammy for making so much fuss. The banana was one that Sammy brought for his own consumption at lunch time. He never did get to eat his banana but kept bringing one for his lunch. At first this daily theft startled and amazed me. Then I grew to look forward to the daily seizure and the verbal interaction which followed.

Window time came next. It followed banana time as a regular consequence of Ike's castigation by the indignant Sammy. After "taking" repeated references to himself as a person badly lacking in morality and character, Ike would "finally" retaliate by opening the window that faced Sammy's machine to let the "cold air" blow in on Sammy. The staggering, which would, in its echolalic repetition, wear down Ike's patience and forbearance usually took the form of the invidious comparison: "George is a good daddy. Ike is a bad man! A very bad man”. Opening the window would take a little time to accomplish and would involve a great deal of verbal interplay between Ike and Sammy, both before and after the event. Ike would threaten, make feints toward the window, then finally open it. Sammy would protest, argue, and make claims that the air blowing in on him would give him a cold he would eventually have to leave his machine to close the window. Sometimes the weather was slightly chilly and the draft from the window unpleasant, but cool or hot, windy or still, "window” time arrived each day. (I assume that it was originally a cold-season development.) George's part in this interplay, in spite of the "good daddy" laudations, was to encourage Ike in his window work. He would stress the tonic values of fresh air and chide Sammy for his unappreciativeness.



To put flesh, so to speak, on this interactional frame of times, my work group had developed various ”themes” of verbal interplay which had become standardized in their repetition. These topics of conversation ran in quality from an extreme of nonsensical chatter to another extreme of serious discourse. Unlike the “times” these themes flowed one into the other in no particular sequence of predictability. Serious conversation could suddenly melt into horseplay, and vice versa. In the middle of a serious discussion on the high cost of living, Ike might drop a weight behind the easily startled Sammy or hit him over the head with a dusty paper sack. Interaction would immediately drop to a low comedy exchange of slaps, threats, guffaws, and disapprobations, which would invariably include a 10-minute echolalia of “Ike is a bad man, a very bad man! George is a good daddy, a very fine man”. Or, on the other hand, a stream of such invidious comparisons as followed a surreptitious switching off of Sammy's machine by the playful Ike might merge suddenly into a discussion of the pros and cons of saving, for one's funeral.

"Kidding themes" were usually started by George or Ike, and Sammy was usually the butt of the joke. Sometimes Ike would have to "take it" - seldom George. One favorite kidding theme involved Sam’s alleged receipt of $ 100 a month from his son. The points stressed were that Sammy did not have to work long hours or did not have to work at all, because he had a son to support him. George would always point out that he sent money to his daughter; she did not send money to him. Sammy received occasional calls from his wife, and his claim that these calls were requests to shop for groceries on the way home were greeted with feigned disbelief. Sammy was ribbed for being closely watched, bossed, and henpecked by his wife, and the expression, “Are you man or mouse” became an echolalic utterance used both in and out of the original context.

Serious themes included the relating of major misfortunes suffered in the past by group members. George referred again and again to the loss by fire of his business establishment. Ike's chief complaints centered around a chronically ill wife who had undergone various operations and periods of hospital care. Ike spoke with discouragement of the expenses attendant upon hiring a housekeeper for himself and his children he referred with disappointment and disgust to a teenage son, an inept lad who "couldn't even fix his own lunch. He couldn’t even make himself a sandwich”. Sammy's reminiscences centered on the loss of a flourishing business when he had to flee Europe ahead of the Nazi invasion.

There was one theme of especially solemn import, the "professor theme." This theme might also be termed "George’s daughter’s marriage theme" for the recent marriage of George’s only child was inextricably bound up with George’s connection with higher learning. The daughter had married the son of a professor, who instructed in one of the local colleges. This professor theme was not in the strictest sense, a conversation piece. When the subject came up, George did all the talking. The two Jewish operatives remained silent as they listened with deep respect, if not actual awe, to George’s accounts of the Bic Wedding, which, including the wedding pictures, entailed an expense of $1,000. It was monologue but there was listening, there was communication, the sacred communication of a temple, when George told of going for Sunday afternoon walks on the Midway with the professor or of joining the professor for a Sunday dinner. Whenever he spoke of the professor, his daughter, the wedding, or even of the new son-in-law, who remained for the most part in the background, a sort of incidental like the wedding cake, George was complete master of the interaction. I came to the conclusion that it was the professor connection, not the straw-boss-ship or the extra nickel an hour, that provided the found of George’s superior status in the group.