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August 04
It is a common failing of human nature to be more confidant in strange and unprecedented circumstances...-Julius Caesar, "The Civil War"

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MAY 18, 2011 2:39PM

Union Life

Rate: 17 Flag

Early one morning when I was nine years old my father took me out to the picket-line of a strike at a slaughterhouse in my hometown.  They killed pigs on an assembly line there.  It was winter, January or February, I can't remember which, and when we arrived at the line on a little dirt road that ran out between swampy fields to the smoke-belching factory, the breath from the men gathered around the barrel fires hung in the air.  A sense of defeat hung over them, too.  They'd been locked out for months, and they must have known on some level that it wasn't going to end well.   The company had been trucking in scabs--in the metal-slatted, two-decker trailers used to cart the pigs in for slaughter. 

My father and I simply made the drive out there to bring them some sandwiches and coffee.  My dad's union, at a big local machine shop, had decided not to strike in sympathy--they had just undergone their own protracted battle with management, complete with picket-line fights and fire bombs thrown at the tires of police cruisers.  And so our mission was more of an aid call on a friendly neighboring land than a real intervention.  One of the men came over to the car to get what we had brought, while another hung on the window on my side to talk.  My father was fairly well known locally--he was a shop steward in the biggest plant, an organizer and a regular at planning sessions during his own local's strike--and the man wanted to let me know how much he respected "your good ol' fuckin' dad here."  So when I was introduced, he reached into the car to shake my hand, and that's when I noticed that he was missing a couple of fingers.  Not neat breaks, like you get with surgery, but awkward amputations between the knuckles, from cutting machinery--machines used to chop up pig meat.  Here he was, out on the picket in sub-zero weather, fighting for a job at a place that had cost him part of his body.

As we were waiting there, a truck rumbled into view behind.  I looked in the mirror and saw the cloud of dust approaching.  The men stiffly got into place across the road, and my father said to the man hanging in the window, "We have to get out of here, _______.  No good for the kid to see this."  The man nodded, shook my hand again with his part-hand, and went to join the others, who were holding their signs at an angle toward the coming truck, like a line of pikemen on a medieval battlefield.  My father started the car and spun us around on the shoulder so we could escape before the fighting started.  As we passed the speeding truck, and were engulfed by its cloud of dust, I tried to look inside, between the iron slats.  But I couldn't tell if what was staring back at me were the faces of human beings, or scared animals going to their final rewards.  The truck didn't slow down much as it reached the line of men.  I watched over my shoulder as the two sides collided, and I thought I saw the man who'd been talking with us thrown to the gravel at the side of the road as he tried to get in one good swing with his heavy sign at the driver's window.

Then something very peculiar happened.  All my life I've seen my father as a peaceful man.  He was always the one who counseled reason when the "hotheads" in the union would talk about taking out their frustrations on the company.  He wasn't naive, or a lover of management, he'd dedicated countless hours to building and helping the union, which was at the time a militant, worker-based organization, at least on the local level.  And he had no special feeling for the corporation as an institution.  I remember him telling me, about this same time, how if I could screw a corporation, I should, and not to think twice about it--after all, he reasoned, they screw us all the time.  (Sound advice, I believe, to this day.)   But on that morning he couldn't take it anymore.  And as we drove away, and the chaos behind us grew faint, he glanced in the mirror at the leaning brick walls of the slaughterhouse and said, more to himself but plenty loud for me to hear: "They should have burnt that place to the fucking ground."

I still see my father as a peaceful man.  That incident didn't change anything for me.  In fact, I forgot about it by the following day.  It wasn't until my first year in college, when my father started showing signs of the condition that would kill him, that I thought about it again.

The investment company which bought and eventually divvied up my father's employer had instituted quality tests for all the line workers.  My father, who after thirty years on the shop floor was trained on almost every piece of machinery they had, flunked the first round flat.  The bosses were puzzled.  They gave him the test again, with two inspectors, and double checked his deviations record--confirming that it was indeed one of the lowest in the plant.  They scratched their heads again and then one of them went over to my father, embarrassed for having to talk about it to him, somebody they themselves often consulted when they ran into a problem on a job, and told my father that he needed to go see the company doctor.

