The company installed turnstiles on one side of the clock shed, bright metal turnstiles with thick, horizontal bars that met you at eye, chest, crotch and shin level. A union steward told me the company planned to wire the turnstiles to the clocks so the turnstiles would open only when you clocked in at the beginning of shift and when you clocked out at the end of shift. They’d stay shut the rest of the time and we workers would be trapped inside the shipyard with fencing and barbed wire on one side of us and the river on the other. Like a prison.
One day I looked at that fence, that barbed wire, those turnstiles that locked us in. I was in a prison, but it felt ordinary, typical, even natural, and I thought about why that is.
It’s as though these pieces – the razor wire, chain-link fence, cop, helicopter, identification papers – were waiting to be assembled into an enormous and inescapable prison. Who’s to say they aren’t already assembled? What evidence is there to prove otherwise? Maybe the prison was assembled long ago and we couldn’t see it because we’re born into it and it felt natural. Maybe all prisons feel natural after enough time has passed.
But a prison isn’t just a collection of razor wire and cameras. I could stack all of the pieces in a pile and they wouldn’t make a prison. Adding a cop and a guard won’t turn them into a prison either. Even adding you and me – as prisoners – leaves something out.
[...] One afternoon, he might have pulled the cable too hard or too quickly or maybe his feet were unbalanced when he tugged on it. Maybe he didn’t see that the cable was caught on something, if it was caught on anything. Maybe he tripped on the welding cable. Maybe he just slipped on the metal dust or grease dotting the metal. What we know for sure is that Coby slid forward fast. He hit the side of his head on one arm of the solid, cast-steel kevel. That impact turned him perpendicular to the barge and the force hurled him over the side head first. The welding cable lassoed his left ankle and Coby swung upside-down like a pendulum halfway down the side of the barge. His hardhat lay on the concrete below and Coby’s brain dangled from the side of his head. The foremen ordered no one to touch Coby until the ambulance came and so his brain hardened while everyone waited. As it scraped back and forth across the steel, the brain made a sound like small stones skimming over the thick surface of a pond. That evening the company ordered overtime work for the installation of the third safety chain along the gunnel which OSHA required. There had been only two.
Coby was twenty-three years old. He had two sons, one a toddler, the other an infant.
I did Coby’s job.
In the shipyard, you could easily distinguish the foremen from the workers. The foremen wore white hardhats and the workers – the welders, steel fitters, riggers, pipefitters, carpenters and painters – wore red-orange hats coated with black dust. The foremen wore clean clothing while we workers wore filthy clothes and leathers covered in metal shavings and grime. When rain’s pouring or it’s cold outside or it’s hot outside, the foremen would stay in their offices which used to be an old, single-wide trailer mounted on cinder blocks by the river bank. That first summer I worked there the company hired a crew to construct a new building for the foremen, a large, gray box of cinder blocks with metal doors and loud locks and a sign that read, “Foremen Only!”
I fantasized about butchering my bosses, getting them in a headlock and slitting their throats and bleeding them out like hogs, but that anger ate me up and I didn’t want to spend time in a state prison or death row due to one of those no-accounts so I took a new approach. My last set of lousy jobs before the shipyard was at various restaurants as a cook and on those jobs we slowed the work down when we were treated too awfully or sabotaged equipment or, in one case in which the restaurant manager attempted to force the staff to work for three hours for free, we walked out of his restaurant in front of the owner. I learned something vital from these activities.
the labour movement is, if nothing else, a more healthy outlet for existing anger
Our instructor nodded then gave us a lecture about work ethics, on-the-job safety, being concerned about the company “as if we owned it,” and how that job had good benefits and there were a lot of other guys out there ready to fill our shoes if we decided we didn’t want to work. There’s a scrap of paper next to me on the table and a couple of number-two pencils. I grabbed one and sketched this guy as he talked. He’s blond, about five feet, nine inches tall, cream-colored hair and a cream-colored mustache, dressed in tight, new blue jeans and a cotton, candy-yellow knit shirt. He must weigh at least two-hundred and fifty pounds; his belly’s avalanching over his belt and he’s got droopy, triangular man-tits. His puffy cheeks pushed his face into a crack: he’d suffocate if he stood in a freezer too long. He wore mirrored glasses and I guessed he’s ex-military, rent-a-cop or a soldier-wannabe, which he soon confirmed.
