A Practical Solution to an Urgent Need
This old airport’s got me down—it’s no earthly good to me, ’cause I’m stuck here on the ground as cold and drunk as I can be. You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train. So, I’d best be on my way in the early morning rain.
—Gordon Lightfoot, “Early Morning Rain,” 1966
My hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan, was once known as the Furniture Capital of the world. The furniture industry moved south, and then overseas, but in the 1970s a few stalwarts still plied the pretensions of the uppity class with vestiges of noblesse oblige. We made reproductions of antiques.
Why not? We had the blueprints, patterns, jigs, fixtures, and most importantly, the experience. I worked at John Widdicomb Furniture Co.
I never studied the history of furniture design. I couldn’t distinguish between Louis XV and Louis XVI, but I closely examined notes, which old cabinetmakers scribbled on the jigs and fixtures I used for machining. Usually they inscribed advice about how to run the job. At times the jottings were simply weather reports from before I was born. A note unrelated to the task at hand made the transcription personal as if a co-worker from 1914 tapped me on the shoulder and whispered his liverwurst scented secret in my ear.
The floors of the factory were maple. The windows were wider than my arm span and taller than a bishop’s hat to a child on Easter. In the old days factories needed light in winter and air in summer. We were stuck in the old days. In winter the panes frosted. We dressed in moth-eaten wool sweaters and bulky wool shirts, which garnered wood shavings like dust mops. In the summer, we opened the windows wide and let warm breezes mingle with odors of raw lumber and three-in-one oil. We waved at school children placing pennies on railroad tracks and train engineers blowing their horns.
During the Great Furniture Strike of 1911, John Widdicomb Furniture Company was the scene of a riot. The wives and children of workers broke all the windows with stones. By the time I got there in the 1970s, the rancor had evaporated. We had a union, but labor strife was a thing of the past. Likewise our trade was a thing of the past. The antiquity of the place appealed to me.
I was a machine operator, which sounds dull, but production was low and quality, not quantity, was the goal. Our focus was craftsmanship. No one hurried. I may have had only one small task, for example, a mortise in a table leg, but I only had to cut a mortise in eighty-eight pieces of stock, then I would break down the set-up, and start a new job. The set-up took longer than production.
I loved the feel of wood in my hands. The smell of cherry, mahogany, and ash. Walnut was the most aromatic. It was intoxicating like roasting coffee. Sawdust is a fragrance that provokes memories as ancient and arousing as tools made by hands deep in the forest of our collective memory. Wood, even kiln-dried wood, feels and looks alive. I studied the grain of each piece before I cut, shaped, bored, or mitered it to fit. The work was satisfying and the job was integrated.
By integrated I mean, each worker understood their personal role in the finished product and how our roles as individual workers were interrelated. When we looked at a finished piece of furniture we could locate our individual task and identify the tasks of our co-workers in the construction of the whole.
We couldn’t afford to buy the furniture we made but it belonged to us by virtue of our labor. The buyer owned the object of his admiration. We owned our collective experience. We took pride in our work. Each of us, whatever our role, felt like a craftsman. Whether we ran a drill press, hand carved designs in a rail, assembled cabinets, or sanded and finished a table top until the grain glowed soft and warm as the mystery of photosynthesis embedded in the seed of a tree, we strove for perfection.
We were never pressured to hurry. Quality wasn’t a slogan, it was a relationship we had with our labor, our co-workers, even our supervisors. My first day on the job at John Widdicomb’s a foreman told me, “Slow down.”
Perhaps nostalgia has inserted a soft focus lens over my recollection. I don’t recall the slivers of annoyance, the high whine of a rip saw that made my ear drums cry, the revulsion of my nonchalant youth to the regimen of work. But my recollection isn’t limited to a sentimental veneration of a bygone era in manufacturing.
A lot of my co-workers were over sixty-five. They had no desire to retire. They enjoyed the work. They were at home in the factory. No one complained about how slow they moved. They were masters. For them it wasn’t a job, it was a hobby. It wasn’t a factory, it was the club. There was nothing they would rather do with their time.
How different from the company I retired from where the pension goal, “thirty-and-out,” was pronounced like a prison sentence.
In a simpler day and age, I would have been content to stay at John Widdicomb’s and grow up to be a master cabinetmaker, proud of my work and my place in life. But it was 1979 and as Gordon Lightfoot sang, “You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train.”
I needed to move on. I had a young family and the times demanded higher wages than the furniture industry could offer. I got a job at General Motors.
The first day I walked through the doors of GM, my body cringed. Every day for the next thirty years, my body cringed when I walked through the doors of GM. My senses felt assaulted by the noise and toxic vapors. A cloud of oil and coolant hung in the air. The concussion of mechanical clamor penetrated my body and hammered my eardrums. Everyone shouted. Curses were a natural response to the environment. At Widdicomb’s I considered eighty-eight pieces high volume. The production rate on my first job at GM was 88,000 pieces for eight hours of work.
Eleven thousand pieces-per-hour is 183.33 parts-per-minute, more than three parts-per-second, and we had to accelerate the rate if we wanted to take any breaks. And we did.
At Widdicomb’s there was only one shift. We never worked more than eight hours a day. If we had to work on Saturday, we only worked until noon. At GM ten hours was mandatory. All three shifts worked every Saturday. Sixty hours a week on top of a big hourly raise meant I was in the money. It also meant that I was paying for the money with my life. I was grinding 660,000 valve lifters a week.
I didn’t like the job. I promised myself it was temporary, but I didn’t foresee what old timers called, “the golden handcuffs”—overtime, pension, benefits—or what pundits called, “the social contract.” Pundits didn’t understand that our work experience was dis-integrated and the so-called “social contract” bound us to a dehumanized system of labor. It was in effect an anti-social contract.
I defended myself the best way I knew. I drugged myself.
I’m an alcoholic. At Widdicomb’s I drank occasionally. At GM I drank day in and day out. I wasn’t alone. There was plenty of overtime but little time for family or leisure. Whether it was drugs, alcohol, gambling, or something else your mother never taught you, everyone sought gratification in consumption.
We didn’t derive any satisfaction from the work. No one could identify the value of their labor in the finished product. Even tradesmen at GM were reduced to routine maintenance, which diminished their skills and mocked ingenuity. They hated their jobs as much as every grunt humping the line or manning a machine.
Our reward was the paycheck. When a paycheck is all you are worth, you get addicted to spending money rather than spending time doing things that enrich your life.
GM pumped out quality slogans faster than a cow passes methane gas. We didn’t pay any attention. How could we? We were up to our necks in toxic work ethics and moronic management. When you grind 110,000 valve lifters in ten hours you can’t possibly give a shit about any one of them.
When I worked at Widdicomb’s I rolled my own cigarettes—three or four a day. It was a social habit, something I did with coffee and conversation. At GM I smoked thirty to forty tailor-mades a day. If I had any left in the morning, they smelled like coolant. I wondered if I should smoke them. But what the hell did it matter? The bosses could have squeezed all the blood and juice from my body and used the tincture for pesticide.
Then, in the winter of 1981 everything crashed. We didn’t understand what happened. We did our job. The bottom fell out of the auto industry and we were left with a dead key fob. The union’s response was to foment hostility against foreign workers, which played right into the bosses’ hands. The Japanese built plants in America and called the union’s bluff.
By the time I got laid off—along with tens-of-thousands of other autoworkers—I was a mental, physical, emotional wreck. All I was worth was a paycheck and that was gone. Fortunately, I had a friend who worked in the high-end furniture industry and he got me a job working with him at Kindel Furniture Co.
I remember the first day. My nerves were shot, but I managed to keep my hands steady as I ground a keen edge on a piece of steel. Then I cut a handle for my self-styled knife on a bandsaw, smoothed the grip on a belt sander till it fit my hand like a shiv, shimmed the blade in the slot with maple sliced on the table saw, and lashed it together with masking tape. I used this jailhouse knife to cut half round pieces of cherry bead molding, which I fitted and glued together to form a lattice to grace the glass on a china cabinet, which sold for more money than I would make that year.
