The following is an excerpt from my book which will be released in the coming year. The excerpt was originally published by the journal Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life. Hard Crackers is, in the words of its editors, “…a unique publication: political but not absorbed in elections or programs, literary but not pretentious, scholarly but not scholastic.” Please check out the journal by subscribing. Go to www.hardcrackers.com
There ain’t no justice, just us
by David Ranney
In 1974 I took what I thought would be a one year unpaid leave of absence from the Urban Planning School at the University of Iowa where I was a tenured professor. My task was to move the national office of New American Movement, a socialist organization, from Minneapolis to Chicago. Ultimately I left NAM and became of member first of Sojourner Truth Organization and then the Midwest Action League and finally News and Letters Committees, all part of the hard left at that time. I was also associated with a walk in pro bono legal assistance office called The Workers Rights Center located on Chicago’s Southeast side. The WRC was founded by Kingsley Clarke who I had met in Iowa City and who had accompanied me in my journey through the far left. After my leave of absence ran out I decided to stay in Chicago, giving up my position and tenure at the University of Iowa.
The problem was money. My work at WRC was pro bono and I had been drawing down on savings for a year. South Chicago and the entire Southeast side was dominated by a large number of factories that included four major steel mills. The factories manufactured a wide range of products. Many of the workers who came to the WRC worked in these factories so I decided that my money problems could be solved by working in one of them while at the same time gaining insights into the working and living conditions of the workers who came into the WRC. I ended up spending the next six years working at seven different factories for varying lengths of time.
What follows are a few excerpts from a forthcoming memoir of this period that I call Living and Dying on the Factory Floor: From the Outside In and the Inside Out. This book is being published by PM Press and will be released in Spring 2019.
One of the factories was Chicago Shortening. It made “edible oils” out of lard (pig fat) and tallow (beef fat) plus a number of delicious chemicals. “The Shortening” stank up the whole neighborhood (where the bulk of the workers lived). Inside it was filthy and dangerous, the scene of a number of industrial accidents. I had a very serious accident myself while I worked there. I made $5.75 an hour, which would be around $22 in today’s dollars. The average pay was about $4.50 or $17 today. This was considered low pay back then. The workforce included 25 black workers, 17 Mexicans, 2 who considered themselves Chicano, 3 whites (one a Nazi) plus two white pipefitters on loan from the pipefitters union. The main workforce was represented by a local of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen who are today part of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
I was hired to work maintenance after answering an ad in a local South Chicago newspaper. I passed a test that I later learned had been rigged to avoid hiring any of the black or Latino workers in the plant who had applied.
On the day of my hiring I get a tour of the plant from my supervisor.
As part of the tour we go into a railroad yard. There are about eight large tanker rail cars on the tracks. A few are marked Iowa Beef Processors. Others have more obscure labels like GATX and ACFX. A number of workers, all black, are climbing on top of or under the cars, dragging hoses and attaching them either to the top or to fittings underneath them. They give me an icy stare.
Bob points to the workers. “Those are the pumpers. They take lard or tallow out of some of these cars and put finished product into others. Once a day an engine comes into the yard and brings cars in and pulls others out for shipment. The cars have steam coils in the bottom. The pumpers hook up steam lines to those cars so we can keep the oil hot enough until they move out.”
A white guy in a flannel shirt holding a welding gun in his hand climbs out of one of the cars.
“I want you to meet this guy. He’s a pipe fitter who is on loan from the pipe fitters union hall. There are two of them. We have a lot of pipe maintenance work. He is fixing one of the steam coils I told you about. I’m going to ask him to teach you some of what he does so you can help them.”
We walk over to the car. “Larry this is Dave. We just hired him to work in maintenance. He doesn’t know how to weld. I want you to teach him some fundamentals so he can help you guys when needed.”
Larry puts out his hand and we shake. He pulls off his welding hood, which had been tipped over the top of his head. He is in his 30’s, blond with deep blue eyes. He stands about six feet tall, with a muscular build. I’d guess he weighs around 200 pounds. He smiles.
“Nice to meet you. Thank God you finally brought a white guy in, Bob. I was afraid you were going to hire one of the niggers.”
I feel myself stiffen. I try not to show my shock. I look to see if any of the workers near-by had heard. If they did, they don’t react. Then I glance at Bob. He seems a bit embarrassed.
“He scored 100% on the test!” Bob exclaims.
“Well then, Dave, I’ll be seeing you.” He laughs: “Glad you passed Bob’s test.”
I’m feeling very unsettled and thinking to myself: maybe I shouldn’t be here.
We visit several more work stations and end up in a locker room. It is a grey dingy long narrow room with rows of lockers on each side. Beside the lockers are two rows of benches. There is a long wooden table that is in need of paint in the middle of the room. It is scarred with scratches and cigarette burns. It was grey at one time. The lockers were also grey but are now badly scratched. Some have been pried open. At the end of the locker room is a wash room with two sinks, two toilet stalls, two urinals and a shower. The bathroom is in bad need of cleaning. In the locker room, the general odor of the plant is overcome by a mix of urine and marijuana smoke.
“This is where you can come and wash up. We have another room for the maintenance workers where you put your clothes and tools.”
