This post is particularly dedicated to Harry Ibsen and Constance Carlson Ibsen, who share my loves of great cars and honest unions, with my love. mp
Maybe he was one of those "Depression Era kids" trying to "straighten out" the Baby Boomers, but when I was 19, my dad bet me $100 that I couldn't last a month in a factory. (I was between junior and senior years in college at that point, and I presume he thought I knew too much of the "reel world," and virtually nothing of "the real one.") In 1968, $100 was no joke, my friends, so off I packed to Eureka-Williams' employment office, applying for a job on the line.
The first morning of the first day, my assigned job was to pick up an upright waxer, swing it upside down over the head of a co-worker, and put it on the bench so she could air-drill four screws into the base. Just an FYI, the current Eureka upright vacuum weighs 21.5 lbs. The waxer was heavier -- I seem to remember 25 lbs. I took one look at the woman standing next to me, who had been working on the line for some 15 years, and I knew, dead to rights, that hitting her in the head with a waxer was a poor survival strategy.
So, up and over, up and over, up and over for two hours, 120 minutes, one waxer every three minutes. You do the math. Then, coffee break. I just sat on the floor and leaned on the concrete block wall in the women's locker room. Someone brought me a cup of coffee from the machine. "Oh, I can't pay you... I haven't gotten my check yet."
"Yeah, that's all right. We take turns paying for the coffee," someone explained.
Precisely as I was trying to figure out what would really happen if I simply put the waxer down and walked away, the noon whistle blew. My arms and shoulders were so spent, I could barely lift my sandwich or drink the soup from my thermos. All around me, people laughed and talked and jostled as though their muscles weren't burning in pain. I knew death was preferable, but was too damn tired to die.
When we returned, I discovered the devil had written another chapter of hell for me. Rather than lifting the waxers, I now stood motionless, or shifting from foot to foot, while another absolute stranger lifted the waxers over my head and I drilled in the four screws. At 2:00, another cuppa and two cookies appeared magically in my lap in the ladies' lounge. I managed a weak smile, mainly because I was conscious enough to pick up on the conversation on the other side of the room. They were putting into a betting pool over whether I would show up the next morning.
After I managed to drive my 1955 Ford Fairlane (with overdrive) five miles home and take a brief nap in the parking lot, it took me 10 minutes to walk up one flight of steps to my apartment, where I fell onto the couch dead asleep. My roommate woke me up at 11:30 with a hot bowl of soup and cornbread, and then ran a hot bath for me. She may have said something to me. I don't know. I was too tired to hear.
Just another FYI: betting against my stubbornness is a lost cause. During the days that passed, I learned a number of life lessons: how MUCH the government takes out in taxes; don't talk politics at work; not everyone is a brain surgeon; being smart isn't everything; and you can get used to pretty much anything. After I got paid, I bought everyone in the women's lounge coffee, and totally startled them. That's when I realized they'd just been "bein' nice" to buy my coffee when I was broke (and saving my dignity). I learned many things about my coworkers in those brief days with them. That standing at the same drill press for 30 years will wear concrete into inverted "normal curves" where your feet have stood. That one woman lived in an all-red interior "double-wide," including using red light bulbs. I asked her if there were any problems living in the all-red trailer, and she said, "Well, only on Sundays and holidays, you can't read the calendar."
But there came a pivotal day when all of my preconceived notions about union factory workers got blown out of the water big-time. The management people decided to replace the metal step-on switches with plastic ones. The assembly line was shut down, and the whole place fell silent. As we held our stations and watched, one of the foremen, a union rep, and an inspector installed the new switch on a waxer. Then, with clicker in hand, the inspector began stepping on the switch. On ... off ... on ... off ... on ... off ... on ... No other sound. At 63, the switch broke. They replaced it with another. On ... off ... on ... Broken, at 61. The union rep raised her hand. Everyone sat down on the stools which stood behind all of our stations, but which were so rarely used.
Books and newspapers came out of backpacks. A couple of transistor radios. Random decks of cards. "What's going on?" I asked."
"Sit down," my neighbor said.
I sat. "But what's going on?"
"That's what's going on. We're sitting."
"People work hard for their money," someone else said. "They deserve better."We sat, played cards, read, listened to the radio, smoked, waited, for two and a half days. Then the union rep came down, followed by a fork lift with boxes of the metal switches. Just as quickly, the line came back to life. Again, a new waxer came off the line, every three minutes, with the durable metal step-on switches. (Okay, I know this is a long piece. Go get your tea and come on back for the second half... I just hate the idea of my readers suffering!) "The Ford Pinto was a subcompact manufactured by the Ford Motor Company for the North American market, first introduced on September 11, 1970 [speaking of terrorism! mp]. Before production[,] however, Ford engineers discovered a major flaw in the car[']s design. In nearly all rear-end crash test collisions[,] the Pinto's fuel system would rupture extremely easily. Because assembly-line machinery was already tooled when engineers found this defect, top Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway, exploding gas tank and all, even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gas tank. Safety was not a major concern to Ford at the time of the development of the Pinto. Lee Iacocca, who was in charge of the development of the Pinto, had specifications for the design of the car that were uncompromisable. These specifications were that "the Pinto was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not cost a cent over $2,000." Any modifications[,] even if they did provide extra safety for the customer[,] that brought the car closer to the Iacocca’s limits was rejected.