The work was tedious but precise. It required patience and meticulous attention. I concentrated. The room was quiet. I could smell raw lumber. I could hear rip and crosscut saws whine and sigh in the rough mill. I gazed out the window from time to time and peered at snowflakes in refracted winter light. I relaxed. The work was meditative. Time elongated, contracted, and evaporated. Before I knew it, my first day on the new job had passed.
Thanks to my friend, not only was I able to put food on the table, I also healed—but I wasn’t any wiser about the disease of capitalism. I thought I was okay because I quit drinking. I didn’t understand how a job, even a good-paying union job, could devalue a person and incite a compulsion to compensate for the loss of dignity with consumption. I blamed it all on alcohol.
I am using alcoholism as a rhetorical device, a metaphor, which may enable readers who aren’t addicts to understand one must compensate in some way for the disintegration and degradation we experience at work. I was a factory worker but I believe teachers, nurses, social workers, and other professionals are likewise devalued and degraded because the principles of lean manufacturing, or “management by stress,” have been implemented in every field of work.
Perhaps you don’t consume drugs or alcohol. My question then is, how do you cope with a job that reduces your human potential to a cipher, a data entry, a hanging chad of a wish to be significant?
One must compensate for the disintegration we experience at work, hopefully, in a healthy, constructive manner. But as any old soldier will tell you, if you don’t recognize the threat, you can’t protect yourself.
Capitalism demeans labor for profit. That’s not opinion, it’s bookkeeping.
We need to evaluate the cost of dehumanizing workers. We need to determine how the degradation of labor affects our health physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. The glorification of individual consumer choice disguises the consequences of disintegration in the workplace. We neglect the total cost of the cheapest price at our own expense.
Eventually I was called back to GM. I couldn’t resist the money. I had a third child to support and the demands of society were growing exponentially. It was the 1980s. Every worker with an extra buck was hustled into tax-deferred investment plans as a retirement option. The future of the American Dream was in hock. It was the pawnbroker’s paradox. Redemption was something no one could afford.
The new GM plant I worked at was cleaner. The work was lighter and easier, but we were still exposed to toxic chemicals. The chemicals were so pernicious that the state of Michigan wouldn’t allow GM to vent air from the factory. We had to trust that GM would filter the toxic fumes so the re-circulated air would be safe to breathe. No one believed GM gave a damn about our health.
But air quality wasn’t my immediate concern. I had the dullest, most stupid job of my life. I could have been replaced by a machine but I was cheaper. I experienced an intense need to feel integrated with my work and my co-workers.
Recovering alcoholics say, “I get drunk and we stay sober.” That is, we understand that as individuals we are powerless, but collectively we have strength and purpose. Solidarity is not an ideal for us; it’s a practical solution to an urgent need.
I was fortunate. I discovered a knack for writing. I began to write shop floor flyers, which articulated the core-to-core class conflict that my co-workers confronted every day. What I wrote rang true to my fellow workers because I didn’t say anything they didn’t already know in their hearts.
I called my flyers Live Bait & Ammo. Bait for the bosses and ammo for my fellow workers. The work of writing helped me to integrate with my brothers and sisters in the struggle for dignity on the shop floor. I became part of something greater than myself.
Although the prevalence of cancer in my former workplace was shocking, I don’t believe the exposure to toxic chemicals is solely responsible for the lower life expectancy of blue-collar workers.
Stress exacerbates our immune system. Employment is precarious because of downsizing, outsourcing, and automation. On top of that we live under the constant threat of termination. Union or non-union, in the United States we are all “at will” employees—meaning that we can be fired for no reason at any time. It helps to have a union, but in the grievance process a worker is guilty until proven innocent and the process can drag on for years while the worker is deprived of pay and benefits.
A particular supervisor at our plant had a reputation as “The Terminator,” because she liked to fire workers. A few weeks before Christmas one year, The Terminator fired a co-worker, a single mother who was particularly vulnerable, for allegedly “making scrap.” That is, she produced parts on the machine she was operating, which were defective and had to be thrown away. Then The Terminator assigned me the same job.
Skilled machine operators can discretely cause malfunctions and breakdowns which halt or slow production. I made damn sure to produce scrap and I shut the machine off. When The Terminator asked why the machine wasn’t running, I said, “I am not going to let you fire me for making scrap.” She told me to keep operating the machine.