We walk across the hall. Bob gets out his keys and opens the locked door. I see an older white man, in his 60’s, sitting in an easy chair. In addition to the chair, there is an old but respectable looking brown sofa in the large square room as well as six lockers and a newish looking card table. The man smiles and gets up. He is thin, stooped with grey thinning hair He is wearing a spotless white long cotton coat. He looks more like a TV doctor than a maintenance man in a shortening factory. There is a white hard hat sitting on the table.
“Frank, this is Dave Ranney, our new maintenance man. I’m going to ask him to accompany you on the job this week so you can train him. Dave this is Frank Pucinsky.”
We shake hands and Bob leaves. I turn to Frank.
“So, I should meet you here in the morning?”
“Sure. You can learn a lot of stuff from me if you really want to. A lot of the knuckleheads in the plant want this job but don’t want to learn. I’ve worked in this place my whole life except for the time I was in the Army. It used to be a meat packing plant. I started processing bacon and other meats. Then I graduated to maintenance. This was a Cudahy operation. But they consolidated and sold the building to Chicago Shortening. I stayed with the building. Been here 40 years.”
I hear the lock turn in the door. Larry and another white pipefitter come in to get some tools. They again exclaim how relieved they are that Bob didn’t hire another “nigger” or a “wetback.” Frank looks embarrassed. They leave laughing.
“I gather you don’t talk that way. I’m glad about that.”
“They haven’t taken the time to know the other people here. I’ve worked with Bill and Henry for the last 40 years. We have a beer together now and then. The younger guys are another matter. I don’t know what it is. Many of them are high all the time. That didn’t used to happen. I don’t think it has anything to do with the colored. The guys my age were brought up differently. But the white guys like Larry and Ken don’t really know anything about people. They’ve never even talked to a colored guy. Things used to be worse. Let me tell you how I met Bill and Henry.”
“When I turned 17 the depression was on. I couldn’t find work. I had dropped out of school to look for work and found a few odd jobs. My family needed the money bad. My dad was a friend of the alderman and one day I was playing ball at the park and the alderman shows up and motions me to come over.”
“He whispers: ‘There’s a job open at Cudahy packing plant on 91st and Baltimore. I put in a word for you. Get over there on the double. If someone else comes in before you get there they may give the job to them.’ I had to take a leak but I didn’t stop to do that. In fact I left my ball glove and bat on the field and started to run. I showed up out of breath, found a foreman and was told to start working immediately. I still had to take a piss. But I had to first work on the packing line until the break was called. By the time we got a break I had pissed in my pants. I was embarrassed. I followed two colored guys into the locker room. I was beet red. One of them went to his locker, got a clean pair of pants. He handed them to me. That was Henry. The other laughed and said: ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s what pants are for.’ That was Bill. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Frank continued. “There was another white guy on the job that everyone – colored and white – liked a lot. His name was Tom. One day we were on the line and he just fell over dead. Heart attack! They took him to a funeral home for the wake. I knew the guy who owned the place. Stan was a buddy of my dad’s, another Pollack. A bunch of us went over from work. As we walked in Stan says: ‘We don’t allow niggers in here.’ He turns to Henry, Bill and a few other colored guys. ‘You guys get out or I’ll call the cops.’”
“Look Stan, I says. We are all friends of Tom. We are here to pay our respects.”
“You know better than this Frank. You and the other white guys will have to stand in for the niggers. They are not coming in here.”
“I turn to Bill, Henry and the other colored guys. I am embarrassed and angry. There are about six other white guys. They are pissed too. I say to Bill and Henry. ‘Do colored funeral guys let white folks into their funeral homes?’
‘I recon they would. I’m not sure.’
I says: ‘Call one and find out.’
Bill goes out and shortly comes back in. Stan is by this time sputtering mad. ‘I mean it Frank. They’ll have to get out.’
Bill says: ‘They says that if they bury a person, all the friends and family are welcome.’ I push past Stan. Tom’s wife is standing by the casket, dressed in black and crying. I talk to her and explain what’s going on. She tells Stan to let us in. He is adamant. She gets angry and says. ‘Then we’ll bury Tom at the other place.’ All the guys push into the room. We close the casket and carry it outside as Stan screams. We put the coffin in the bed of Bill’s pick up. And the wake moves to the colored funeral home.”
“So that’s about how it was back then.”
I soon learned that the locker room was a place where only black workers hung out. The Mexicans had their own space in another section of the plant. The room where I met Frank was always locked. Only the white workers and foremen had the key. I soon made it a point to take my breaks with the blacks and Mexicans, behavior that everyone initially thought very odd. Eventually they got used to it. One of the black workers with whom I became a close friend was named Charles Sanders. He constantly teased me, asked if I thought I was a “nigger,” and tried to get me to smoke dope and drink “shake and bake” during breaks (which I didn’t do). He could be aggressive and a little threatening when he was high (which was often). But he was a natural leader, handsome, tough, charismatic, and deeply angry.
In 1978 we went out on a spontaneous wildcat strike against both the company and union due to the fact that they conspired to falsify a contract ratification vote. Charles had been out on disability leave due to an accident on the job. But he came to the picket line every day and assumed a leadership role.
