"Whatever I do, I want to do my best and to give the company the best out of me. If I am going to do something, I want to do it right." Jean Austin has worked for Harriet and Henderson Yarns, Inc. for almost 25 years, since she graduated from high school. The firm that buys cotton from growers, spins it into yarn and then sells that yarn to other companies, such as Hanes, to use in the production of apparel and other cloth goods. Presently Mrs. Austin is an Open End Spinning Operator in the plant designated Harriet #2. Upon meeting Mrs. Austin, I was pleasantly surprised by her very outgoing disposition and her eagerness to have me observe her in action on the plant floor.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss Mrs. Austin's job in terms of the four dimensions of worker experience (i.e. autonomy & control, meaning, social integration, and self-involvement). The effects of new technology on Mrs. Austin's experience will be discussed, as well as the control system associated with that technology.
Mrs. Austin's job as Open End Spinning Operator basically entails patrolling the open end spinning frames to make sure that they are running properly. She is responsible for five frames, each of which spin 168 cones of yarn. Each frame is approximately 100 feet long and they are spaced about ten feet apart. On each side of a frame are 84 spin boxes each holding a cone and under each spin box is a can of sliver. Sliver can most easily be described as a long, loosely spun length of cotton, with the feel of a thick cotton ball. The spinning operator feeds the sliver into the condensing chamber which spins it at several hundred revolutions per minute, condensing the sliver and forming a strong yarn. The yarn is fed to the top of the frame and collected onto a spinning cone. As each cone reaches its maximum weight of yarn, a part of the frame called the doffer, which traverses the frame from end to end, automatically takes the full cone off the spin box and replaces it with an empty cone.
While patrolling her assigned frames, Mrs. Austin is looking for "red lights" that would signify a stop in production. Each spin box on the frame is self-monitored and when a stop occurs, a red light comes on to signal the spinning operator. One cause of a red light is that the can of sliver under a particular space is empty. If she finds a can of sliver that is almost or completely empty, Mrs. Austin will replace that can with a full one which is waiting between the frames. She will then re-feed the sliver to restart the spinning and turn off the red light. Typically, there are eight full cans of sliver between each frame and when they are replaced with empty cans, Mrs. Austin will go get a motorized shuttle that pulls several trailers and load those empty cans onto the trailers. She will then drive the shuttle to the card room where the sliver is produced, unload the empty cans, replace them with full cans of sliver and return with the full cans to the frames.
A red light may also be caused by a jam of sliver in the condenser which will cause the sliver to break. When this occurs, Mrs. Austin will clean out the jam and then with a simple pipe cleaner, clean out the tube through which the sliver is fed. She will then re-feed the sliver to restart the spinning process and turn off the red light. Also, if the yarn coming from the condenser becomes tangled before getting to the cone a red light will occur. Again, the sliver will break and the process must be restarted.
There are several other lesser, but still important tasks that Mrs. Austin must perform during her shift. She is responsible for putting empty cones onto the end of the spinning frame. These are the cones which the doffer will use to replace the full cones that it takes off the spinning frame. She is also responsible for keeping her frames and the area around them clean and as dust free as possible. This means disposing of any waste that accumulates in the spinning frame as well as sweeping the floors around the frames in order to keep dust and debris from getting trapped in the condenser and stopping production.
Technology and Control
To truly understand Jean Austin's work experience as a spinning operator, one must first understand a few technological aspects of the job as well as the effects that technology has on workplace control. In 1993, Harriet #2 employed 317 workers that could produced a maximum of 236,000 lbs. of yarn per year. In 1995, the plant closed for three months to install the open end spinning frames that are in use today. When I visited the mill, a total of 97 people were employed and could produce a maximum of 500,000 lbs. per year. The new frames combined the jobs of as many as three people each. There used to be a person responsible for doffing the full cones of yarn; that is someone's job was to keep an eye for full cones and when they found one, they were to come over, pull that cone off and replace it with an empty cone. As was mentioned earlier, the new spinning frames have an apparatus that will automatically do this. Also, there was someone responsible for retying the yarn when it broke between the cone and the spinner. With the new spinning frames, there is a separate apparatus that follows the doffer called a piecer which will automatically pick up the two ends of yarn and tie the two together.
