In Michelle Sanborn’s living room stands a massive oak china cabinet. It is full of expensive china and crystal. Michelle has come a long way from the projects in Oakland. The ink stains under her fingernails are only part of the price she has paid.
I never knew my father, and my mother died when I was a baby. My grandmother raised my brother and I. Would you believe we lived off public assistance? Grandma never worked. She just stayed home and took care of us. For three or four years we lived in public housing. The rest of the time we lived in different apartment houses—all in Oakland, California.
Grandma drank a lot. I could never have anybody home from school ’cause I never knew if my grandmother was drunk or not. So I ended up pretty lonely and very non-social with other people. I tried to get school officials and welfare officers to do something about Grandma. They’d come to the house, but it never changed. She still drank. So I just went to school and misbehaved. My brother was the same way. Neither of us had any desire to do anything at all. I hated school and probably had a D average. I kind of got into running the streets—not really getting into trouble. You know, not getting picked up by the police, but hanging out with older people.
The first job I got was when I was in tenth grade working in a restaurant. Then I went to work in a nursing home in the kitchen. I made a dollar fifty an hour. That was under minimum wage. Because I was not considered full-time help, they could pay me less. After I finished high school, I got married. Then in nineteen seventy-one I went back to work in a nursing home as a nurse’s aide. I made a dollar thirty-five an hour for cleaning up shitty bottoms, getting beat up by old people, and just basically taking care of them. There was some satisfaction in helping someone who couldn’t help themself.
Then I went to work for a doctor as a receptionist. I started out at two twenty-five an hour and when I left I was making four dollars an hour. I left there for a job as a receptionist and bookkeeper at another clinic. Working for a doctor was good for me. It taught me a lot. I learned that I could do things I hadn’t thought I could. I mean, working for a doctor is high class. I learned to get along with people and found out about a whole ’nother world—what it is like to be around people who have money, the things they do with that money, and how cheap they are. Eventually I got tired of it. I saw myself going nowhere—financially or mentally. It was the same thing every day. I wanted to do something else.
I went out looking for a job and got on in a factory that made plastic bags. The pay was good, five fifty an hour. I was fascinated with the way the label printers put a roll of paper on the press, ran it through, and came out with a finished product. Things that we see every day in the store are all printed. Anyplace you look there is something printed. My first job was rewinding, which meant taking the rolls that are done off the press and rewinding and fixing them so we could send them to the customer. It didn’t take any skill to be a rewinder. The rewinders and packers were girls and all the printers were males. Printers made nine-something an hour, so I decided that was something I wanted to learn. I wanted a trade to fall back on if something ever happened.
I don’t remember any fears about becoming a printer. I knew in myself I could do it. It was just a matter of time to learn how. So when the company needed another printer, I went and asked the bosses for the job. I thought I knew what printing was like ’cause I had seen the guys do it, but it turned out to be more difficult. It took a lot of patience and I don’t have a lot of patience. You have to learn how to mount a plate on a cylinder so that it is straight and that can be very difficult. Dies are pieces of metal that are set in rollers. You have to learn just how much to tighten the die down, make it straight, and set it to cut through the paper, but not all the way through. It is pretty complicated. It took me three months to just learn all the different kinds of paper there were.
Working conditions for the printers were pretty lousy. It was very noisy and the ventilation was poor. You had trouble breathing because of all the fumes. All your solvents were alcohol-based and smelled. You would get really high off the fumes. It’s like you’d smoked a joint or something. If you’re a woman, you have two choices—either you go find yourself another profession which pays nothing, or you try not to inhale—as much as possible.
Besides the printing, I had to do all the shit work around the place. I had to do inventory, slit paper, and run the forklift. There were times when I felt like I was being treated really shitty. Like once a bunch of material came in on a pallet that was busted and my boss told me that I had to go and move all of these rolls by myself. There were thirty or forty rolls of paper on this pallet, and the rolls weighed from fifty to seventy-five pounds each. So I went back into the warehouse and moved them manually with no help. But I feel like you sometimes have to do things like that on a job, so I did it and kept my mouth shut.
My foreman was in charge of the whole company. He was a super person, always chit-chatting with the workers. You never felt like you were any less than he was. If you made a mistake, he told you how much it cost, but never really got down on you. He was not on my side, though, when one guy made some crude comments about me. This one guy and I had gone ’round about something. I don’t even remember why, but I had gone into the bathroom. The man came and stood outside of the bathroom calling me “a fucking bitch,” as loud as he could so everybody in the whole company could hear it.
When I went to the supervisor and said, “I don’t appreciate being called a fucking bitch,” he told me, “Well, that’s your problem. We can’t do anything about it.” Seemed to me that no matter what I had done, there was still no reason to be called that.
It was unfair. The reason I say that is later on I got really mad at my supervisor and said, “You know, you guys are all male chauvinist pigs.” And the big boss had the balls to call me into his office and tell me that I was wrong. They wrote it up against me on my record. It wasn’t right. The guys I worked with could call me anything they wanted, but if I said anything it went against me on my evaluation.
Every once in awhile they would try and intimidate me. After one of the girls got her hair caught in the bag machine, we all had to wear hair nets. Even the little old men who were sixty years old and bald. Everybody had to wear a hair net and all our hair had to be in the net. Well, the men started to wear baseball caps and some of the women started to let their bangs hang out of their nets. But one day the boss from another department said I had to have all my hair inside the net. I told him my whole head of hair wouldn’t fit inside the net and that I was leaving to go buy myself another hair net. I left and didn’t even go back that day.