Now let me explain about company doctors, since today this particular species is very nearly extinct.  They were not exactly some kind of frilly benefit won by the unions.  It's true that their presence on company property was often required under contract, but it's equally true that their main job was to look after the interests of the company.  They acted as a sort of gatekeeper--not a very subtle one--who tried to put the best possible face on any work-related problem or injury that came under their "care."  Suffering from some sort of rash possibly caused by the toxic cleaners used to get oil and debris off the floors?  Here's some cream...and try not to scratch there.  Got a headache from the piece of hot metal that bonked you in the forehead as it came flying across the factory?  Here's an aspirin...and try not to scratch there.  You get the picture.  Although I never met my father's company doctor, I picture him as a cigar-chewing pedophile.  A real ace.

He gave my father a few simple tests--probably meant for those who may have a concussion--and declared him sound.  And I'm sure he gave him an aspirin.  My father was put on reduced duty--working on a machine part-time when they had simple jobs, and the rest of the time filling in at the tools cage, or sweeping up.  It wasn't until the following year that he was finally diagnosed by a real physician.  By the way, in the meantime, when he was on a machine, he continued to put up the lowest deviations record in the place.  After all, doing things by rote, familiar things, is not one of the first things to go.  Following a conversation goes away long before brushing your teeth or even driving a car.  My father was quiet in the first few years of his illness, but functional, in a purely mechanical sense.  Later on, for whatever reason, he seemed deliriously happy.  As you probably already guessed, it was Alzheimer's disease that killed him.  He had just turned 70.


                                         *                                 *                                     *


I remember growing up in a union town as something essentially happy.  It was a good place to be a kid, the people were kind--even if they were very hard, tough people--and there was no real sense of threat.  No clouds of anxiety hung over the place like in the 'burbs, where the latest gap in the wall of security built up carefully, brick by paranoid brick, is always the main fixation, if one can say there are any fixations in common in a world so resolutely separate and void.  But in my hometown everyone seemed more or less on the same page.  You worked, you had kids, you had a pension, there were new cars and appliances to buy every once in a great while, and in the summertime everyone spent a lot of time talking about sports.  In the winter, they spent even more time talking about sports, only indoors.  This sounds impossibly corny now.  But in my mind at least, the "perfect American town" is still a union town.

The only really bad trauma came when I was twelve, and I got hit in the head by my best friend with a baseball bat.  He was taking warm-up swings in the field behind his house where we played short games with kids from the neighborhood (three innings and everyone was pretty much tired of it), and I got too close to him.  I remember falling to my knees and grabbing at my head with both hands.  When I took them away the palms were red from the heels to the fingertips.  It's amazing how much you can bleed when your scalp is split open.  I ran all the way home.  He tried to follow, but he got so upset that he had "killed his best friend," he decided to run away instead.  Again, corny. 

I was alright.  I got twenty stitches, and a head wrapped like a mummy.  My friend, who eventually calmed down and went home, came over to commiserate with me.  We discussed the properties of various prescription pain medications, and decided that the best thing would be to sell them to people we knew--we were very advanced for our time.  We put none of these plans into action.

It was at about this time that I discovered sex.  I don't remember it as a traumatic or weird discovery.  As a matter of fact, I had known the "facts of life" for a long time.  I can't recall when or how I first learned them.  Sex wasn't treated like a secret where I lived.  Kids talked about it on the playground, and since we went to public schools--which were also heavily controlled by union-elected politicians--there were no nuns or scolding authorities to stop us from speaking the plain awful dirty truth to each other.  I remember as early as six, one of my closest friend's favorite expressions was, "She don't have a c*nt, she's got another mouth down there."  He must have heard this from his father, who, I assume, must have been married to a very talkative woman.  My friend said this to everyone, especially other boys he wanted to insult.  The mechanics behind the expression were not quite understood as yet, but the general picture was.  In retrospect, it must have seemed kind of disturbing to some of the adults who overheard him, but I don't remember any of them giving him more than a mild reprimand, something along the lines of, "Don't say that in mixed company, it's dirty."  These were not repressed people.  I have no idea where the ridiculous idea comes from that working people are repressed.  But I know that it's total bourgeois bullshit.