I said, “If you want me to keep running this machine, you will have to give me an A.V.O. (Avoid Verbal Orders) so that I have it in writing that you know the machine is making scrap and needs repair.”
She said, “I don’t give A.V.O.s. I give direct orders.”
“That’s better yet,” I replied. “Get my committeeman and my Quality Network Rep. I want your order documented and investigated.”
Precision standards are exceedingly high in the auto industry but the demand for quantity and on time delivery usually trumps management’s priorities. Bosses don’t want to invest the time or money to correct mechanical problems because the demand is so urgent.
I made sure the machine produced more scrap. My committeeman wrote a grievance and the Quality Network Rep started an investigation that could climb the corporate ladder if it wasn’t settled in house. No plant manager wanted desk jockeys in Detroit to think he couldn’t manage local affairs.
Co-workers followed my example. They made sure their machines produced scrap, and when they were ordered to keep the machines running, they demanded grievances and Quality Network investigations. Job setters conspired with machine operators and called out skilled trades who dismantled the machines. The rebellion spread.
Soon, most machines in the department were broken down. Workers stood around and spit on the floor. A union rep told us that the plant manager was angry and had sent him out to tell us to get back to work. I won’t repeat what we said to that sorry s.o.b. but in short, we informed him that we didn’t take orders from him. We didn’t elect him to be the boss’s messenger boy, and if the plant manager wanted to give orders he should come out and speak for himself. We had some things to say to him as well. The plant manager didn’t show up.
Since GM had an open door policy whereby workers could talk face to face with bosses in the front office, I went to Human Resources and requested an interview. I was told that management would meet with two workers from the department. I invited everyone. Roughly thirty workers jammed into the office, closed the door, and blocked it. There were six managers ready to confront two workers. The bosses picked up the telephone and called the union to protect them. We let the committeeman in and told him to take notes. I may have been the ringleader but I didn’t have to say a word. The rank and file were in command.
Then we went to a union meeting and demanded a civil rights investigation.
“A white woman fires a white woman and you claim discrimination?” the Bargaining Chairman asked.
Damn right. Unequal treatment without reasonable cause is discrimination. The boss gave us all direct orders to make scrap. We had proof. The union couldn’t deny or delay our demand. There were too many of us.
Documentation and witness testimony is important in the grievance process, but the primary purpose of the civil rights investigation was to rob management of their time and cripple production. The only way to leverage negotiations with management is to shut off the profit faucet. As long as profit is flowing smoothly, the bosses don’t care how long a worker stands in the gallows of the grievance process.
The civil rights chairman not only interviewed workers, he interrogated engineers and supervisors. He took high-value salary employees off their jobs and squeezed them through the gut wringer. When one department slows down it impacts production in all the other departments. We were cutting into profits and the rebellion couldn’t be contained.
The culmination of our campaign arrived when we got wind of a corporate tour. The bosses like to shine for the entourage. The day of the tour everyone in our department on all three shifts wore red and black t-shirts that said “Stop Harassment” on the front and “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” on the back. It was apparent to the corporate entourage that all was not right in River City.
In order to aid their insight we planted Bullets, which were short versions of Live Bait & Ammo, all over the plant. The Bullets accused the bosses of sabotage, of deliberately making scrap. The plant manager had some explaining to do.
Our co-worker got her job back before Christmas. The Terminator was forced to take a week off and go to charm school. She never tried to fire anyone again. Most importantly, we learned a valuable lesson. Solidarity is not an ideal. Solidarity is a practical solution to an urgent need.
The urgent needs of the working class have spiked since the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, but the response from the left has been unmoored and bereft as the occupation of an unoccupied park.
Capital restructured fast. The market roared back. All debt and penalty were plastered to the backs of the working class. Banksters and corporate baggers are flush with cash. Yet pork-bellied politicians bend workers and retirees over the austerity barrel with the high-hat aplomb of bishops at Easter mass.
Where’s the fight back? Where’s the practical solution for working people?
We’ve been hit with a mega-dose of Shock Doctrine. Working folk are in desperate need of a labor movement, but Trumpka, the AFL-CIO President, squatting on his throne, appears comatose—content to issue press releases and lobby Congress for reform. Maybe he’s the victim of a dope-shooting drone.
