Living and Dying on the Factory Floor in Wildcat Magazine
Originally published in German
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
In Chicago we met Dave Ranney, in the 70s organized among others in the Sojourn Truth Organization, then companion of Raya Dunayewskaya in News and Letters. As far as his age and state of health allow, he still gives lectures and participates in initiatives, for example against soil poisoning by the steel mills on the one hand and unemployment and homelessness due to their closure on the other.
Dave worked in various factories in the area from 1976 to 1982; he needed money because his academic job didn’t pay. At that time he had 200,000 colleagues in at least ten steelworks and the various supply chains, but today there are still three large steelworks with a total of less than 10,000 workers.
Now he has published a 140-page booklet about his experiences in the factory. We know very well the negative experiences he describes in it. The workers sit in the break room, separated according to ethnic origin, and talk in their own language; stupid sayings to the point of terrible racism.
In June 1978, he had positive experiences during a self-organized strike at the Chicago Shortening edible oil factory, a small dump with 50 people, 34 of them production workers. There, too, the usual mixture: blacks who sympathized with the Black Panthers, they did the worst jobs (cleaning the floor with toxic chemicals); some Mexicans, some of them illegal; white alcoholics in maintenance, and Heinz, the only white pump operator, always in a leather jacket with swastika and Southern flag patch and a pistol pinned in his pocket. The blacks greet him with “Sieg Heil!”, he greets back friendly and explains to everyone that he is a Nazi. Unlike the white skilled workers, however, he does not say a bad word about the blacks and Mexicans.
Dave’s job was maintenance and repair. The management saved where it could; safety and environmental protection were practically non-existent, accidents at work were regular (Dave had a serious accident at work, and immediately afterwards a colleague). The neighborhood had to struggle with stink and fat clogged drainpipes. The processes in the factory could only work because the maintenance staff, for example, had the knack of using all kinds of tricks to clear clogged pipes.
Do the right thing!
The responsible trade union is corrupt and meaningless. When they send someone over to tell the workers to put together a negotiating team for the collective bargaining, no one is interested in the frame-up. Nevertheless a few volunteers go to the negotiations, among them Heinz. After the first round they want to give up. Then Dave sticks a piece of paper with demands on a pin board (which unfortunately got lost and whose exact content he can’t remember): better social security, wage increase, vacant positions have to be advertised. With this Heinz goes into the next round of negotiations, it fails again. But now the course has been set; the barrel is full when the old contract is artificially extended for two weeks with the signatures of the trade unionists – if it had expired, the workers could strike legally. Heinz organizes a spontaneous strike, which is completely out of order – strike starts at midnight, too few colleagues and preventive cops in front of the factory threatening with prison. Then the black worker Lawrence sticks his statement on the pinboard and calls on his colleagues to “do what is right”. All three shifts meet and 39 colleagues vote for strike. Dave is then summoned to the office, where the responsible trade unionist gives him a few blows after an argument – when Dave’s colleagues notice this, a spontaneous “walkout” begins. The bosses send the workers home, but they stay. Their picket becomes a “school of various political concerns”, e.g. Iranian students show solidarity with each other, and the revolution in Iran is discussed with them. In spite of the continuing good mood, the strike is lost. It was banned by the Federal Court and an attempt to get in contact with other workers failed miserably. In the end a strikebreaker stabs a black worker and Dave’s dear friend.
In the final chapters Dave compares the situation today with the situation back then. The destruction of jobs has led to impoverishment. Dave criticizes the slogans “Bring back middle-class jobs” and “Fight for 15!” Jobs sucked back then and 15 dollars an hour is nowhere near enough for a decent life. ■
David Ranney: Living and Dying on the Factory Floor. PM Press 2019, 160 p. (also as e-book)
The book is only available in English. But it is easy to read and chronologically structured. It is suitable for people who use English