So it was at about this time, at twelve or thirteen years old, that I discovered sex in the sense that I had, for the first time, the opportunity to engage in some.  She was a few years older and she knew my brother.  My parents went out of town to have one of their "weekends away" (funny, but I never connected this with sex, not until much much later), and my brother and sister, who are five and four years older respectively, were entrusted to watch over me.  They of course threw a giant bash.  The girl was there, the sister of my brother's love interest at the time, and we sneaked off to the bathroom and necked against the wall.  Whether or not we did anything more became a matter of some family dispute.  To tell the truth, I don't remember.  I had had two beers, and I fell asleep.  When I came to, my brother was standing over me, a serious expression on his face.  He asked the pertinent question.  I smiled and said, "She don't have a...."

(I used to see her after that, around my brother's friends, and she'd kid me that "we should get together again," but we never did.  To tell the truth, I was terrified of being alone with her.  I would have to wait a few more years for my first love.)


                                   *                                    *                                       *


My grandmother used to tell the damndest stories.  She used to tell us about when buggies still clogged the roads, and how during the winter months she had to chop ice in the morning to wash up for school.  She also drank beer and smoked unfiltered cigarettes until she died at 96.  Her doctors kept telling her to quit both these habits, but since she kept outliving them, she ignored their advice.  Her own parents had died when they were young, around the turn of the century, in a carriage accident in New York City.  She was put in a state home and raised as an orphan.  She in turn went to school, took a job as a home nurse, raised nine children--my father, the youngest--and at the beginning most of this was done on my grandfather's family farm, where she did triple duty as a dairy cowhand.  She was a wonderfully generous person, tough and kind and warmhearted all at once.  And my grandfather...well...

He was a brittle little Irishman.  In every photograph of him I've ever seen (he died when I was quite young, something to do with his liver), he has the same expression.  It says, "I do not like this life, and I did not choose it, but goddamnit I guess I'll have to live it anyway."  From what I've been told about him by those who were closest, his true character was written on his face.  When his sons--all five of them--were old enough, they went to work in the family business.  By that time the entire clan had moved to the city.  Every morning they got up, got dressed in their stiff overalls, and went with him to the work-site.  Then he'd look around the place and say to them, "Well, boys, I'm going for a bucket of nails.  Be back, by and by."  They were bricklayers.  He'd return by about three or four in the afternoon, drunk off his ass, and yell at them for not getting enough work done.  Then he'd tell them that he'd show them how to do it, and climb up onto the scaffolding.  After he fell off and almost broke his neck, they'd cart him home.  A real prince.

I tell you that story to show you that despite what I write about working people, and how I think that a system run by them, run "from below," would be a better path for everybody, as well as for the planet, I don't harbor any illusions about them.  I've known rotten working people.  Hell, I'm descended from one--a genuine nasty, cold-blooded, sooner'd-kill-you-than-spit-at-you bastard...and I'll make no excuses for him.  My father never did.  My father, the lifelong teetotaler.

One of the remarkable things about my grandparents, though, is that both of them, despite their very different, almost diametrically opposite personalities, were religious people.  They were strict Irish Catholics, right to the core.  And this brings us to the delicate matter of religion....









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By the way, the strikes and confrontations mentioned at the beginning, all this happened in the early 60's, in the supposed "heyday" of capitalism when everything was supposed to have been OK between labor and management: our current mythology of the period. A "common interest" pact was supposed to have existed between the two sides. And of course, rainbows sprouted wings on which to fly back then, too...
Fascinating portrait of working class life - at a point in history where Americans still acknowledged the existence of a working class.
Fascinating portrait of working class life - at a point in history where Americans still acknowledged the existence of a working class.
Dr Bramhall - The working class is bigger than ever. Services jobs are not only working jobs, they're double-down situations, where people work mostly for an extension on employment. They're easy enough to fill so that the main threat is always actually losing work entirely, rather than benefits or some shot at a raise. The threat has moved up a level, and presses people down to a basic sense of life--the conditions of bare life.
Wonderfully remembered, beautifully written about real people living a tough frequently brutal life. Perhaps the people are still there but something seems to have been lost.
boko - will be interesting to read the rest of this. so...did they break the union at the slaughterhouse?

and how does this fit in with harman's (and your) idea of the "golden era" of capital, when the main crisis currents, like the falling rate of profit, were temporarily arrested?