There also used to be an employee whose job it was to make sure that there were plenty of cans of sliver by the spinning frames. With the new technology a frame can spin, doff, and piece by itself, leaving the spinning frame operator responsible for replacing empty sliver cans with full ones. Another interesting note is that the trailers used to move the cans are only about two inches high. The sliver cans are about five feet tall and when full can be rather awkward. However, when loading the cans onto the trailer, all the spinning operator has to do is pull slightly at the top and give a nudge with the foot at the bottom of the can to slide them onto the trailer. This greatly reduces the amount of effort necessary to load and unload the cans.
With the installation of the new spinning frames, Harriet #2 went from hierarchical control to technical control. Before, machines were used in the production process, but those machines did little more than spin and employees were necessary to do much more of the work involved in the production process. Aspects of Taylor's scientific management were used to establish the most efficient way to doff a cone or piece two ends together and the foreman was definitely in control.
Today, however, it seems that the machines are more in control than anyone else. Management still decides what type of yarn to produce and how much, then they simply program the frames and leave them to do the spinning. In other words, management directs the work being done by the frames, the frames are self-evaluating to keep up with the number of stops in production, and depending on how the frames are running the workers are allowed up to 20% "red lights". Operators on the frames, like Jean Austin, are there mostly to ensure the frames run properly and to correct any problems that may arise.
Autonomy and Control
The open end spinning frames seem to run more or less by themselves, and therefore Mrs. Austin has little control over how fast or how well they run. While it is true that the machines basically run themselves, Mrs. Austin actually has more control over the quantity and quality of the work being done than may at first be apparent. After having watched her at work for a while, we sat down and talked about her job and one word that repeatedly arose was "cycle". Mrs. Austin is constantly walking around her frames looking for red lights while at the same time checking the floor for lint and dust and keeping a check on the number of cans of sliver in-waiting. She says "there's a lot of rotation, keeping to the cycle, always something to do." The pace of her work is not necessarily too fast, but it is constant. If she gets behind in her cycle, the red lights may seem to multiply quickly. On a good day the red lights are pretty easy to keep up with, but on a bad day, when maybe the cotton is especially wasteful, the condensers are constantly getting jammed or the yarn is constantly breaking, all requiring her attention.
Because of the varied nature of the tasks, Mrs. Austin is free to walk around her machines as she deems necessary and to leave them when she needs to go to the drawing room to retrieve more cans of sliver. There is no set time do these things. It is up to Mrs. Austin to decide when and where she needs to go. However, she must always remember that during the time that she is away from the frames, she is not able to turn off red lights and restart the spinners, and that "when you go to take a break, the frames ain't going to wait for you." Mrs. Austin pointed out that it is up to the spinning operator to establish their own cycle and to know when the frames can be left to run themselves or when they are going to need more constant attention. In this aspect, the spinning operator is able to choose some of their own techniques and is free to take initiative to keep the frames running.
The product that Mrs. Austin is producing is fairly boring, as it's only yarn. The only seeming change in the product is the weight of the yarn being produced. This change in product weight does have a little impact on her job, however. If the yarn being produced is a lower weight, say 16 count, the yarn is thicker which means that less of it will fit onto a cone. This means a little more work for Mrs. Austin as she has to provide more cones for the frame and keep a better eye out for jams in the condenser. The opposite is true for yarns of lesser weight like 28 count. Here the yarn is much thinner and much more can fit onto a cone. However, although she may have to worry less about providing cones to the frame, she will likely have more breaks in the yarn between the spin box and the cone simply because the yarn is thinner and easier to break.
