Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The camraderie of the workplace, solidarity and class consciousness.

The Salt of the earth
Left: co-workers supporting my run for city council in 1996.  You don't know what you've got till it's gone.

I was feeling a bit sentimental about work today, missing my old workmates and my Union activity. I was looking at some of the stuff I used to write about work that I often distributed at lunch tables or around the workplace.  This piece below I wrote for something else but it brought back wonderful memories for me and I think so many other workers can relate to it.

I was reminded this morning how work and our association with it develops class-consciousness. I attended a retirement at the corporation yard where I was working before I retired. The retiree was an old friend of mine who I have worked for many times. When I say worked for, I mean that he was a foreman with a crew of two and he installed water services for businesses or individual homes, sometimes entire housing tracts. Some of the jobs are quite extensive, 6", 8" water services some domestic, some for sprinkler systems, sometimes across very busy streets. I went from job to job in a custom built International with a backhoe on the back and was accompanied by a ten yard dump truck and driver who hauled out the spoils and brought back rock for fill if we had time.

The yard was full of people who had worked with this worker over the years and these events are becoming much scorned upon by the upper management as they are "non-productive" time. Workers buy presents, take up collections, and in this case a whole breakfast was cooked out in the yard and brought in for people to consume. This is what the propaganda of the 1% says is destroying the US economy; the “profligacy” of the public sector. It is actually what should take place in all workplaces.

It is a sort of roasting. As is the usual custom, the retiree’s family is there and there are gifts and plaques that are made and presented. We also bought him 10 tickets to see the San Jose Sharks next season as well as a cap and other Sharks paraphernalia as he is an avid ice hockey fan. He loves duck hunting, rock and roll and the blues.

It is a great event in a way as older retirees come and they get to see folks they worked with for years. You can see the younger workers sort of fascinated by it but really enjoying it. The weakening of the union and the labor movement due to the capitulation of the labor leaders has affected their consciousness and without a movement of substance arising, they will not see these events much longer.

Worker after worker got up to tell stories about working with this guy. One worker who frequently duck hunted with him described being in the blinds at 4 am with the sun coming up and the sky purple, "It's a beautiful thing" he said. They talked of his work ethic and all the things that he taught them. He was a stickler for the book and sometimes was strict but he was a good union man and worked his ass off, as hard as anyone alongside him.

He was a former teamster who was laid off and got a job with us in the public sector. He was a good man and I remember talking with him about his Vietnam experience. He was in Guam he said loading bombs on B52's. He told me that looking back on it he got all his information from the Stars and Stripes, the official publication of the US military. He was a good union man and one can imagine the difference it might have had on him back then had the unions taken a clear and independent position, but he has learned much.

As I sat back down after making some comments I watched other folks get up and give him a bit of a ribbing. I looked at the faces of my former co-workers as we laughed and laughed at the stories and tales of our work lives. There were maybe 70 or 80 people in the room, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, an Iranian, white folks, blacks, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Puerto Ricans, women workers. I felt this very strong sense of belonging. It's funny as I couldn't wait to get out of there in some ways but it was not because of them. Folks came up to me and complained about how the union was weak now, wasn't fighting, unfortunately they bear some responsibility for that being unwilling to take the time to change it, to put themselves forward, but it is the leadership that bears the brunt of the blame in these situations generally. One worker who I worked with 20 years ago before his transfer complained that his body was hurting and they weren't giving him a break, helping him in to an easier job. He was, like the retiree, a very hard worker and never kissed ass.

The MC was a very close friend of mine and of the retiree. He goes duck hunting with him all he time and tales abounded about the pleasure of sitting in the blinds waiting for the geese to fly over. We used to tease these two “tough” guys about being so close together at 6.am in a duck blind.  He came over to me after and said that "this was our send off for him". I know what he meant by "our" he meant the workers. It was truly a workers’ gathering made much more so by the fact that my friend Mc'd it. We both told the younger workers that this will be stopped as the older folks retire. The big bosses are just waiting for it, but they are patient, too many old timers still around, including among supervision, people who worked with us and are sympathetic; those stubborn bastards. The bosses want more compliant supervision.

But this whole scene made me think of the importance of the workplace and class-consciousness. I remember during our strike in 1985 one of the issues was reporting to the jobsite as opposed to the workplace, this was more cost effective for the employer as they were faced with increased competition from the private contractors. But it also weakened solidarity as people didn't gather in the mornings before start time, play cards, drink coffee, talk about work.

I was in a socialist group some time ago and we had a discussion about flex time and staggered start times as they were introducing this more in my workplace. We opposed it as a means of isolating workers, keeping us apart. These changes are always presented by the bosses as giving us more freedom; but they don’t. The issue is for us to control the workplace not abandon it.

There was also a women worker there who I recall fighting alongside in my capacity as steward to get a shower for women in our last workplace that they shut down because of the strength of the union there. They had a toilet but no shower like we did. Naturally when I spoke I took the opportunity to make some political statements and one former co-worker came up to me and said, “You may be gone but you're still here too.” We all need a bit of recognition sometimes.

Being retired, this event reminded me of how important work was for my class-consciousness and political development. As I looked at the faces I realized how important they had been to me over the 29 years I was there.

Perhaps university is less stifling in the sense that the atmosphere is more open to the exchange of ideas. But I think that there is much less confusion when we get to the point of production. Workers know how serious actions and confrontation are. It means risking ones house or lifestyle or daughter’s college education. Workers might be slower or more cautious to act but take acting in a much more serious way I think. I cannot say this for certain and I don't mean it in a negative way to anyone in school whether working class youth or middle class youth or what. It just seems the case to me.

I thought too about racism and how different it is in the workplace to school or college. Although there is a tendency at times for different ethnic groups to hang together at the end of the day or in the am before work (although this depends on the strength of the union presence on the job) you have to go out together. You sit in that truck together. You don't pick your work mates and you spend 8 hours handing that tool, lifting that bag, shoveling that dirt, whatever. There is such a thing as class consciousness.

I realized this morning how much I miss the relationships of work and how important they were to me. I also thought about the comments Alexander Kollontai made about petty bourgeois feminists and working class women in a piece she wrote in 1909 that I happened to read lately and is as relevant today as it was then. The same would apply to the race question also.

"The feminists see men as the main enemy, for men have unjustly seized all rights and privileges for themselves, leaving women only chains and duties. For them a victory is won when a prerogative previously enjoyed exclusively by the male sex is conceded to the "fair sex". Proletarian women have a different attitude. They do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, they think of men as their comrades, who share with them the drudgery of the daily round and fight with them for a better future. The woman and her male comrade are enslaved by the same social conditions; the same hated chains of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the joys and charms of life. It is true that several specific aspects of the contemporary system lie with double weight upon women, as it is also true that the conditions of hired labor sometimes turn working women into competitors and rivals to men. But in these unfavorable situations, the working class knows who is guilty. ..."

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