Slices of life that made you what you are today. r
What really held me through every word was the sense of connectedness between literally everything. The union, town, family, sex, all of it.

Cheap portrays of that sense of connectedness are both popular and easy. But real pictures like this one---require real writers, real artists.

I think what's been hurt badly is our awareness of how we are all connected. In the corporate world its almost non-existent. But stories like this bring it back.

Looking forward to the next part.
My dad was a union man, as were most of our neighbors, we grew up in a very similar fashion, Irish Catholic, rough and tumble, but like you, I see it as not a bad way to grow up.

This one is pretty far away from a structural critique. Good, autobiographical, but on point.
Jan - Thank you, I'll have more to say about that in the coming parts.

Stu - They did break the union in the slaughterhouse, introduced a tiered wage system, and of course reduced everyone to a bared bones level. More on the "golden age" and how this fits in later.
Rw005g - This was happening in the 60's, during Kennedy and Johnson. There were big clashes during Eisenhower and even Truman, too. Remember Truman was the one that threatened the railway workers with the army, and made a big deal about "bending them to his will" (he made a private deal with them that actually included some of their demands, but part of it was that he got to act tough in public to save face). The "golden age" was not golden for everyone, or through and through.

Chicago Guy - Thank you. It's interesting how the interconnectedness of a lot of these issues, as represented in the historical record, gets obscured or erased. This is my own small effort at a personal archaeology of it.

Rita - I enjoyed much of it. It wasn't until I got to college that I appreciated the toughness and certainty of that point of view. There are limitations as well, though.
davey - My own take is that you have to have some conception of structure--and my definition is perhaps the simplest, or the next-to-simplest: the way people act, or, the organized actions of groups and individuals in the world. I think that's as close as one can get without plunging everything into first philosophy. I see the autobiographical as something working adjacent to that. Not complementary exactly, but adjacent.
old new lefty - I'm an odd combination of forces: Irish, union, Catholic, corporate, atheist, radical, revolutionary, just to name a few in order of some kind of becoming.
Pong - Thank you, I'll try. But part two is up now and it's about religion--hard to fit more chicks into that. Maybe in the future.
There appears to have been some sort of collapse since this time. Everywhere. I don't mean the banking crash, but some kind of steady decline in quality-of-life for working people all over the so called advanced world. What's going on? And do you think it's a reversible regression, or a permanent state of chaos?

Not that I mind chaos, too much...
And Pong always has chicks on the brain. Probably coz that's the only place he's got 'em. heh heh heh.
I actually read your second part first. Aside from the talk about labor/management relations, I agree that the critical part is the talk about community. Suburbanization has decimated that and it's cost us a whole lot more than the strength of unions. Excellent pair of posts.
Unions have been both the blessing and the absolute curse of working people since my youth, if you want to call it that. There were always shifty bureaucrats in the unions, willing to settle for less and less, getting taken in all the time, into the Hotel Rich.

There was indeed trouble, always, everywhere. There is no peace between those who work and those who employ. None.
TracyJack - What is reemerging, through this figure of the state of exception, is the originary period of capital itself. Not a reversion to some sort of neo-feudalism--despite the recurring nightmare of the Monarch, the death-dealing sovereign now hanging over us all--but a return to the conditions of primitive accumulation in the sense that all the same measures, juridical and extra-juridical, will now be employed to squeeze the last remaining value from labor. Perhaps the next step, after making people fight for the mere right of being exploited is to require them, by law, to be so. And this in spite of the perfect awareness of its impossibility under extreme structural unemployment. The system's blaming people for its own faults, and limitations, doesn't end with pressure for more austerity. It will extend to every sphere, stretching over life until a final confrontation is an absolute necessity for all. How long will this take? At the present rate, or a little faster since this is a system of intensifications and accelerations, maybe a decade.
kosher - I don't see any way to reverse suburbanization. A suitably awful prognosis can be found in Martin Pawley's "Terminal Architecture."

