Factory Factotum

In praise of the skills of the “unskilled” factory worker

“The hands and the creativity of labor – roomfuls!”  

At the dawn of the Great Recession, revered Massachusetts chair-maker Nichols and Stone, in business since the 1800s, went bankrupt. Hundreds were fired. 

“It was pretty difficult watching everybody walk out the door,” said A.J. Peterson, the former V.P. of manufacturing. “Everybody was walking off into the unknown.” 

A short while later, Stickley, a New York furniture store, bought Nichols and Stone’s “intellectual property” – the technology and designs for the variety of wood chairs that they made.  

Trouble was, the “intellectual” part was not the designs. It was the factory workers, and that got lost when they fired everyone who knew how to make those revered chairs. 

Nichols and Stone started making chairs again, though now in Stickley’s New York factory. As part of the deal, Peterson and Mr. Tuck Nichols, owner of the Nichols and Stone brand, had to show Stickley how to make the chairs. To do that, Peterson and Nichols brought a guy who worked more than 30 years in their old factory out to Stickley’s New York plant.  

“They were in awe of [him],” Peterson reported. “They said, this guy doesn’t waste a motion. You watch a good short order cook in a restaurant…same type of thing. He could make assembling a chair look like a beautiful piece of choreography almost.”   

“They couldn’t believe it.,” Tuck Nichols remembered. “It was the grace, the fluid motion; the guy was amazing. …It was effortless and everything came together like magic.” 

Stickley’s New York plant manager said, “We look like fools compared to this guy.”  

Social scientists in academia and government call the men and women who labor in factories “unskilled.” Unskilled means that the worker doesn’t have a degree or certification for what they do. With this word, “unskilled,” academics and bureaucrats imply that the work is rote; that the workers are mere extensions of the machines. The laborers are low paid, supposedly commensurate with their low skill. 

But Tom Juravich, sociologist and amateur carpenter, argues that we need to re-think the whole notion of “unskilled.” He interviewed the workers and managers of Nichols and Stone to tell its Lazarus story, and to open our eyes to the unheralded skills of the low paid factory-worker.


Have a Seat 

Chairs can be complex. One can sit on a stump, but that gets tiring after a while. A comfortable and pretty chair requires precision. A scooped-seat sheaf-back chair – the back looks like a sheaf of wheat – requires many fine bends and cuts. Machines can replace slow-going freehand work, but these bends and cuts are, up to now, beyond the ability of computerized “smart” machines to do so automatically. It makes more economic sense, and a better chair, for flesh-and-blood people to helm the machines.  

But anyone who has used a machine knows that it must be adjusted to the task. Intricate tasks – such as making chairs – require many fine adjustments. These adjustments, or, “jigs,” are pieces that workers fit into the machine to guide the cuts and bends.  

Jigs make workers more money. Nichols and Stone workers were paid piece-rate: the more pieces they made, the more they were paid. Over the decades, the workers created thousands of jigs to make more chairs to get paid more money – not necessarily paid what they are worth, but paid more.  

Jig craft is not the invention of some lone genius; rather, it’s a social thing. People learn on the job from others doing the job. This collective skill of the “unskilled” workers is what creates the jigs.  

The collective skill is not just in one factory – it’s in the many factories that make similar products. To illustrate: the town of Gardner, where Nichols and Stone was based, housed many furniture factories. “Gardner was a furniture town,” Dr. Juravich writes, “and as workers moved from one employer to another they brought practices and ideas for jigs and fixtures along with them.”  


Shocked, or Damn Well Near It 

Compare, if you will, the surgeon and the chair-maker: they possess specialized know-how and cannot trade jobs – each would fail at the job of the other, though likely with different consequences for life and limb. With every life saved we celebrate the skilled surgeon. But with every chair made we praise the machine.  

The factory worker is a factotum, constantly learning and problem-solving, innovating and crafting new parts. The so-called unskilled factory worker is, in reality, imaginative and skillful.    

Nichols and Stone management, over the decades and before the bankruptcy, had often walked the factory floor. To their misfortune, they had not seen the wealth of worker-made innovations.  

Peterson lamented: “Tuck and I stood in that bending room and we said, ‘If you had to put a value on that, you couldn’t do it.’ And even if it was physically possible to replace everything that was in that bending room today, the cost would be millions and millions and millions of dollars.”  Management was shocked, or damn well near it. 

They realized too late that the “intellectual property” was the intellect of the people that they fired. 



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Tom Juravich’s “Artifacts of workers’ knowledge: Finding worker skill in the closing and restructuring of a furniture manufacturer,” published in Ethnography 18, no. 4 (2017): 493-514. 

“The hands and the creativity of labor – roomfuls!” (p. 501). Said by Tuck Nichols, owner of Nichols and Stone, after his company went bankrupt.  

“It was pretty difficult…” Quoted in “Nichols & Stone workers plan reunion,” written by Andrew Mansfield, published in The Gardner News, August 6, 2018.   

“They were in awe of [him]”, p. 508. 

The difference between fixture and jig: pp. 501 – 502.  

“Gardner was a furniture town…” p. 507 

“Tuck and I stood in that bending room …” p. 501

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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