And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.
And you may find yourself in another part of the world.
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile.
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife.
And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here!?
—Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”
I find myself sitting at my desk in a rural town in Northeastern Wisconsin looking at chickadees, nuthatches, and chipping sparrows diving in and out of the feeding stations I have set up for my amusement. Indigo buntings, purple finches, and many of the other birds have left for the winter. Suddenly a flock of juncos sails in and begins pecking at the ground beneath the feeders. They come in early spring and leave for the summer and then stop by in the late fall and leave again for the winter. How is it determined who goes and who stays? How do they mobilize and decide to wing their way from here to there? From their perspective I am on the outside looking in. Yet I feel a connection. As I put up the feeders and keep them full of seeds and suet, many of the regulars sit on or near the feeders chirping happy sounds at me. At this moment, I feel like I’m sitting on the inside, looking out at their world.
I am suddenly interrupted from this reverie by an annoying ding from my cellphone. It is a CNN news alert about yet another presidential tweet. In this one the president claims that his proposed tax reform will bring “middle-class jobs” back to the U.S. For some reason this really sets me off. Feeling angry and agitated, my mind goes back forty years to a time when I was working in a number of factories in Southeast Chicago. It was another time in my life, one when I was both an outsider looking into the world of the factory workers and an insider looking out at the outside world.
I realized that the perspective I gained then is still with me today and accounts for my anger at the simplistic notion of “bringing back middleclass jobs.” So I began to write about that time in my life, not as a memoir but as an account of life and even death on the factory floor, the raw class and race relations, the exploitation of backbreaking and dangerous labor, and the often unhealthy and unsafe working conditions. Sharing that perspective with others today seems timely and important.
In 1973, I was comfortably employed as a tenured professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. It was a time of great optimism and hope that we could replace a society based on greed, sexism, racism, and wars aimed at global domination with something new. I strongly believed, and still do, that we can achieve a totally new society in which “the full and free development of every human being is its ruling principle.” It would be a society where the measure of wealth would be, in Marx’s words, “the needs, capacities, enjoyments, and creative abilities” of each individual.
As these ideas were forming in Iowa City in the early 1970s, I was highly involved in local political and social activities, including opposition to the Vietnam War, supporting the demands of various civil rights groups, critiquing the political outlook of textbooks used in major survey courses at the University of Iowa, and experimenting with new social forms by organizing cooperative daycare, food co-ops, and housing co-ops. I helped to develop community education events about both the Vietnam War and the Southern African wars for national liberation from colonial powers. The political work and political education were intense and productive, but I increasingly began to feel that we were operating in a bubble that didn’t really extend beyond Iowa City. I longed to engage the growing social justice and revolutionary movements all over the world and couldn’t really do so from my comfortable perch.
So I took a one-year leave of absence and moved to Chicago, following my Iowa City friend Kingsley, who had opened up a unique pro bono legal clinic he called the Workers’ Rights Center in a storefront office in Southeast Chicago. Initially I joined a socialist group called New American Movement (NAM) and worked in its national office but later joined the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) and began working with Kingsley in the Workers’ Rights Center.
By this time my one-year leave of absence at the University of Iowa had run out and so had my money. I made the difficult decision to leave academia. Many left-wing organizations, STO included, had members working in factories for a variety of reasons. STO believed, for reasons I will discuss at the end of this book, that a new society could be built from the initiatives of “mass organizations at the workplace.” So it made sense that my financial needs could best be met by working in Southeast Chicago factories. The work was consistent with STO priorities and also engaged the sort of people who were coming to the Workers’ Rights Center for legal help. This is how I came to work at a number of different factories from 1976 to 1982.
The area I worked in during this period, Southeast Chicago and Northwest Indiana, included one of the largest concentrations of heavy industry in the world. The region was anchored by ten steel mills, which, at their peak, employed two hundred thousand workers, half in Chicago. It has been estimated that for every steel job in the region there were seven other manufacturing workers, bringing the total employment to over one-and-a-half-million workers. The presence of the Lake Michigan ports, rivers that served industry, railroad spurs, highways, and the mills themselves attracted firms that manufactured steel products like automobiles, railroad cars, and steel structures. It also attracted industries that supplied products to the mills and to other factory workers—chemicals, processed food, tools, work boots, welding equipment. Today, nearly all of this is gone. All the Chicago steel mills have been closed and demolished, along with most of the firms whose location was determined by the mills. There is still as much steel produced in Northwest Indiana but by a fraction of the workers. In terms of just steelworkers, there are less than ten thousand left, and that number is declining. What the mills and heavy industry left behind is toxic waste and crushing poverty.
The seven factories I worked in during the late 1970s and early 1980s were not steel mills but represented a fair cross section of what factory work once was like on a day-to-day basis. This history is important, because it exposes the negative class and race relations that persist. It also shows how such relations could and do change when working people confront a common threat and a promise of something better. It exposes the threats to worker health and safety that are inherent in these jobs. And it exposes the legacy of environmental decay that is still with us.
What follows are my experiences written in story form without any analysis or explanation of why I was working on the factory floor. The focus is on the day-to-day working conditions of the people I worked with and the experiences we shared. I have written these stories in real time (present tense) and from my point of view at that time (first-person). In the final section of the book I reflect on why I did this, how it worked out for me, and how my experience can be useful for determining a direction forward today.