As we organize picket shifts, Frank, Bill and Henry come to us to explain they are months away from retirement and stand to lose a lot of benefits if we lose the strike. They want permission to cross the picket. We agree. But an hour later they come out and explain they were ordered to tell us to return to work. They refused and were sent home…maybe fired.
The strike is winding down. We decide to make one last stand.
We are on the railroad tracks – 19 of us are blocking an engine from pulling cars full of product. It is blazing hot outside. Some of the guys are shirtless. The President of the company in a coat and tie approaches us flanked by cops in riot gear. Charles, Lawrence and I are in front and walk up to greet them.
A huge cop – the one in charge of this operation–joins the President. He is wearing plain clothes with his badge and ID hung around his neck and a large pistol stuck into his belt. The engineer from the blocked locomotive, another huge white human is there too.
The President, Joe Cruse is screaming at us. Once again he seems out of control.
“CLEAR THE TRACKS!”
Then the cop: (more controlled, almost bored, but very firm, he towers over all of us. I find him scary and threatening):
“This is an illegal blockage. Leave or be arrested.”
Charles steps forward. He stands inches away from the big cop—in his face. He tilts his head up so he can look the cop directly in the eyes. He is as serious as I have ever seen him.
“All we want is a fair vote on the contract.”
Charles’s eyes are piercing, his voice clear.
“For us this is about how we are going to feed our babies, man. That’s something worth fighting for. Moving us out of here ain’t goin’ to be easy.”
He steps back a half step, then smiles his infectious smile. Cruse looks scared. The cop has softened his threatening stance.
The engineer steps between the cop and the Cruse.
“No way I’m going to cross this picket.”
Cruse stammers and sputters. He shouts again “YOU HAVE TO; IT’S YOUR JOB!”.
The engineer looks at Cruse. “I don’t work for you. So go fuck yourself.”
He turns and begins to walk away. Then turns back and smiles at us. “Give us a call when you get this straightened out.”
There is stunned silence. One of the workers begins to play on a set of bongo drums. All of us are cheering, jumping up and down. People are dancing right on the railroad tracks. Cruse appears to be in shock. Charles grabs me in a bear hug.
“I never hugged a white man before.”
Three weeks later the strike is crushed. Most of us are fired. A few weeks after that, Kingsley and I are in the Workers’ Rights Center. I am at the mimeo machine cranking out a leaflet for some steel workers. I’m feeling depressed and worried about all the workers who lost their jobs at the Shortening.
The telephone rings. Kingsley answers.
“Workers Rights Center”
The door to the street opens and a bit of the putrid air from both the steel mills and the Shortening factory wafts in. Lawrence enters slowly. He looks tired, somewhat stooped. I can see from his face that something is very wrong.
“Charles is dead. Murdered on the job.”
I feel nauseous, like I just took a punch in the gut.
“What happened?” I croak.
“One of the scabs – Howie –stabbed him to death. Right in the Shortening it happened. Howie’s in hiding.”
I knew that the Shortening management was forced to take Charles back because he had been on disability leave when the strike started. He had been spending his days in a sea of scabs. I heard from some of the former Shortening workers that he was stoned most of the time.
Lawrence explained that Charles had been taunting Howie in the locker room at the end of their shift. They had gotten into a fight and Charles had beaten the crap out of him. The next day when Charles was on his way to pump some product, Howie was hiding behind a tank. As Charles walked by, Howie jumped out and stabbed him. Charles managed to get to the locker room. He sat down heavily on a bench and said:
“Howie stabbed me. We got to do somethin’ about that boy.”
“Those were his last words. He then fell off the bench and onto the floor, dead. We’ll get him,” Lawrence muttered through clenched teeth and fists.
“Don’t! Please. Let the cops get him.”
Kingsley hangs up the phone. Lawrence slumps heavily into a chair. The three of us stare at each other. I am speechless.
Three days later Kingsley and I walk into the African Baptist Church – a small dirty brick building three blocks from the Worker’s Rights Center. The church is packed. Kingsley and I and a few of our comrades are the only white people there. We try to sit in the back but are ushered up to the front row. Charles is in an open casket. The smell of flowers, perfume, aftershave and sweat is overpowering.
“Doesn’t he look marvelous” Bill says.
I’ve seen him look better, I think, but I say nothing. There is singing– beautiful and upbeat gospel. Men are stony faced and tense. Women are openly sobbing. Some woman from the neighborhood begins to scream and she faints. People lift her up. I feel a bit faint myself. My stomach is queasy. I look in the back of the church. I see company vice president Maurie Green! My muscles tighten. I am nearly in a rage. Before Kingsley can grab me, I am in the back of the church joined by Laurence and about half a dozen former Chicago Shortening workers.
“What are you doing here Maurie?” My fists are clenched.
“I’m here to pay my respects.”
“You got no respect for any of us and no business here!” Lawrence hisses. His voice is tense, and seething with anger. “Now get the fuck out.”
After the service, the workers are standing on the corner, across from the Shortening, passing around a bottle of shake and bake and a number of joints. This time I join them.