Dr Lee - You said it.
stu - To follow up...

You wrote: "How does this fit in with Harman's (and your) idea of the 'golden era' of capital, when the main crisis currents, like the falling rate of profit, were temporarily arrested?"

First, there is no equilibrium (let alone of a clearing of all markets) in a capitalist system. And there was never any era of peace between labor and management, only between certain industries and big bureaucratised labor. Even in the '50s and 60s there were strikes, walkouts, bitter and violent confrontations at factories like those described in the post. There was never even a truce. But the arms industry managed to provide enough stability, and surplus labor, to keep the system humming in spite of the gaps.

Second, there is no contradiction here with the fact that the major crisis trends were suppressed because the extra labor, and extra value, supplied by huge, grandfathered government contracts did most of the work. This suppressed the usual objective conditions, it never eliminated them, and many people went through reductions, including severe and devastating ones, in certain industries. This wasn't all due to innovation and shifting within industries, either, so the Kuhn-based economic hypotheses are flawed.

And finally, the system also pursued an increased reach at the same time that it was propped up by government intervention at home. The first offshoots of what would become the neoliberal project in South America began in the '50s, and not just in American business and not just in the natural resources sector. For example, Renault and Fiat had been in Argentina for some time when The Cordobazo took place. And Guatemala fell under US economic and political control in the '50s...
stu (cont'd) -

By the early 60s, American business was suffering in textiles, certain areas of machining, and animal slaughtering and processing. Long before the big labor-management wars of the 70s and 80s, aerospace and electronics began to be farmed out. It made sense to management because the skills were already there. The focus on arms had the effect of opening up whole sections of consumer products to transnational production and trade. These conditions made more complex trade arrangements necessary, arrangements that could be manipulated best by the most powerful players...

Capital, whether on the social-organic level of the labor-management relationship, or in the field of global trade, is a system which doesn't stop being in crisis just because everyone plays their role. Rather it's when, and especially if, everyone is most faithful to their part that the system moves another crisis. It's a system of crises--the breakdown is basic to the process.
I can see ways of reversing suburbanization; I'm not sure the political will exists to do it at the moment. If you want to reverse suburbanization, stop subsidizing housing purchases and start subsidizing urban living.

I realize cities seem environmentally awful because of their concentration but, in actuality, they're more environmentally sound for that exact reason. Fewer exterior walls per living units means lower cooling and heating costs per person. Distribution of products and services happens over a geographically smaller area, and that distribution brings all sorts of transportation-related environmnetal costs, so minimizing distances really helps.Urbanization means more mass transit, which is a more efficient way to move large numbers of people. And, obviously, urbanization frees more land for agriculture. Also, as you pointed out, cities are where the communities are.

We'd be better off more urban. If we want to be more urban, we have to subsidize being urban and stop subsidizing being suburban.
There's no way of reversing these trends. They belong in many ways to the long term trajectory of capital.
Not the place I grew up in, but carefully written. I discovered sex in the sandbox. Unions were put down for a long time as criminal organizations in this country, now everybody realizes that without them they're fucked. Idiots.
themanhattankid, Kathy - True enough. Although I wonder what a return to strong unions would look like today. Would they be corporate organizations? Certainly the big old manufacturing outfits went a long way in that direction before being challenged by their membership. Even now the big public employee and other unions in the Midwest are busy telling their membership to concentrate on recall elections and the regular political process to voice their demands. They've already given in on huge concessions that they should have fought hard on--at the very least because this is always the best way to put more pressure on your political opponents. Don't give them the budget cuts they need to go back to their own supporters and say, "Look at what we got for you." I think that teachers and other public workers should just walk out, en masse, with union support or no. Workers have to start making their own decisions, and having their own debates, away from the old structures. Free association is an absolute in any really free society.