Writer Mary Kuykendall, whose short story “Mabel Disabled” is featured below, once worked for General Electric in Schenectady, as did Kurt Vonnegut. While she was not at GE while Vonnegut was employed there as a public relations writer, the Vonnegut influence in “Mable Disabled” is clear. Although she never met KV, she did meet his brother Bernard.
“I did meet Kurt’s brother Bernie about l0 years ago,” Mary wrote. “As you know he was an atmospheric scientist. He came into the Hall of Electrical History where I was volunteering and we talked briefly about his famous brother. We laughed about a comment attributed to his brother that the difference between Edison and Steinmetz (a socialist and brilliant mathematician who made it possible to light the bulb) was that in Schenectady parks and schools were named after Steinmetz while Edison’s name is on a country club.”
They called her Mabel but that was o.k. with Tony. He had only been a foreman for a month when the superintendent told him his area would be the first to utilize a robot in the massive Ilium power generation plant.
Tony had been a machinist on the floor for over ten years. Now he had to oversee the layoff of three of his friends to be replaced by what management called a FM (Flexible Machine). The Human Resources industrial psychologist said it would be best to refer to it as FM because a human name might be insulting to the workers. Tony didn’t think much of calling it an FM machine either because it implied factory workers were not flexible, but he supposed that was the opinion that corporate manager had of union workers.
Tony was now hoping his promotion was based on his hard work and capability and not his popularity with the union workers he was now supervising. But when he explained the installation of Mabel, he had been quickly rebuked by the shop steward for “selling out.”
Tony knew the company line was to promote the need to be more competitive against those voracious offshore competitors who were getting half the pay of U.S. workers. He had heard this line himself for ten years as he saw top management pay quadrupled every year. So he had simply said to his fellow former workers, “I had no choice” hoping the word would not get back to human resources which was watching his every move. He had just gone through a session with them in which they stressed how acting as if you owned the business was good for one’s career as well as the company.
So when the workers gave the FM machine the name of Mabel, Tony was somewhat relieved because they did not name it after the superintendent as one had suggested. There was a macho attitude in his shop in which workers were proud of welding and machining components for turbines which could operate around the clock with steam blasting through them at several thousand miles an hour with the precision of a Swiss watch.
While Tony wished they had not chosen Mabel because that was the name of the human resources vice president, he would explain to her that Mabel was able. He had already gotten in trouble with her by suggesting that employee relations had been a better name because it implied a relationship and not a resource like the metals he used in the shop. So it was “Able Mabel” if she asked.
But to the men, Mabel got her name from the waitress at the local pub who was forever letting the beer from the tap overflow the mugs. Seeing that wasted beer go down the drain was enough to make them, as they said, cry over spilled beer. They were waiting to see how well Mabel could handle her job spot welding turbine components as they came by her.
Tony remembered the day when an automatic sweeper was sent to the area to replace Oliver who used to clean up the area. Oliver had been there for years and was well regarded by the machinists and assemblers who would tell newcomers they had met some managers, too, who didn’t know enough to come in from the rain. Oliver was totally focused on keeping the area clean and in doing so was never bored.
Tony was one of the machinists then who really appreciated the efforts Oliver made to keep the area neat, often ordering them to shove the metal shavings in a pile where he could easily get to them. It was a sad day when he was replaced with the automatic sweeper. Now the area was messy because the machine did not do corners. Tony had been one of those who often fed it their leftover lunch, especially banana peels.
Now he was the foreman having to report on the productivity increases of the first welding robot. And not just one report. He was being inundated from corporate functions he did not even know existed for reports on everything from maintenance to its social effect on its human counterparts to its output on three shifts. He even had to do a cost analysis of the time the workers were on vacation, sick or doing personal business versus the FM which was on the job around the clock without stopping. The latest request was for a report on how much time the men spent in the bathroom as part of his cost analysis.
Worse were the visits by corporate executive teams to observe Mabel in action. He still had friends on the floor who would help him clean up the area the automatic sweeper could not handle.