Of the four processes that the cotton goes through before being packaged as yarn, Mrs. Austin only works on one of those. She has never done any cross training on any of the other processes involved in production, and in fact implied a sort of gender separation in the production process. Mrs. Austin said that for the most part you will only find women working on the frames, while men mostly work in the card rooms or packaging. When you do see men working on the frames, they are likely the technicians whose job it is to take apart whole frames for what is called "long drafting", cleaning and maintenance. Mrs. Austin said that she had had several jobs in the mill over the 25 years she had been there, but that they were all similar jobs, at least in theory, and had been changed mostly by upgrading technology.
On the plant floor and outside of the break room, there is little evidence on any sort of social integration. This is due as much to the noise level as it is to the work process itself. Anyone entering the mill is required by plant management to wear ear plugs. OSHA regulations require ear plugs anywhere in the plant where noise is above 82 decibels over a twelve hour period. Noise throughout the entire mill averages about 88 decibels with the spinning frames being the loudest at 94.7 decibels. Obviously the noise level is no conducive to idle conversation, and when one person wishes to speak to another, they must either yell or go to a part of the mill like the break room that is not so loud.
Also, during any given shift there are about thirty people working on the plant floor. That plant floor, however, is roughly the size of a football field so that there is very little close contact between employees in the mill. In this sense, workers like Mrs. Austin are, in effect, working alone. The only time Mrs. Austin said that she may work with another employee is when the ladies are collecting waste from the frames. They may help each other out occasionally when the frames are running rough, but in general there is little social integration on the floor.
Mrs. Austin apparently knew most of the people she worked with, but only because she went to school with most of them. Outside of work, however, there was little opportunity for Mrs. Austin to get to know her fellow employees. That probably is a result of the fact that she works twelve hours on and twelve off. When she punches the clock at the end of the day, like everyone else, she is ready to go home and get rested up for the next day.
As is typical of the manufacturing industry in the South, there is no union at the mill. There are so few people that actually work in the mill now, that forming a union would be almost impossible. There is not a lot of opportunity to organize while on the job and as stated earlier, at the end of the day, most of the workers are not interested in hanging around the mill to chat. The fact that there is no union is probably one reason that Mrs. Austin identifies so easily with the mill. Even though she only makes $7.78 per hour, she is proud of the work she does and the company that she works for.
Despite the fact that the spinning frames control most of the work processes and the pace of the work itself, in Mrs. Austin's case at least, there is a high degree of self-involvement. This probably is more a result of what Mrs. Austin brings to the job than the job itself. She is very conscientious in her job performance and as is evident from the quote that began this paper, Mrs. Austin constantly strives to do a good job. She says that sure, there are people on the floor that are always watching the clock and working towards the next break. That does not fit with her philosophy, though, of how her job should be performed. She feels that there is always something to do while she is at work and she never has time for boredom. The fact that she is able to move around the floor and work faster or slower, depending on how the frames are running, makes her twelve hours on the job go by faster.
Mrs. Austin does not consider her work at the mill as merely a means to an end. She has a highly service-oriented attitude in that she sees herself as performing a service for Harriet &Henderson Yarns and she attempts to provide the highest quality service that she can. She takes great pride in the five thousand pounds of yarn that she is expected to produce during each shift. She also seems to enjoy her job and the fact that she can determine, by working her cycle, the quality and quantity of yarn that she puts out. Mrs. Austin has put a lot of thought into how her job should be done and uses good judgment when problems arise.
From reading the company's job description for open end spinning operator and seeing the machinery involved, it is easy to assume that the worker is totally at the mercy of the machine. Jean Austin felt, however, that although her frames were doing a lot of the work, they could not run without her. This attitude was illustrated by her insistence on establishing a cycle to her work that helped her to perform her duties to the best of her ability. Instead of worrying about the things she could not control, Mrs. Austin took every effort to control the things that she could and in that way she was personally responsible for the autonomy and control that she had over her job. She took great pride in the self-involvement that she derived from the job and found meaning in the fact that she performed well and consistently met production and quality schedules.
The excellent disposition that Mrs. Austin brought to her job would be appreciated by any manager. Despite the low pay and long hours, she took great pride in performing her job to the best of her abilities.