Doing a Repair: Meditations on an Ordinary Experience

Pinellas DSA
6 min readFeb 27, 2023

Member Bruce Nissen shares a story about repairing his air fryer, and what it can teach us about capitalism and global exploitation.

The other day our air fryer had a minor breakdown. The drawer that you pull out of the main body to put in food was becoming loose and a machine screw was missing. Here’s what the entire thing, drawer and the container pan that holds it, looks like:

If you look at this closely, you can see that it is an inner drawer where you place the food, and an outside container that holds it. The problem was the outer container. Here’s a picture without the inner drawer in it:

If you look carefully at this outside container pan (taken after I fixed it), you can see two screws which attach the outside cover and the inner pan. At the time, one of these two screws was missing. At first, I thought I would just find a similar size screw, screw it in, and be done. However, when I did that, the screw didn’t engage with anything; you could turn it clockwise forever freely and nothing was happening. The screw would fall right back out.

I could hear something rattling around inside the front cover and soon realized that these screws connected with nuts that were inside the cover. One of the nuts had come loose, the screw had fallen out and was lost, while the nut was still trapped inside the cover. My only hope of fixing it would require me to disassemble the cover itself.

If you look carefully at the last picture, you can also see two much smaller screws that are helping to hold the two pieces of the front cover together. I removed those two screws — not enough. Then I found two more identical screws down at the bottom and removed them. Still not enough. Then I noticed 6 extremely tiny screws (3 on each side) that also connected the two parts of the outer cover. I took them out and finally was able to separate the two parts of the outer cover. Sure enough, a loose nut was rattling around in the cavity between the outer and inner walls of the front cover.

As I was going through this elaborate job of removing layer after layer of screws just to get to the inside of the front cover, I was thinking to myself, “What’s with this? Why this elaborate and intricate assembly of parts? It’s ridiculous. Why would they design something like this?” I was also thinking was that it was a good thing I did not do this kind of work for a living — I was thorough but way too slow to ever last as an employee. Any repair company would require much faster work so they could get me on to the next profitable job. It reminded me of my dad who lost several jobs as a welder because he did a thorough quality job of welding but not rapidly enough to suit the employer’s speed requirements.

I put the nut back into its designated cubbyhole, reattached the six tiny screws, put in the four screws, and finally inserted a suitable size/length/thread screw to replace the missing one. It engaged with the reinserted nut and screwed in tight. I was done! Repair completed! I felt proud of myself but noted that it had taken close to two hours to do the job, most of it sifting through my mason jar of random screws accumulated through the years to find the exact right size and length and thread of screw. Job done well but not efficiently.

I was still puzzling why the construction of the container pan and its outside front cover had been so complicated. It reminded me of an experience back in the mid-1970s when I was trying to help the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) organize shops in New Jersey. I applied for jobs at numerous places, both UE-represented shops and unorganized shops they hoped to organize in the future. I was first hired at a non-union shop at minimum wage. I was what later became known as a “salt” — someone taking a job in a nonunion workplace to aid a union in beginning an organizing drive.

The shop assembled electronic parts for some final product that I’ve long since forgotten about. Our job was to sit all day assembling an intricate array of circuit boards, washers, wires, nuts, etc. It was not an assembly line — each person individually did each product (or component) according to a choreographed routine. Over and over. Over and over. I especially remember that some wire posts required two washers, some required one, and some none. It was all very confusing, and I made repeated mistakes at this allegedly unskilled minimum wage job.

The job was abysmal. Almost all the workers were Black or Hispanic or Asian. A majority were women. The foremen were white men. I lasted at that job approximately one week because a UE-represented union shop called and offered me a job at double the wages and a much more relaxed atmosphere. I jumped at that offer and thus began my career in union activities.

At the time of my one-week job, companies doing that kind of minimum-wage work were going out of business because their work was being outsourced to China or Mexico or Central American countries. They had only survived in business because they offered extremely cheap labor, but even cheaper labor was becoming available elsewhere in the world.

This repair job led to a Eureka! moment when I realized that the air fryer’s front cover is designed to require manually tightening numerous screws because labor is so cheap (in some parts of the world) that it is economical to require more repetitive manual labor than it is to expend any more money on better design or different materials. If work was paid decently around the world, these products would be designed very differently. I looked to see where my air fryer had been assembled and sure enough, there it was: designed in California and built in China.

If you repair a household appliance with an enquiring and analytical mindset, there’s a lot to ponder. You might develop insights into the structure of worldwide capitalism and the exploitative conditions under which many of our consumer products are produced. Ditto for how our capitalist consumer culture discards people like my father who did high quality work but not at a fast assembly line pace. Our mass production worldwide economic system fails some segments of humanity even as it provides ever-higher levels of mass consumption for growing numbers. As Karl Marx noted, capitalism is a progressive force compared to earlier economic systems, but it is an exploitative system at its core and should be replaced by a more humane system that is centered on people, not private profit. Who would have thought that repairing a household appliance could illustrate all this? For me, it did!



Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America