Has a drug as potent as a six-figure salary conned him into believing power can be persuaded by appeals to conscience rather than struggle? Or maybe we are the ones who’ve been doped into the inertia of waiting for leaders while biding our time in line.
A person who opposes capitalism in the United States today requires a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance—that screeching metal-on-metal sound you encounter when your walk sideswipes your talk racing past in the opposite direction. One may reject the dog-eat-dog paradigm but one cannot reject the need for food, shelter, and healthcare. For most of us that means scoring a job with a capitalist employer where the dissonance commences like a drum roll on a song we’d rather forget.
In most areas of the North American labor market, gainful employment requires an automobile, which in turn requires gas and insurance and monthly payments to a dealer. The drummer hits the cymbals and the beat goes on. Once you have acquired employment you must choose between a landlord or a mortgage broker. Every deal requires a compromise and every compromise is a link in the chain that binds us to a concussive cognitive dissonance.
If you live in a capitalist society you must make provisions for old age—those golden years when a coldblooded devaluation of monetized human worth is measured on a scale of employability—which requires saving and investing. For most workers paying the mortgage on a slice of private property is their only investment, but anyone with a modest amount of extra income will sock it away in a tax-deferred investment account. You may not like the game but when it’s the only one in town you put your head down and play for all you are worth.
My personal stake in the market is modest, but nonetheless it is my fortune, and it casts a shadow over my beliefs and values. I feel like a recovering alcoholic with a wine cellar.
If you want to call yourself a socialist in the United States, you join a study group because socialism in an advanced capitalist society is ideological, not workable. You may protest. You may resist. You may advocate for peace, justice, and an environment clean as an angel’s spit, but your day-to-day life is bound to an economic system at odds with socialist ideals. Unless we can implement a viable alternative, an actual way of living and working which replaces and surpasses the only practicable system workers in North America have ever known, all socialist proclamations are pie in the sky. As Gordon Lightfoot sang, “It’s no earthly good to me, cause I’m stuck here on the ground,” where philosophies don’t bleed.
We need a new vision and a practical plan to get there.
Anyone living in Detroit—that ominous effigy of capitalism—needs to devise a practical means to survive in an urban setting abandoned by investors. But reconstructing in the shadow of capitalism is like pitching a tent under an elephant’s ass.
The bankruptcy of Detroit is emblematic of capital’s habit of shitting on workers and then blaming them for the mess. Coined words like competitive and globalization are simply code for low wages, high deductibles, zero security, and no pension. Austerity isn’t a solution for workers; it’s life without parole.
Yet affluence can be corrupting.
After the Second World War, autoworkers gained higher wages and benefits. We were separated from our class financially and in the process we embraced an economic system, which causes global human misery. A misery which has come back to haunt us like a self-inflicted disease, an illness born of uncontrolled appetite. Many of my comrades worked excessive overtime, gambled on the stock market, and invested in extravagant real-estate ventures. They were buried so deep in debt that a strike was unthinkable to them. They couldn’t afford to miss a payment to the man. Everything they earned was turned over to dealers who already had plans for all the money these workers would ever make in their lifetimes. Consumption appeared to be an end in itself. The only difference between these good hard workers and junkies was that the capitalist system conferred status on their addiction.
It’s demoralizing to see fellow workers turned into puppets. But why should we hesitate to demand more? As Samuel Gompers said, “More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed.”
We should demand more for all workers not just the glorified individual of American myth, or the vaunted middle class waved like a pennant above the heads of workers by union bureaucrats, as if we should strive to be separated like wheat from chaff. If we want more for everyone then we may have to limit our consumption, to refine our tastes, and to consider our impact upon the ecosystem more important than our economic self-interest. The UAW is notorious for lobbying against improved CAFE or emission standards. The cognitive dissonance of corporate-dominated unions is like thunder in a collapsing mine.
When autoworkers could buy not only a house in the city but a cabin up north, they retired from class struggle and forgot to bookmark their place in labor history. Excessive overtime coupled with tax-deferred investments in the stock market stuck a needle in the arm of ordinary autoworkers. I watched my comrades succumb to the anesthetic.
