Monday, January 17, 2011

Shop Rats Unite

Had one of those awkward California conversational moments today when I used the term "shop rat" with someone unschooled in the nuances of Flintoid lingo. I then spent ten minutes unsuccessfully trying to illustrate the various uses of the term. I felt like a Brit trying to explain "bollocks" to an American.

But it got me shop rat a Flint-only term? A Michigan term? An auto industry term? And where did it come from? When did it start being used?


  1. when i fueled planes at mccaren we called each other hose rats.

  2. "Shop" is as far as I know a Michigan/auto worker only term for the auto factory. What do they call it in the southern states?

    I have a couple of "shop rat" t-shirts from Ben Hamper.

    I'll see if I can Hamper to comment.

  3. The first time that I heard the term was in the song "Shop Rat Blues" by the band Flint, in 1979.

  4. Have no clue to the origin. I do know my old man used it a lot in the 60s -- as in: "Keep those grades up & you'll be just another shoprat." Gotta give him credit. Usually he didn't know jack.


    BTW-you somehow got posted on the India Times.

  6. Whenever we'd get caught in traffic near Buick or Chevy in the hole at shift change, my mom would sing a little song along the lines of "Look out, look out, the shop rats are out!" She also told me to be extra careful driving around the factories at the shift change because traffic laws weren't always obeyed. "Those guys want out of there," she explained.

    Clearly there's a lot of jobs/activities with "rat" attached — gym rat, etc. But I'm still wondering if the term applies to all auto workers or just in Flint. Any one out there working in the shop in some other city or state? Do they use the term?

  7. And here's a brief discussion of the term at the Factory Rats Unite website:

  8. The departments where specific work was done, like paint shop, pattern shop, upholstery shop and on with it, were around for as far as I can remember. And my friends that said they didn't want to end up being a shop rat like their old man is, in the sweat shops of G.M. That was in the forties and I'm sure it was being said way before that. I don't think they had quaint little swinging signs over the doors that read "Ye Old Wood Shoppe", but then again..there's the shop jock too. Where'd that one come from?

  9. Interesting. Certainly, when I worked in the factories (the truck plant on Van Slyke, which was a engine plant when I worked there) and at plant four by the river, the term "shop rat" was very commonly used.

    Steve Vivian

  10. Like everyone else working in the shops, when anyone asked what do you do to pay the rent the answer was "I'm a shoprat." I did approximently three years at AC, working the Dort highway plant, Avrill and the old no.1 plant over by Buick city. Not a lot of time in but I was third generation there and always proud of the experience. By the time I was working there, mid/late 70's, the writing was already appearing on the wall. The city was changing and not in a positive direction.

  11. This entry is a little long, so I’m going to enter it in two parts - please bear with me!

    Part 1:

    I had that very same experience with a Californian and fellow translator a few years back. I knew it was a fairly specific term, but I was somewhat surprised to find that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I don't think it's a Flint-only term, but it might be more specific to either the Midwest or to Michigan. I do a lot of auto industry-related translation here and the terms "shop" and "shop rat" are simply unknown; they are not taught or used, and of course they wouldn't be used in formal writing anyway. That to me is fairly indicative of more localized usage.

    Also, I personally have only ever associated the term with the automotive industry, and, having grown up in Flint, specifically with GM. But those at the website seem to use it for any skilled worker, which is a surprise to me and makes me wonder if they haven't simply expanded the term's original meaning somewhat artificially to get their organization off the ground. I mean no offense by that - I’m just speculating.

    And in historical perspective, if the term was considered negative in the 1940’s as “Curmudgeon Ess” mentions on FB, I would suspect it was a result of the tensions both before and after the industrial action and Sit Down Strike the decade before. So if it was once or still can be construed as negative, under what circumstances? Does it have to do with hierarchy? Salaried vs non-salaried? Union vs non-union? Perceptions of social status or class? And is it only after the McCarthy era and with greater acceptance of the unions that the term became less negatively charged?

