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

June 20, 2018
Henry Giroux
Trump’s War on Children is an act of State Terrorism
Bill Hackwell
Unprecedented Cruelty Against Immigrants and Their Children
Paul Atwood
“What? You Think We’re So Innocent?”
Nicola Perugini
The Palestinian Tipping Point
K.J. Noh
Destiny and Daring: South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s Impossible Journey Towards Peace
Gary Leupp
Jeff Sessions and St. Paul’s Clear and Wise Commands
M. G. Piety
On Speaking Small Truths to Power
Dave Lindorff
Some Straight Talk for Younger People on Social Security (and Medicare too)
George Wuerthner
The Public Value of Forests as Carbon Reserves
CJ Hopkins
Confession of a Putin-Nazi Denialist
David Schultz
Less Than Fundamental:  the Myth of Voting Rights in America
Rohullah Naderi
The West’s Over-Publicized Development Achievements in Afghanistan 
Dan Bacher
California Lacks Real Marine Protection as Offshore Drilling Expands in State Waters
Lori Hanson – Miguel Gomez
The Students of Nicaragua’s April Uprising
Russell Mokhiber
Are Corporations Are Behind Frivolous Lawsuits Against Corporations?
Michael Welton
Infusing Civil Society With Hope for a Better World
June 19, 2018
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
We Can Thank Top Union Officials for Trump
Lawrence Davidson
The Republican Party Falls Apart, the Democrats Get Stuck
Sheldon Richman
Trump, North Korea, and Iran
Richard Rubenstein
Trump the (Shakespearean) Fool: a New Look at the Dynamics of Trumpism
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Protect Immigrant Rights; End the Crises That Drive Migration
Gary Leupp
Norway: Just Withdraw From NATO
Kristine Mattis
Nerd Culture, Adultolescence, and the Abdication of Social Priorities
Mike Garrity
The Forest Service Should Not be Above the Law
Colin Todhunter
Pro-GMO Activism And Smears Masquerade As Journalism: From Seralini To Jairam Ramesh, Aruna Rodrigues Puts The Record Straight
Doug Rawlings
Does the Burns/Novick Vietnam Documentary Deserve an Emmy?
Kenneth Surin
2018 Electioneering in Appalachian Virginia
Nino Pagliccia
Chrystia Freeland Fails to See the Emerging Multipolar World
John Forte
Stuart Hall and Us
June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire