Zenith…

It was the early 70’s, Hubs and I had stumbled our way through 3 plus years of wedded bliss and had one offspring to show for our efforts. The last 2 houses we rented had been sold while we lived in them, giving us little time to skedaddle. Someone suggested with a small down payment we could buy a house and not have to move all the time. We did just that, buying a big 2-story fixer-upper, much of the aesthetic work could be done with elbow grease and a few gallons of paint. (Hubs elbow grease included taking down 2 humongous trees in the front yard with a hand sawby himself)! We had nothing, he had no tools, we did what we could but a thousand dollars would have done wonders for the place.

Shannon in our foyer on 23rd street, Sioux City, 1972…

The best way to eek our way forward was for me to go to work. Hubs had given up a job he loved at Channel 4 because the pay and hours weren’t the best and had recently started working at Zenith Corporation. He came home one night and said Zenith was hiring, no experience needed. Before I could apply though we had to figure out who was going to take care of our adorable toddler while I was slaving away for $1.60 and hour. (Good times). Found a retired lady named Gussy we picked up every morning to watch Shannon at our house. If my mom had a few days off she’d come to our house or take Shannon to Rock Valley which really helped.

Shannon’s 18 foot long bedroom, 1973…

If you wanted to study the downfall of American manufacturing, Zenith was a pretty good example. Around 1970 over 3 million color TV’s were sold in the US and every one of them was made here. Not only Zenith but Sylvania, Motorola, Admiral, Philco, Sunbeam, RCA, Quasar, Magnavox and Wizard. The huge plant I worked at in 1972 would close in 1978. By 1991 when TV sales were up to 21 million, only one US company was still producing them-a Zenith plant in Missouri which closed the next year. American companies complained for years that Japan was flooding the market with lower priced TV’s. When a Japanese TV was made and sold in Japan, the price was around $500. Japan sent that same TV to the states and sold it for less than $300 here. We couldn’t compete but it wasn’t really our fault.

A Zenith color TV. (We had an RCA 13”) in 1969…

When I started working at Zenith it was one of the largest manufacturers of color TV’s and had nearly 3,000 employees in Sioux City, Iowa. Approximately 2,900 were women. The plant was not air-conditioned (the offices were though). That’s a lot of hormones sweating to the oldies. There were massive assembly lines, sometimes upwards towards 70-100 people, each assigned their own tidy job in producing your new color TV. One of their best ad jingles was; “The quality goes in before the name goes on.”

The line I was assigned to produced boards going into color TV’s, chock full of diodes, transistors and resistors. Each person was responsible for inserting these tiny parts meticulously with pliers the size of a tweezer. We sat on backless barstools but at least we didn’t have to stand on concrete for 8 hours. After several of these parts were tucked on this board, someone further down the line swedged the bottom of the board. (Cutting off the ends so they wouldn’t fall back out). Then the board slid over a wave soldering pot which was a waist high rectangle contraption in the aisle of 2 lines with melted molten solder keeping everything in place so there were no rejected parts with quality issues. Anyone working near the wave solder pot noticed a 15 degree increase in heat and humidity, plus it smelled hot and metally. On one boiling hot summer day a gal called another girl a ‘bitch’ (it was the heat, made all of us rather irritable). A physical fight broke out causing one lady to come precariously close to taking a dip in the wave pot (between 800 & 850 degrees). Hubs was walking down the main aisle when he spotted the fight and caught the one about to be dipped and hauled them both to the HR department. I think they were separated from each other by several thousand feet after that little tiff.

The Zenith plant in Sioux City…

Hubs was one of several industrial engineers setting up production lines, but I was lost when he tried to explain it. After the line was ready to make parts is where most of his daily work came in. He was responsible for running time studies on every worker on each line, then making adjustments in how fast those parts came down the line and how much time you had to slap those parts in the right holes. After all the time studies were done our line was offered an incentive. If we worked faster (as a group) the magic number was 130% which was quite a boost in our pay. We never failed to make our incentive.

The line I worked on was part of Hubs’ responsibilities but he didn’t want to be accused of being partial because of me so he traded my line with another engineer whose spouse also worked at Zenith, so he didn’t have to time study his wife either. Politics in the workforce.

One day Hubs was in the office (did I mention they were deliciously cool during the summer?) and got a phone call from a new male foreman, (most of the foremen were women who actually ran the lines better than their male counterparts. The women foremen took no shit from the gals on the line) screaming he had a problem and needed help immediately. John runs to the floor (yeah he worked up a sweat, it was a scorcher in the plant that day) expecting to find a machine down but there stood 3 scowling women and one cowering foreman. “What’s the problem,” Hubs asks? “Well the 2 on the right are sick of the fan blowing hot air on them and want it off. The gal on the left is sweating buckets and wants it on high.” “Not my problem,” says Hubs, “that’s why the line has you-the foreman. Figure it out,” and walks back upstairs.

Both of us working at Zenith, living the good life, 1973…

Twenty minutes he gets another call from the same frantic new boss. “You gotta help me, I don’t know what to do but it’s real bad down here.” Hubs meanders his way back to the problem production line. “It’s too hot in here, I can’t work like this,” the overheated one screams. “Well you’re not putting that fan back on. It gives me a headache and you can just learn to work in the heat,” one of the fan naysayers screams back. Hubs bites his cheek to keep a straight face. The overly warm, buxom lady has ditched her shirt and bra in protest to her hot surroundings and is valiantly trying to insert her parts (none belonging to her anatomy). He gives the terrified foreman a seething look and orders the foreman and 3 ladies up to the HR department (after she yanks and tugs her sweaty bra and shirt back on. (You can’t make this stuff up).

From TV’s to toys…

A couple years later Hubs got a job offer from a toy company on the other side of the state. What fun to make toys all day. There he (we) would learn how batshit nuts a company can be when owned privately by a band of crazy brothers…

3 thoughts on “Zenith…

  1. I love your family photo. Just beautiful. It is sad that companies are still run the same way. Climate controlled offices and frigid or frying production areas. I always worked in the offices, but I thought it was ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, get 3,000 women in a 95 degree plant during a humid summer day in Iowa and find out how many are strippers in the off season! I have a hard time reconciling that the US lost that many manufacturers in such a short time-and we didn’t stop it but kept losing more since. One of the comments on Facebook after I posted the blog there said Zenith is still technically part of the LG corporation out of South Korea. Somehow that made me feel even worse. Thanks for reading and commenting Mitch…

      Liked by 1 person

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