  12. Here's part 2:

    To me it was always a more or less positive, colloquial reference to an auto factory worker and one which the employees often used to describe themselves. At the same time, I also had a dim awareness when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s that it was not a term everyone used, and when I used it, I was somewhat linguistically and socially out of place. If you don’t mind, I’d like to analyze this for a second, so let me provide a little social background: My dad worked for GM as an engineer in tool design for almost 30 years beginning in the mid-1950’s. He didn’t work the line, but knew everybody, was non-union & college-educated. We lived on the Northwest Side in a neighborhood of GM and non-GM people, union and non-union, and people from a variety of educational backgrounds. He never used the term “shop rat” – never - at least not around us. I can also vaguely remember my mom expressing surprise once when I used it at a fairly young age probably in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. It’s not a term she ever would have used and she was curious where I’d picked it up, and asked about it. I am not sure if she would remember this, but I distinctly recall her indicating to me that there was a better choice of words, but that was probably not a commentary on the term itself, just an effort to encourage a phrase that wasn’t slangy or colloquial. In any case, I thought the term “shop rats” was cool and for the people I knew who used the phrase, it was definitely a positive thing with a kind of community feel about it.

    I wouldn’t have used the term “identity marker” back then, I wouldn’t have even known what that meant, but that’s exactly what the term “shop rat” was and is. But it was and is different things to different people, and when I first came across the term I was aware, as I said above, that I was somewhat out of place with it. Allow me one more example from that same period, the late 70’s, early 80’s, a time when Flint had long begun to lose its bearings. My dad and I would take these long drives throughout the city and its neighborhoods, his stomping grounds as a pre-WWII kid and teenager and post-WWII young man. We would talk about all sorts of things and people from the past. And here I emphasize “the past” – we were both very well aware of change, including change for the worse, and we talked about it. At the same time these drives and conversations were taking place, I was growing up. I think, looking back, that even though I didn’t come from a family of line workers, I was developing an awareness of a community built on their labor and, for better or worse, an awareness that it was not just changing - it was disappearing. And it was a fragmenting community that we were all a part of. We spent a lot of time talking about that change. Oddly, or maybe not, I think this made the term “shop rats” all the more endearing and positive to me. And that holds true today, perhaps even more so living abroad.

  13. At least until about the mid to late 1970s, at least at Chevrolet Flint Manufacturing, you had a bunch of upwardly mobile people, who went from assembly or skilled trades to supervision, and even further. Plenty of their children, even hourly workers, went to college and some to very selective schools. Many went into professions such as medicine and law.

    I think the upward mobility stopped about the time that management of GM started to come from accounting rather than engineering, and from liberal arts schools rather than GMI.

    Suddenly, you could no longer move up the ladder without a college degree. I think that demoralized a lot of experiencd workers who thought one day that they would move up.

    I think that is another factor in the decline of Flint.

  14. Auto Unions had little to do with McCarthy's investigations. He was investigating government and Hollywood. In fact, Russia and The Soviet Union have released information that confirms much of what McCarthy alleged.

    The Unions and Auto companies, on the other hand, gave hope to people that they would become part of the Middle Class, either by wages, a higher position outside the Union, or a small retail or professional business. That hope is gone now. The Unions, regardless of their original intent, caused a huge expansion of the Middle Class. That is not part of the Dialectic Theory in any classic sense. It was something much better.

  15. When I was studying for my doctorate in psychology, I did a class presentation on working with regional differences. I put words on the board such as "shoprat", "committeeman", "triple time", "holiday pay", etc. and not one other student had any idea what any of them were.

  16. If you were to stand across the street from any plant and watch the people file out they look like a herd of rats running out of the gate. In response to rward other unions call their committeeman/person Union stewart I think shop rats are the only one that use the term committee person. As far as students go, how many college students have ever worked in a union place prior to college.

  17. Connie, to you they may have looked like rats running out the gate, but isn't that kind of condescending? How many college students ever worked in a union place before college? Back in the day, plenty! Today, I can't say because there are relatively few union workers except in government.

    Upward Mobility can be generational as well as individual. It doesn't fit in to Dialectic Theory, but was a real and positive phenomena that our country could sure use a lot more of today.

  18. Anonymous, Connie's comments weren't as condescending as the reference to Dialectic Theory. And she, at least, took credit for her words.

  19. People who chose to stay at entry level jobs, or status, and made no effort to move up to skilled trades or supervision, or to use the many venues available for self-improvement for themselves or encourage their children to do so.

    The men who played cards in Friday night until one man won all the paychecks.

    The man whose son told his teacher "My dad makes more than you and he didn't finish high school. Why should I listen to you?"