"The rush of the Pinto from conception to production was a recipe for disaster. Many studies have been concluded by Mother Jones on Pinto accident reports which have revealed conclusively that if a Pinto being followed at over 30 miles per hour was hit by that following vehicle, the rear end of the car would buckle like an accordion, right up to the back seat. The tube leading to the gas-tank cap would be ripped away from the tank itself, and gas would immediately begin sloshing onto the road around the car. The buckled gas tank would be jammed up against the differential housing (the large bulge in the middle of the rear axle), which contains four sharp, protruding bolts likely to gash holes in the tank and spill still more gas. Now all that is needed is a spark from a cigarette, ignition, or scraping metal, and both cars would be engulfed in flames. If a Pinto was struck from behind at higher speed say, at 40 mph chances are very good that its doors would jam shut and its trapped passengers inside would burn to death." (Source: Mother Jones.)
So, somewhere in the late 1960s, early 1970s, the American worker began to lose the battle to people like Iacocca and those who originated the grand scheme of "planned obsolescence." (For more on that misguided philosophy and its unholy results, see Vance Packard's The Waste Makers (1960), an exposé of "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.")
In contrast to the wonderful design, engineering, and construction of which we were so capable and respected the world over, exemplified by the gorgeous 1951 Kaiser pictured here and the Golden Gate Bridge, the people who were "management," those "white collar bastards" we used to routinely suspect and detest, began to produce goods which were meant to break, fall apart, give out, wear out, be crap, need replacement, okay? And, as I have said, as the unions all across the country have said, we fought this. We read our Consumer Reports, talked to our friends and family, did what we could to find the Maytags, the Levis, the Amanas, the American-made goods that were worth our hard-earned money. (Now, not only are we not resistant to the shenanigans of those "white collar bastards," we don't even see that there might be a problem with electing the son of an SS officer governor of California.)
The white collar bastards who ran things with a slide rule and an eye to their own bonuses and golden parachutes, who paid pro-employer (read "union-busting") law firms like Littler Mendelson, P.C. to destroy labor unity, eliminate benefits, and erode the rights of the American worker, eventually, somehow, they got control of everything. Somehow, we got confused. We let them. It's not that I think unions are all that and a cherry on top. But it is the mongoose and the cobra thing. Any fool would be afraid of both of them. Now the American workforce just bends over for the corporations. (Corporations, in my view, battle for first place with nuclear weapons as the very worst thing we as a people ever visited on the planet Earth). The very idea that we should act in concert in the workplace to provide our customers with the very best we can give them brings a snicker of derision.When Enron imploded, their latest little brainchild in an obscenely ruthless quest to grab money from anyone within stealing range so they could continue to snort more of the world's resources up their noses, drive ever bigger BMWs and screw even more young foolish women, was to buy the water rights to India from corrupt government officials over there. Yes, in fact, you did hear that right. All of the water rights to India. Which would mean every single human life on the subcontinent would depend on people like Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, people with absolutely no moral or ethical context, for the second most valuable substance required to sustain life on the planet, the first being the air we breathe. I assume no one really requires further comment from me on this nightmare. Except to say that if that isn't terrorism, what is? And Bechtel Corporation, for one, is still trying to pull this deal off, according to those in the know at Human Rights Watch. Not only in India, but in Latin America as well.
So now, in 2009, we have sunk to a place so low that Stewart Purnell, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America, can sit before a committee of the House of Representatives and refuse to eat peanuts from his own company, smug in his belief that risking the public safety is not as important as his little company's bottom line. So sleazy that he simply refused to answer questions put to him by the United States Congress by wrapping his very small self in the United States Constitution's protections against self-incrimination after he had ordered "product" shipped throughout the country since the company's 2006 request that JLA USA testing service "help control salmonella in the plant." After Darlene Cowart of JLA USA visited Peanut Corp.'s plant and pointed out problems with the company's peanut roasting and storage which could lead to salmonella, the PCA discontinued using the lab for testing purposes on the grounds that the testers had "identified salmonella too many times." (Um, don't shoot the messenger, Mr. Purnell?) So we have what? A confirmed nine deaths and 600 cases of potentially deadly salmonella? And this is a problem because....?
