Jig and Real
|Iron ore: The friendship between PTR’s vice president
Gary Fudala (left) and team leader Tony Santos is as good as gold (photo by g. w. miller iii).|
Tony Santos found his calling at PTR, the United Nations of ironworking.
by G.W. Miller III
Tony Santos struts around the 100,000-square-foot factory in Port Richmond, proudly
showing off the machinery as though he’s giving me a tour of his own home.
“You see this jig here?” he asks, pointing to a giant steel contraption used to
fabricate parts for recycling machines. “Before I built this, they only made one piece
per day. Now they build eight pieces or more every day.”
Sparks fly from nearby welders. The smell of old grease and fresh paint lingers in the
chilly air. The sound of crashing metal echoes through the cavernous plant.
As he escorts me down the assembly line, Santos points to several other jigs he
designed for family-owned PTR Baler and Compactor, the largest manufacturer of vertical
balers in the world.
“I made this place efficient,” he says.
When Santos, 58, started as a general helper at PTR 35 years ago, he was a high school
dropout from Salinas, Puerto Rico, who could barely speak English.
“I remember one of the guys saying, ‘Hey, give me a clamp,’” Santos recalls. “I
thought to myself, ‘What the hell is a clamp?’”
There was a time when manufacturing jobs were a popular gateway to the middle
When Santos joined PTR in 1973, there were around 250,000 factory jobs in
Philadelphia. Those without conventional book smarts could find a job with good wages
and excellent benefits. The local ironworkers union, of which Santos is a member,
represented more than 3,500 workers then. But that was before everyone was expected to
earn a college degree, before computers became commonplace and before industrial jobs
were shipped overseas en masse.
Today there are around 40,000 manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia. The local
ironworkers union has only around 600 members, and 120 of them work for PTR.
Among them are a dozen native Albanians, a few Moroccans and a pair of Cubans, among
others. At least eight different languages can be heard on the factory floor.
Santos, who’s planning to retire in two years, will collect around $5,000 per month
from his pension.
“I never would have imagined this life,” he says. “This company has been very good to
We detour from the assembly line so Santos can show me the first jig he
designed and built more than 20 years ago. He leads me to a pair of industrial drill
presses. He grabs a strip of plastic, slides it under the press and explains how mounts
lock the plastic into place so the drill operator can punch hole after hole without
stopping to measure.
“I built this during overtime,” Santos says. “My supervisor said, ‘If it’s good for
the company, go do it.’”
Santos left Puerto Rico in 1968 because he needed a job and stumbled into a position
at PTR, where his wife worked as a secretary.
As time went on he encouraged friends and family to apply for jobs with PTR. Now he
has two cousins, numerous friends and his niece’s boyfriend working alongside him. His
son did temp work there during a break from college.
“I’ve been here so long they treat me like one of the family,” Santos says.
As we approach the finished balers, we run into Gary Fudala, PTR’s vice
president who started with the company as a welder shortly after Santos began.
“In those days, this place was full of German, Polish and Italian immigrants,” recalls
Fudala, a Fishtown native. “Tony was the only Hispanic guy. I kind of adopted him.”
Fudala tried to teach English to Santos, who was picking up phrases he heard around
“I remember hearing Tony say, ‘Fanculo! Fanculo!’ all over the place,” Fudala says. “I
told him, ‘Hey, Tony! That’s a bad word.’”
“Everybody was saying it,” Santos retorts in his thick accent.
Inside the bustling factory, the two became fast friends. On weekends they went
fishing or hunting together. They attended birthday parties for each other’s children.
“It’s been a good partnership in many ways,” Fudala says. A former Army paratrooper,
Fudala eventually became an executive with the company.
Santos went from floor sweeper to welder. He designed half the jigs used in the
factory. Now he’s a team leader supervising a group of 40 welders, fitters and
“It’s America,” Fudala says. “You start at the bottom and work your way to the top.”
“I work real hard,” Santos adds. “That’s the kind of place it is. They take care of