"as if we owned it" fuck you
The meeting in the park was straightforward and no snipers appeared, if snipers can ever be said to appear. We talked about the safety violations occurring all across the shipyard, those that occurred because the company wasn’t enforcing safety regulations and those that occurred because the company was actively pushing us to violate safety protocol. We talked about our low pay or lower-than-standard pay. We talked about the union which had a history of working hand-in-hand with the company. Stories were told of the union flipping coins over worker’s jobs and golfing with administrators on the company payroll and on union time. Most importantly, we decided to put together a small newsletter and distribute it throughout the shipyard. This way we’d get accurate information into folks’ hands about the conditions inside the shipyard.
“They’ll fire us for making that newsletter, much less passing it out inside the yard,” Mueller warned us. “So we’re going to be smart about how we get it in and circulate it,” I said and Mueller suggested we bring it in stuck inside our hardhats or welding vests, rolled and crammed in boots, folded into lunch boxes.
[...] At work, all I thought about was this escape route. I kept notebooks on how to do it; grow organic vegetables, round up work as a painting contractor, rob banks, buy my own welding equipment and start my own business, scuba dive near Yellow Banks in the Ohio River and find the lost Confederate silver, grow pot. Everyone there planned the same thing. We’re all plotting our big break, the day we can flip off the administrators and the president of the company and walk away from sweat and metal dust and foremen and worries over rent and mortgage and health insurance and grocery prices. For most of us, the lottery held the best chance and several guys in my area came around each Friday with a photocopy of lotto tickets and pick numbers they bought with pooled money. Some guys hoped to start their own business and escape through that, when they win. A few guys hoped that Jesus would return soon and save them from this place. Except for Jesus, all our escape routes relied on somehow getting more of the money.
I spent a lot of time beneath one barge or another during that summer and the summers that followed. It was the only way to survive the heat. The company recognized how dangerous it was to work for long in the heat; they sent out memos to the foremen, they put up safety banners, they gave us water jugs with safety slogans printed on them, they posted signs bragging about their safety record. Then they ordered the foremen to make sure we stayed on the job come-what-may and denied us access to the airconditioned breakrooms.
covering their ass? or genuinely conflicting interests among management
That next week the company published a newsletter of its own to combat the popularity of our newsletter. Unlike our newsletter, it had much higher production values, came to us semi-glossy, with blue ink on white paper, and was doubled-sided. The main section featured the president of the company and a discussion of his importance and why he was such a good person. This amounted to a listing of his corporate positions and several mentions of the fact that he was, indeed, a really good guy. One of us was featured, too, on the back of the newsletter, in a box that told of how hard this man had worked, how he’d missed no days in some awfully long amount of time, how no one had ever complained about him or his work, but we knew this guy was a suckass and we dismissed his last page honorable. What remained of the company’s newsletter was boilerplate from the employee manual. The stack of company newsletters lay mostly undisturbed in the breakroom until someone tossed it into the trash a few days later.
The local paper, the Courier-journal, contained a brief mention of the death of two men at the Tyson plant in Robards, Kentucky. One of the men was working near a vat of chicken parts when he fell and landed in the steaming mess. He attempted to get out but the gas from those rotting chicken guts overwhelmed him and he passed out. Other workers gathered around and planned to rescue him but there were no lifts, no harnesses, no safety chains, no standard equipment, in fact, nothing whatsoever. Some of the workers tied ropes around a chair and lowered another man down to him but that guy was overcome by the gases as well. Both men suffocated and died in that pot of gore. The first man was in his twenties with two small children, the second was in his forties. The most tragic element in this sad story is that, when a representative from the Labor Cabinet for the state of Kentucky was asked why there was no safety equipment at all, he answered that OSHA was understaffed and can only get around to inspecting a plant every three years. The Tyson plant had been open two years and I took that to mean that the plant had only been inspected upon opening or had never been inspected at all. Given that it had been open two years and no old or worn safety equipment was lying around, I took the latter interpretation.
what the fuck???