I called the Human Rights Commission to complain. I was pissed the old men wore baseball caps and the young guys let their hair hang out in the back, and the girls in the bagging department had their bangs hanging out, but I had to put my whole head of hair in the net. I felt like I was being picked on. The commission told me that I could put a suit against the company, and it would cost them oodles and oodles of dollars whether I won or lost, or they could call and tell them someone had complained. I said to just call up. I needed the job because we had just bought a new house and it was a good-paying job for a woman. I didn’t want to screw up and lose it, but felt it was important to do something. My husband was the one who told me to call up the Human Rights Commission, but I don’t know exactly how he felt because he never said. Anyhow the Human Rights Commission called the company up. They didn’t tell the company that I was the one who had called, but it was obvious. After that they kind of relaxed about the hair nets. There were still problems, but I felt you could only push so much. As long as they left me alone, I didn’t care. And they left me alone.
Not too long after that the company was sold, and I was told they probably wouldn’t keep me. A salesman told me that the company I now work for needed a printer. I went down to apply and started work about two or three days later. They were willing to pay me what I was making at the other job, so I started out at seven dollars and fifty cents an hour. They said I would get a raise in three months. It’s six months now, and they say I don’t get a raise in three months; they say I don’t get a raise until a year is up. In fact my salary has brought on hostility from the first day I started work. What I heard is, the company went bankrupt, was rebought, and then opened up again last September. The new company decided to cut everybody’s wages. A lot of the production workers had been making five and six dollars an hour and were cut down to three eighty-five an hour. Here they were all taking pay cuts, and I came in making more money than my supervisor. Nobody would associate with me or talk with me. I ate my lunch in my car by myself until I told the boss I preferred working a straight eight hours and then just go home.
A bunch of the people decided they weren’t going to stand for the pay cuts and voted in the Steelworkers Union the week that I went to work there. They hired me as a “lead” printer so I couldn’t join the union. The company’s very against unions and told me so. At one point it looked like the leads were going to be involved in the union so I was told to go to a meeting. They had to hold a vote for shop steward because one of the girls was leaving, and I said, “Sure, I’ll be steward.” I figured I would get only one vote, my own. It shocked the hell out of me when I got elected. All I can figure is that they now like me more than at first.
The company had me in the office for three hours after the election. They told me if I wanted to be shop steward that they would drop all my benefits and drop my wages, and drop my title of lead. Basically they put the screws to me. At home I called the union to find out for sure if leads were going to be in the union or not. They weren’t sure, and I said, “You had better find out.” Finally, they decided that leads, supervisors, and all personnel upstairs were not going to be in the union. So I couldn’t be the shop steward.
This is a very male-oriented company. Even the girls in the office have said the same thing. My boss is a male chauvinist pig. He doesn’t accept my word for anything. When I tell him something, he calls up his buddy in Redmond to find out if I’m right or wrong. Like, I told him the dies needed to be sharpened. They hadn’t been sharpened for three or four years. He wouldn’t do it on my say-so, but after he called that other guy, all of a sudden the dies were being sharpened. That makes me feel about one inch tall. And I know it’s because I’m a woman. We have a new maintenance man and whatever he says goes.
I just keep telling myself that I am a good printer. Sometimes I’ll compliment myself by saying to one of the guys there, a salesman, “Don’t you think that looks really good today?”
And he’ll go, “Oh, yeah.” I need to do something because I get no appreciation.
I want to quit but we need the money. We have two children, both boys. One is eleven and the other is eight. And my husband is not working right now, so we don’t have enough money coming in. He is disabled. In fact, he didn’t work the first seven years that we were married. But I figure as soon as he goes back to work, I am going to quit. I don’t care what my husband says or how he feels about that. I’ve had it up to the top of my head. I hate working for that company.
Having a good-paying job has made me a lot more independent. I was driving my husband’s reject cars and they would break down at six in the morning in back of the woods, and I would have to hitchhike to the babysitters’s and call my job and say I couldn’t come in because I had no transportation. And finally I got to the point one day that I told my husband that I was going to buy a new car. And that’s the way it was, because I made enough money that I felt that I could afford to buy a new car in my name. It’s my car. My husband was very angry. We went round and round about it, and he knew that I wasn’t going to back down. He still gets very angry when I say it’s my car. He says it’s our car. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned. It’s my car and he should ask permission to drive my car. He has his cars and I have one of my own. It’s mine.
Last year my husband was on a four-day work week so I made only eight hundred dollars less than he did for the whole year. I wish I had made more, for my own ego. One paycheck I made over seven hundred dollars for a two-week period. That’s more than he ever made in a two-week period. I was in seventh heaven. I was equal to him. I wasn’t below him. It took a lot of skill when I worked as a bookkeeper for a doctor, and I worked as many hours as my husband did, but got less than half what he made. Now I made damn near as much as he does. And I work just as hard as he does, and he knows how hard I work. I think that’s been hard for him. Traditional people have been brought up that a woman isn’t in the same classification as her husband. Now I feel like I’m just as good as he is. Maybe I’m even better.