Mr. Purnell of course is the bastard spiritual son of Lee Iacocca who is responsible for far more deaths. "By conservative estimates Pinto crashes have caused 500 burn deaths to people who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames. The figure could be as high as 900. Burning Pintos [became] such an embarrassment to Ford that its advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, dropped a line from the end of a radio spot that read[,] 'Pinto leaves you with that warm feeling.'"
(Two years before the release of the Pinto, one of our neighbor men was arrested for stealing a chicken from an IGA to feed his family, and spent five years in Menard State Prison for stealing. When his wife chased the power company man up the phone pole for trying to shut off her lights, my parents collected the money to pay her bill and buy her kids groceries. At this juncture, Purnell faces one year in jail and $1000 fine.)
Of course, incalculable are the effects of the mistrust created in this country of American-made small cars. Yes, we lovingly buy our Toyotas, our VWs, our Hondas. The saddest joke in all of that is that the Japanese purchased the plans for the very self-same 1955 Ford Fairlane four-cylinder overdrive which was my first car, and updated its plans to become the wildly popular Toyota Corolla, which we couldn't buy enough of. And, happily, we discovered Accords and Camrys as we grew older and had more disposable income. Buy American? Are you nuts? When an Accord will run 300,000 miles, if properly cared for? Low emissions, terrific performance, stylish looks, great ride! Detroit buys up the rights to electric cars and now we're driving what? Oh, Prius. You know. Toyota. Why? Because we know it didn't bother Lee Iacocca to turn us into crispy critters just so long as we signed on for those monthly payments. Stick a little American flag in the window of the dealership so people would feel patriotic and let them pay for death traps on time. What a great guy! Saved Chrysler. American hero.
Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby . . . "
(Golden Slumbers, Beatles...)And so this brings us where? The Industrial Workers of the World were the first American union to use the sit-down strike, which is a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at a factory or other centralized location, take possession of the workplace by "sitting down" at their stations, effectively preventing their employers from replacing them with strikebreakers or, in some cases, moving production to other locations. "The United Auto Workers staged successful sit-down strikes in the 1930s, most famously in the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937. In Flint, Michigan, strikers occupied several General Motors plants for more than forty days, and repelled the efforts of the police and National Guard to retake them. A wave of sit-down strikes followed, but diminished by the end of the decade as the courts and the National Labor Relations Board held that sit-down strikes were illegal and sit-down strikers could be fired. While some sit-down strikes still occur in the United States, they tend to be spontaneous and short-lived." [Wikipedia....] And the sit-down strike, of course, is the precursor to the sit-in.
While our elected (and bought by corporate interests) representatives sold our public airwaves to the cable companies for a penny on the dollar of what they were worth (as though you could ever put a value on a free people's right to know rather than be manipulated), Rupert Murdoch and the other robber-baron media conglomerates worked 24-7 to convince us that the problem with Detroit is the workers. The Unions. Greedy. Lazy. Trouble. Un-American. Always their little mantra. If you don't want your kids to die in illegal and unjust wars? Un-American. If you don't want your kids to die in death-trap cars? Un-American. If you vote to support small business, good schools, election reform? Un-bloody-American. Ad nauseum.
Somehow, we've transformed in the past three-quarters of a century, or three generations, from a people who would stand up and stop the companies from all manner of bad behavior, to people who would allow their life savings to be handed over to robber barons who have no shame at paying themselves huge bonuses for destroying the very companies they were charged with the stewardship of. Oh, yes, we are the victims of terrorism, hell yes! But not from a few impoverished groups of angry, frustrated people from middle-eastern countries. The terrorism destroying our once-great nation is economic terrorism, which has siphoned off the money, the jobs, the means of producing goods and services, and the ownership of the media (with the one notable exception being this internet) which we could use to discuss these issues in a thoughtful and deep way. And, given the opportunity, they have not only destroyed the means of obtaining higher education, they've sucked off so much of the resources of our educational systems that we are even hard-pressed to keep the bathrooms clean, functioning, and disease-free.
Somehow we've lost our dignity, our sense, our ability to work together for the greater good, our focus and our vision.
Somehow we've lost the ability to talk to each other. To listen. To solve our problems as a group. To stop those who do not wish us well from taking the very words that we need now, such as working together collectively, and making them "un-American." [See, www.rockridgeinstitute.org.] We can't even live together without large dogs and guns. We are a terrified people in desperate need of salvation. And it will not be Jesus who saves us. If we are saved at all, it will be our own doing. When we relearn what we always knew before. How to invent. How to take care of ourselves. How to think of our communities and people as a whole. How to educate our children. How to protect them from credit card companies, sexual predators, drug dealers. America will again deserve the moniker of "great nation" when, sober, serious, and dignified, we move forward and relearn how to coordinate our efforts and, when necessary, shut down the line.Copyright 2009 by Mugsy Peabody. All rights reserved. Photographs of 1951 Kaiser used courtesy of Grace Harwood, Images of Amazing Grace, Oakland, California.