On August 14th, Southern Ontario and hunks of Eastern United States, celebrated (?) the tenth anniversary of a giant blackout. Locally, we did better than many areas; the power was back on in about four hours. As with so many other things, like jet-stream cold fronts, 9/11 terrorists, and Justin Bieber, Americans blamed Canada.
Local stories range from being five from the front at a giant waterslide, and having to turn around, and follow 150 other disappointed people back down the stairs, because the water pumps shut off, to the canoeist/camper in a National Park, who pulled in the next day, without knowing or noticing that anything had occurred.
I was at work, on a 3 to 11 shift, when we went dark, at about 8:00 PM. The plant had already started its death spiral. The General Manager who lied to the Big Three during contract negotiations, had been forced out. His internal replacement/promotion lasted only six months before getting a good look at the oncoming train, and taking a different track. The external hire, who thought he was going to helm a healthy company, bailed after only three months. And so, we got Bill.
Already cynical, I kept an eye on him. He was touted as the man who would turn things around, but his management style and abilities did not bode well for that. The first week he was there, he held a town-hall meeting with each of the shifts. Not in the boardroom – heaven forbid the peons’ sandals leave marks on the carpet, rather, in the Quality Assurance/Packing area. He looked us all in the eye and said, “My name is Bill Rheem.” Those first four words were a lie….and it went downhill from there.
He was not a Germanic Rheem (ream), he was a French-Canadian Rheaume (ray ome). He had worked for Ford in Windsor, but had left to start his own small company. My suspicious little whiskers were already vibrating. He might have been an entrepreneur, or maybe, just a guy who did not play well with others. If he had had his own company, why was he here running ours? Did his workforce grab torches and pitchforks and riot, or did the company go public and shareholders force him out?
We worked with a cyanide-based isocyanate. One day a forklift hit a supply pipe, and leaked a couple of gallons on the floor. Too important to go around, while two hazmat-suited workers cleaned it up, he ripped down the yellow HAZARD tape, and escorted three guys from head-office right through the middle.
We had had a hot, muggy summer, prior to the power outage. We normally got two air-conditioned breaks in our eight-hour shifts of working with hot vinyl, but every previous manager had agreed to a third, when the weather got bad. Not Bill! No F**kin’ way! A contract’s a contract! Union executive contacted the Labor Board, who showed up with books of Government regs. It was so hot and sticky that we had the legal right to a ten-minute break every hour….and Bill had to ensure it was given, and documented.
Eight PM on an August evening is not dark. When the power died, we did what we could to prevent fires, and other problems, then trickled outside to sit on benches and picnic tables. We’d been out there for about a half-hour, when our fearless leader showed up. He checked that protocols had been followed, and gave us what information he had, and a little pep-talk about getting right back to work, as soon as the power came back on.
He took a couple of cell phone calls, and another half-hour later announced, “Well, I guess the power’s not coming back on. You guys all go home.” Somebody said, “Well, at least we get paid for the whole shift.” And Grumpy Smurf lashed out again. “No F**kin’ way! It’s not my fault the plant can’t run! You don’t work, you don’t get paid!”
The next day, the union president visited him and showed him a copy of the contract, with a Short Workweek clause, which guaranteed that we would be paid from a special, slowly increasing fund.
I carefully drove 5 Km. home, through a city with neither traffic lights, nor streetlights. I joined a wife and son in a living room well-stocked with candles, and indulged in more conversation than since the invention of TV. Well after midnight, just as we were thinking of pulling out a board game, and playing Yahtzee or Monopoly by candlelight, civilization returned in a rush.
When the axe finally fell on me a year later, I tried to access the above fund, to top up my unemployment benefits but, being one of the last to go, I found it empty and plundered by those who had preceded me. I needed to find a job, fast!
Bill was perhaps, the most ineffectual, adversarial Plant Manager I’d ever worked with. The Peter Principle had allowed him to bob up to the level of his incompetence several times. It didn’t take a power stoppage to show that he was uninformed, and poorly trained for his position. He was in the dark, even before the lights went out, and he kept those around him in the same condition.
Previous corporate decisions and policies had already doomed my plant and my job, but Billy-boy didn’t do them any extra favors.
Where were you when the lights went out? In a part of the country or the world where you didn’t even notice? Did you, or someone you know, have a baby nine months later? A lot of folks did! No Yahtzee boards or candles, I guess.