Rembrandt Output/Productivity between 1955 and 1957

by Rob Clayton

The maximum linear speed in yards per hour (the equivalent of a 36-inch circumference cylinder) at which I found it possible to scan a close-register web was 8,000. This was something like the Homes and Gardens floral displays that were subsequently inserted into a letterpress magazine. We had no web scanners or autotron controls, and had to scan the running web, it being impractical to take copies from the fly every few seconds, so 8,000 impressions per hour was the maximum running speed. For the normal 8-hour day shift, if my memory serves me correctly, the target was between 45,000 and 47,000 copies per shift of a typical 1-up [1-set] magazine, i.e., in which one rotation of the cylinder produced one copy.

There was an unwritten agreement within the chapel not to produce more than a certain production output per shift. If a day-shift chargehand had a really good run, he would not book the extra copies, but would leave them for the night-shift chargehand to book. The night shift of that press would then close it down when it had met its quota and the team would go home early, leaving the night manager (one of the senior chargehands) to clock them out at 5:00 a.m. when the night shift finished. The shifts consisted of four 10-hour nights, so it was not unknown for people to slip away around 4:00 a.m.

The production from the presses was determined by the chargehand. Chargehands were long-serving printers, and at Rembrandt they were a small group. In many print shops there was a 'glass ceiling': no individual printer would run the press faster or produce significantly more than any other printer. To do so would be to stick one's head over the parapet and incur, initially, pointed comments; persistence could result in ‘unfortunate’ web breaks and other occurrences.

The ‘ceiling’ was a figure based on the production that could be realistically achieved without undue effort, but this was not in any way a go-slow or anti-management device. It was justified by the claim that when we got older we would not be able to achieve higher outputs than the accepted ceiling, and this was what unions were all about! Some print shops were not bogged down in this sort of thing, yet I would be surprised if this did not apply within the Sun itself. I would be willing to bet that the colour retouchers and other process workers had fairly well-established output quotas too.

How did they get away with this?

In most production environments there is a clear line between 'shop floor' and management. The craftsmen capable of performing the skilled work may be promoted to chargehand, supervisor, or even departmental manager within the company. In a rapidly growing industry, the exceptional printer can/could reach the very top, as is outlined in the story of the Sun. But as the years went by and professional managers more and more occupied the senior positions, the craftsmens’ opportunities for promotion diminished unless they moved on to another employer.

Within Rembrandt, at least on the rotaries, the chargehands were a select group, and the department manager and deputy manager were ex-chargehands who had probably been complicit in the quotas themselves at some time. They would not have had the nerve to try to stop the practice. The old hands like Bert Nockles would have known what was going on, but it was better to maintain steady production output than to have poor labour relations, and anyway in 1955 Sun/Rembrandt were doing very well thank you.