Tony looked at the pictures of his wife and kids on his desk which was the same height as the walls surrounding his cubicle area in the middle of the shop. In the old days, foremen had their own offices like white collar workers but the CTPI, Corporate Team on Productivity Improvements, had decided that foremen should interface more with the workforce. So here he was trying to make out these new monthly written reports in the midst of machine noise and welding fumes.
He wiped the dust off the pictures but did not bother cleaning the silly TV monitor they had installed so he had could have a view of the work area. All he had to do was look over his desk to see what was going on. He knew that he, along with his work force, was being watched by the manager of manufacturing and the superintendent who also had TV monitors put in by the CTPI.
As he dusted off the photos, he remembered that he was supposed to pick up some bread and the family-size carton of Kentucky fried chicken on the way home. He couldn’t believe it but his wife had proved it to him. It was cheaper to buy take-out than it was to make it at home. He hadn’t eaten homemade bread in years, but this thing with the chicken was really bothering him. But her cost-saving figures of electricity usage, cooking time and high-volume savings to buy chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken instead of buying it at the local butchers were correct. She now had a job as a cashier at Walmart because there had been no cost-of-living increase in his paycheck for years.
Tony was in the same dilemma as the assemblers and machinists. Management said they must compete against foreign workers making a lot less so their wages had remained stagnant for years. Yet, Tony had to agree with labor. CEO salaries were now l200 times greater than the average employee, not l5.
Tony tried to shrug off the frustration of it all. The shift was changing and he would be replaced as well as his men for the second shift. Only Mabel would stay and stay. When he came in at 7:45 a.m. to begin his shift he had begun imagining that she was chastising him for not being there. He hated to look at her. Now he felt she was taunting him for going home. He lifted some forms he had to fill out concerning her behavior and waved them at her.
His replacement arrived for the shift change. Tony got up and went by his workers as they lined up at the time clock to punch out. The psychologist had suggested foremen not go by the punch clock to prevent resentment since foremen did not have to punch a clock. But his men understood his frustration. They were even nice enough to refer to his factory office as a bullpen instead of a cage.
Just as Tony was chatting with them, all hell broke loose. Mabel was blowing her stack. All you could hear was her hiss and a huge cloud of smoke surrounding her. A turbine flange had been missing on the conveyor to her and when Mabel reached out to spot weld it, she couldn’t find it. Through the fumes busting out of her control panel, it looked like Mabel was brazing herself together. Her welding and placement hands, still hissing from their hot molten grip, were grotesquely locked together. Her arms became twisted and gnarled. She was coming apart at her own metal seams. Her readout box was flashing and gyrating wildly. More sparks began flying. When she hit all tens in her ten figures box, which logged each welding action, she exploded.
A cheer went up at the time clock. The men grabbed each other and began dancing in the aisles. Tony joined them. He raised his hand to cover the TV monitor. He told the superintendent and manufacturing manager to tell the CPTI team that FM would be taking a lot of time off now. He would soon be sending in a report on how much lost time she had accumulated and do a cost analysis of that. He might even call it his Humpty Dumpty report.
Tony left with the men, laughing all the way to the parking lot. Tony then declared that he was going to stop by the butchers and have a real cookout….fried chicken with all the trimmings. And he knew where he could get some great home baked bread, too. Oliver’s mother was now selling it to take care of Oliver.
They were going to have a great celebration and they would even invite Mabel from the pub because she could be trusted to serve the many six packs they would need without spilling it.
But while they were wondering what CPTI would do about Mabel, they did not know about the report now coming down to their manufacturing manager. He was being told that a new CEO had decided it was cheaper to move the plant to a third world country where labor was cheaper than to invest in modern factories.
Now the new party line was no longer we must reduce wages to compete against foreign workers. Now it is we must move the plant to compete in world markets.
So even Mabel is no longer useful to the new CEO who discovered he could make money quicker exploiting third world labor instead of investing in modern plant and equipment