When I was in college, back in the 1980s, my campus pastor recommended a publication to me called "Tyranny of the Urgent," (Charles E. Hummel, 1967). The title came back to me the other day as I was working a press at plastics giant Sterilite Corp. in Massillon, Ohio. Nowhere is the “tyranny of the urgent” more palpable than at Sterilite, where the presses spit out hot plastic parts every 20-30 seconds. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to deal with that for 12 hours straight. Up until recently, I didn't think I was that kind of person. Let me explain.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so in 2009, as a newly out-of-work journalist, I took a job with Sterilite. I've been toiling there as a “temporary” warehouse loader for 16 months now, not including a four-month layoff.
The transition hasn't been easy. Sometimes, when I'm inside a dirty, dusty, smelly tractor-trailer, pulling heavy boxes off a skid, I cope by playing a game of free association. Product number 1945, Sterilite's 35-gallon latch tote, raises my sights when I think about the end of World War II in 1945. That's the year my German mother's family, anticipating the eventual Soviet domination of eastern Germany, decided to pack up their belongings, bribe some Russian soldiers and move west. Before I know it, I'm thinking about all manner of things unrelated to my immediate task. A song, say, “Railroad Worksong,” might even come to mind.
What can I say? It helps. After 22 years as a newspaper reporter, I've had to, in these difficult economic times, reinvent myself as a manual laborer.
Sterilite probably is best known as America's supplier of injection molded plastic housewares to Wal-Mart and other retailers. I say “other retailers” because, like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, who could dig in a day what a hundred men could dig in a week, Wal-Mart's dominance as a Sterilite retailer is so pronounced that it eclipses all others. Easily half of the trailers we load in Sterilite's shipping department in Massillon are Wal-Mart trailers — which leads me to conclude that as long as there's a Wal-Mart, there will be a Sterilite.
Sterilite's plant in Massillon is one of six in the U.S., including South Carolina, Texas and Massachusetts, its corporate headquarters. The Ohio facility has been open since 1996 and has grown to five interconnected warehouses and an annex on the southeast side of town. Sterilite remains one of the largest employers in Stark County, although its reputation for employee turnover is legendary around these parts. (A 2008 study by the Ohio Department of Development showed 446 employees at Sterilite, placing it among the top 20 employers in the county. It's unclear whether this includes the many “temps” at Sterilite who technically work for Marathon Staffing and Flex-Team.)
Workers in production have it the hardest because they must keep up with the presses that form the injection molded parts: totes, lids, wastebaskets, laundry baskets, drawers, carts, cabinets, containers and more. These presses — there are about 80 of them — spit out plastic products to the tune of one every 20-30 seconds. Press operators must take the product and, depending on the specifications of the machine, add handles, wheels and/or stickers. The product is then placed in a cardboard box, which also is made by the operator, taped up, sent down a conveyor track and placed on a skid. The mind-numbing speed and monotony of the job is compounded by the fact that shifts are 12 hours long.
Production workers I talk to are always happy to be sent back to shipping for the day. Loading six or seven trucks a day may be difficult, but it sure beats the tedium of operating a hot press. (You could probably populate the city of Massillon with the number of people who have walked away from Sterilite's presses.) I was lucky enough to be hired for shipping, where 61 warehouse docks stay busy around the clock sending Sterilite products to 46 retailers nationwide. That's not counting the 19 online retailers, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Amazon.com.
Shippers work in concert with forklift drivers, who daily play a vast and intricate game of concentration, locating the right product for each order. Once the skids are brought to the dock, shippers floor-load the boxes onto the truck.
For someone like me, who's not exactly a robust physical specimen, they can be a challenge to load — especially at 400-500 cartons a trailer. I sometimes feel like the Grinch's dog, Max, trying to load up his master's sleigh, groaning under the weight of all that ill-gotten Christmas booty from Whoville.
Tractor-trailers are often dusty and unkempt. In the summer, they're sweltering, sometimes exceeding temperatures of 100 degrees. (A forklift driver and I once put a thermometer in a trailer and watched the red line top out at 114 degrees!) Fall and winter are better for shippers but harder on drivers, who have to bundle up against the cold. Some shippers wear paper masks to filter out the dust in the trailers.
The number of plastic household products shipped by Sterilite on a daily basis — all in an endless effort to keep up with Americans' seemingly insatiable appetite for plastic — is staggering. But the numbers aren't what they used to be, according to forklift drivers I've talked to. One told me there was a time back in the early 2000s when tractor-trailers had to wait in line to get to an open dock in shipping. That hasn't occurred recently, at least not since I've been there, and over the 2010 holidays, most planned overtime was canceled.
Working at Sterilite, I've witnessed firsthand some other interesting corporate trends: Online sales have gone up; Home Depot has, in the last three years, edged itself into the top five of Sterilite retailers; further automation, in the form of robots on the production side, is looming; and Sterilite continues to expand and diversify its product offerings.
Some things don't change. Judging from the amount we load each week, the 1815, Sterilite's 18-gallon tote box, continues to be among its most popular items with consumers and the least popular with my co-workers. That's because when combined eight in a box, they weigh 35 pounds. At 12 boxes to a skid and 40-plus skids to a truck, the average order of 1815s can weigh 7 tons or more.
Thinking of these loads in terms of tons is not helpful. Taking them one box at a time keeps the job more manageable.
Now if I can just think of something interesting that happened in 1815 …
Huba recently was laid off from Sterilite. He has worked as a journalist for more than 22 years, writing for newspapers all over the state of Ohio. A former religion writer in Cincinnati, he also has been published in The Christian Century, Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (now CCM Magazine) and other publications. He currently freelances and lives in Massillon, Ohio.