  20. Even worse is trying to explain to someone what a "shop rat hat" is, I still don't know the proper term for that style of hat.

  21. The term I've heard most often of late is a "trucker's hat" if you're talking about the baseball caps with the big spongy front panel and the mesh back. Or are you talking about the old school hats that looked a bit like train engineers' caps?

  22. The proper name for "Chevy In The Hole" is/was Chevrolet Flint Manufacturing. I worked there first between high school and my first year of college. Someone who disliked me in high school heard about it and told everyone that I was now a "shop rat". I haven't much cared for the term since.

    I meant no offense to Connie referring to Dialectic Theory. My point was that the Upward Mobility that was part of GM and the UAW at that time was somehow an embarassment to people who thought of history strictly in terms of a struggle between Capitalism and Communism. The government wasn't telling GM that they had to share the wealth, it just happened at the time, partly because of the unions, who were staunchly anti-Communist at the time. People weren't locked into the Proletariat. I guess the historical upper class was threatened by the Proletariat moving up, and the people who liked Communism were upset that it didn't fit their Dialectic Theory. That is ALL I meant.

  23. I wanted to expand on previous comments about upward mobility in Flint in the post WWII era until about 1985 or so.

    I grew up on the west and southwest side of Flint. In my west side neighborhood, within the address block that I lived, there are no fewer than five persons who lived there who now have some kind of doctorate degree, four of which are in health care fields, and a fifth in social science. Another is a mechanical engineer.

    In the southwest side neighborhood I moved to later, there are no fewer than three who grew up there with doctorate degrees. Also within a block or so, one became a lawyer and another a CPA.

    Others became teachers, nurses, and stockbrokers.

    I have to wonder whether their success was not only due to intelligence, but a economic system which allowed those people to pursue respected and advanced degrees, due to the high wages in the auto industry and also filtering in to the businesses which were supported by the autoworkers. These businesses ranged from retail stores such as furniture, grocery,
    professional, office supply, and pharmacy.

    Neither of these neighborhoods I mention was zoned A-1 residential.

    I am frequently reminded by the national media that the only proven path to good jobs is an Ivy League education. Few of the people I knew went to such schools. In fact, most of the students in my neighborhoods went to state universities and state professional schools.

    Of the Ivy League students I knew of, some from the A-1 residential zoned areas, most ended up derailed into less prestigious but extremely well paying careers. But even many of the brighter students who didn't go to college or left college without a degree, have landed on their feet with prestigious careers and high corporate positions, or have their own businesses.

    This is probably unbelievable to anyone outside Flint. This is not “reunion bragging”. The present information is mostly verifiable with internet research. I would not characterize the parents of these students as “shop rats“, though. The autoworker parents tended to be clerical, technical, and skilled trades hourly workers, and experience and job trained engineers.

    I don't know if this is typical of other people in Flint, or if I was in the Flint "Twilight Zone". I do know that the success stories extended into Flint neighborhoods other than the ones I lived in, and to the suburbs.

  24. There is one other word in conjunction with that, and its Shop Town. That goes back to the first of part of the 19th century, to refer to town built by a single industry, and so everyone was dependent upon the industry, including the other businesses. Lima, Ohio and Pullman, Ill are two I can think of that were company or shop towns. And let's face it, Flint was GM's Shop Town.
    But can anyone from Flint think of ShopRat as a negative? Most I knew took it with a sense of perverse pride, and why not? The town may be failing now, but it provided us a whole heck of a lot in its time and it was thanks to all those previous generations of ShopRats.

  25. Yes, shop rats unite, we are a proud bunch. Some of us went on to loftier positions and others stayed on the line for their entire working career. Both paths seem to be a pretty good choice from my perspective. It took courage to move out and up; it also took courage to stay right there and punch that clock for 30 years, providing a decent life for the family. I am proud of where I lived and what I did.

  26. During the 1940s, many children from impoverished families living on deserted farm lands on the northwest side of flint(Dupont to Clio Rd, and Pasadena to Stewart Ave), were forced to attend Civic Park Elementary School when their temporary school was closed. At the time Civic Park was considered an "up scale" school in a model neighborhood. The poor kids weren't readily accepted into the social fabric of Civic Park by teachers and classmates alike. Anyone that remembers Civic Park in the 1940s and/or the poor kids from the area mentioned above, please contact JD Hill


Thanks for commenting.