I saw fellow workers invest their life savings in Delphi, a company designed for bankruptcy. They thought they were investing in the farm, a place where they worked and lived. I was stunned by their trust in capitalism, but they had never witnessed another economic system. They didn’t experience cognitive dissonance. I did. I experienced more red lights, alarm bells, and guard rails than a railroad crossing.
I distrusted capitalism. Not because I was educated or understood Marxism but because I was raised in a home where things like furniture and appliances were confiscated for late payments. I never trusted the deal.
But the deal is on the table and we have to play our hand, not some hypothetical game. If one rejects capitalist values and desires to live without cognitive dissonance, it’s imperative that he or she engage their fellow workers, organize a union, and confront the bosses directly. Any other option is academic, by which I mean it’s a nice idea but risk free and ineffective because power respects power, not ideological eloquence. For workers, power in a capitalist society is at the point of production and the delivery of goods and services—not at the tip of a pencil, mine included.
Protest is essential. Our dignity demands it. But the truly effective protest in an advanced capitalist society isn’t the occupation of a park for a week, or a street for an afternoon; it’s an occupation of the workplace, a strike, a direct confrontation with bosses over the control of profit, distribution, and the means, methods, and fruits of production. A confrontation, I may add, which actually threatens one’s livelihood, puts the fundamental reason for working, one’s family, on the line. Such risk separates liberals from radicals and students from revolutionaries.
Once upon a time, I worked like an old-fashioned craftsman. I valued my experience. I felt integrated with my work and with my co-workers. I was proud of my craft, but I was compelled to hop the Capital Express by an urgent need for more money. I didn’t go to work for GM because of an ideology, but the experience changed me. I grew to realize that in an advanced capitalist society the only way to feel integrated rather than alienated, and to have integrity as a working person with social consciousness, is through solidarity actions with fellow workers in the workplace.
Any young person joining a union or working as an organizer in a union today may feel dismayed by the corporate clones running the union bureaucracy. But if we can’t organize our fellow workers to take over their own unions, or to organize a new union, how can we expect to engage in a mass struggle of any consequence?
A social movement may take seed in a classroom but it won’t gain traction until we confront the boss face to face. The practical means of mass struggle begin in the workplace because unions can directly challenge capital by throttling profit and providing a platform for participatory democracy.
I don’t have a diploma. I am not a master of any ism. But I do know that the high point of union struggle in the United States was led by communists and socialists. The low point of unions today, the nadir of organizing, is led by liberals who believe a practical solution to an urgent need means cutting wages and benefits, while spending dues on the same political party that gave us NAFTA and is working overtime to ramrod the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement before Obama thumbs his nose at the masses and leaves office to collect his bounty.
Unions from the longshore to the classroom to the post office and beyond are under attack by an administration, which pocketed donations from unions. But union leaders don’t suffer cognitive dissonance, and neither do the liberal pundits who support the double-jointedness. They don’t have any problem swinging both ways because it pays six figure salaries.
If there shall ever be a resurgence of union organizing, it will be led by people who aren’t wedded to capitalism. I am convinced they will rise from the ranks. They may not start out to be socialists or communists, but I am certain they won’t promote competition with other workers. They won’t push their comrades to work harder and faster and longer for less. They won’t confine bargaining to a single craft or industry. They won’t be corralled by borders. They will look over their shoulders at the Treaty of Detroit and refuse to relinquish the right to strike or the right to control the workplace.
“You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train,” but if you look around the tarmac, you’ll notice a whole bunch of folks who look just like us—abandoned. We need somewhere to go and something to do and something to join besides a study group, the occupation of a park, or passive participation in a Roberts Ruled bureaucracy. We need to organize a union that unifies rather than alienates the rank and file; a union with a fist connected to an arm connected to a shoulder connected to a body of people who are willing to fight for economic justice, fight for the integrity of labor, fight for the dignity of all working people in that place where effective class struggle inevitably begins: the workplace.
Gregg Shotwell is a retired UAW member who frequently contributes poems to the Blue Collar Review, and is the author of Autoworkers Under the Gun (Haymarket Press, 2012).
—Monthly Review, April 2014