FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Labor’s Beating Heart

“We need unions to make sure that working people have a legitimate and consistent voice.”

—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Business Week magazine, 5/9/94

“The boss’s brains are under the worker’s cap.”

—William “Big Bill” Haywood (founding member of the IWW)

One of life’s gross inequities is that the people who actually do the work receive relatively little in the way of credit or compensation, while the people in charge of the work—the ones who plan it, assign it, oversee and critique it—receive regular promotions and large paychecks.

This discrepancy wouldn’t be so objectionable if it could be shown that the planning and supervisory aspects of the job were what made all the difference—that it was the boss’s contributions, the efforts of the guys in the front office, and not those of the workers on the floor, that determined the success or failure of a venture, but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Take your average, garden variety paper mill, for example. Because big-time factories want to get all they can out of their investments, those huge, expensive paper machines run 24-hours a day, seven days a week, nonstop, producing tons of paper an hour.  Accordingly, workers adhere to a rotating schedule called the “southern swing,” a configuration invented approximately 90 years ago in the textile mills of North Carolina.

The southern swing consists of working seven days of graveyard shift, followed by a day and a half off, seven days of swing shift, followed by two days off, and seven days of day shift, followed by three and a half days off.  Then it’s back to graveyard, and you start over again.

The hours are crazy.  Moreover, if your relief calls in sick, you’re responsible for the vacancy.  When possible, twelve-hour shifts are scheduled; but when not possible, you can be forced to work a double-shift.  You never know until an hour before quitting time if you’re going home.

The hours are crazy and the pay rates are carved in stone.  There are no inducements, no piece-work, no bonuses for record runs, no extra pay for extra effort, no incentives or additional pay of any kind.  You get paid by the hour, whether the equipment is cranking out product like the Indy 500, or whether it’s broken down in the driveway.

Still, even with wages fixed and no chance of bonuses, you see people—men and women, on all three shifts—busting their humps trying to set production records.  It goes beyond simply performing the job they were hired to do.  It goes beyond a mere desire to fulfill an obligation.  For want of a better explanation, it’s a desire to excel.

And it has nothing to do with supervision and Brownie points.  Indeed, supervisors are largely extraneous to the work at hand; nobody even pays attention to them, much less fears them.  In fact, so superfluous are most shift supervisors, they were largely done away with during the last decade, replaced by “lead men”—hourly workers who filled the role of glorified administrative assistants.  In some industries, including the paper industry, the entire front-line supervisory rung was more or less removed, testimony to the reliability and resourcefulness of the hourly worker.

The reason factory work gets done is simple.  It gets done because employees are willing to perform the hundred “minor miracles” required to insure that it gets done.

Over the years I’ve seen plenty of examples of extraordinary resourcefulness and effort.  Things like people refusing to take their lunch break in order to nurse a temperamental machine, skipping breaks to help fellow workers who are swamped, mechanics and electricians rigging up ingenious devices on the fly to keep machinery operating, and maintenance crews spending sixteen straight hours trying to get a product line running.  I saw a 25-year old tissue packer sweat through two shirts on swing shift.

I saw a woman on graveyard, “Agnes” (a grandma, old enough to be my mother), frantically try to clear a plug-up before the conveyor backed up, which would have forced the feeder machine to shut down.  Mind you, Agnes wouldn’t have lost a nickel had the machine died.  It could have stayed down an hour—a day, a week—with no material loss to her (in fact, had it shut down, it would have given her a much needed breather).

But she was determined not to let that happen.  She struggled to keep it going because it was her job to keep it going, and because fellow workers on both ends of the production line depended on her.  Watching her flailing away like a madwoman—frantically and  erratically yanking product off the conveyor line—was both inspiring and, oddly, disturbing.

On those infrequent, self-pitying occasions when the union brought these minor heroics to the company’s attention, we were either summarily blown off or greeted with a self-aggrandizing sob story of their own about how many hours a week a manager has to work, along with the reminder that, as salaried employees, they don’t qualify for overtime pay.

The union’s response was always the same:  First, despite the hours, you’re still very well compensated; second, if you want to call sitting in an air-conditioned office noodling with a computer screen “work,” that’s your privilege; and third, the reason you agree to put in all these hours is because you expect to be rewarded with a promotion, so let’s be honest.

Given that union workers don’t get merit promotions or bonus pay, they like to think management would, at the very least, step up to the plate and acknowledge their work ethic. But praising the union isn’t in the company’s playbook.  For one thing, management is afraid they’ll ask for more money at the next contract negotiation; for another, they tend to view the world categorically:  Management is the ruling class and the hourly are hired help….all part of God’s plan.

And the sight of a 63-year old woman with hair matted to her forehead and sweat running down her back—toiling in the dust and noise of a paper mill at three o’clock in the goddamn morning—had no effect on them.  It left them unmoved.  As a young, up and coming manager once said to me, “If they don’t like it here, they can quit.”

Ah, yes.  They can quit.  Spoken like a true leader of men.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael Duggin
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail