Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Real Thing

"Night Shift – 270 Factory Stories,” by David Macaray, 2015

This entertaining book can be read in chunks, which makes it easy reading.  It contains scrambled anecdotes from almost 30 years of working at a union paper mill in San Remo, California, from 1972 until the late 1990s.  The stories reflect on the odd people and conflicts found in blue-collar factories.  Some of them center on Macaray's experiences as a union shop steward and union president.  They paint a picture of the cultural life of workers during that time and the attitudes of management and the white collars – the ‘suits’ and ‘shirts’ – to all this.  Anyone reading it who worked in factories will be hit with the familiarity.  It also tracks how factory life changed from the wide-open 1970s, when workers were far more free to be themselves, to the constricted corporate control exercised in the 1990s, as corporate management gained power.  Macaray calls the present situation ‘industrial fascism’ to indicate the change. 
Break Time Stories
Macaray has a good sense of humor and structures some of these incidents around some surprising joke or comment involving a co-worker.  Bad relationships, drug and alcohol use, sexism, the importance of food, inter-union conflicts, odd ideas floating through the plant, the freedom to say whatever you want, personality quirks, misplaced anger, physical fights between employees, the problems of actually going on strike, hard work, long hours, accidents, obnoxious managers and union members – the whole human mess.  As Trotsky once remarked, nothing human is foreign to Marxists and this book is proof. 

Macaray started as a steward and ended up being union president for a time.  He details some of his personal mistakes based on his opinionated personality.  He also makes some very astute but small points about what it takes to actually do those jobs well.  He is evidently versed in socialism but was really a liberal Democrat, and seems to have brought a kind of realist progressivism to his job.  His union, the ‘WCPA’, (which seems to be a non-existent moniker, perhaps really the ‘Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers Union’) was more progressive and democratic than most. It came out of a west coast split in the 1960s from a more conservative paper-workers union.  Macaray had some opinions about union work.  His comment about contract negotiations?  They were a ‘study in deprivation,’ where the union gets less than it wants or needs.  He notes that federal  mediators have no other interest except ending a strike. Regarding the dreaded OSHA, unlike their supposed role of making factories safer, instead tells workers they will just have to protect themselves.  He points out that strikes, even in an industry like paper, do not actually work well unless many other things are in play.

During Macaray’s working days there were 700 factory workers and 300 white collars in the paper plant, making diapers, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, paper towels and tissue, 24 hours a day, running 3 shifts.  The white collars are at times pictured as arrogant and clueless towards the plant workers.  He pictures essentially a large human community in which the union plays a key role in handling the most trivial issues to the most complex.  The company - an unnamed ‘Fortune 500” entity - is not always hostile or insensitive, but Macaray points out that at contract time they were never afraid to threaten a shut-down due to the ostensible ‘cost’ of the mill.  He emphasizes that, barring a few lumpen criminals, the workers there were proud of their skills and hard work, and always tried to do their best in trying circumstances – especially when the archaic or high-speed machinery broke down.  They were well-paid and had good union benefits, which is why so few quit.

I’ll retail one story:  Some young white engineers were sitting in the lunch-room, drinking Cokes on a Saturday.  3 young Latino janitors sat down at a table across from the engineers.  The janitors bought tuna sandwiches from the vending machines (the kitchen was closed that day)  and put hot sauce on the tunafish.  The look on the engineers faces said it all:  “If you can’t even eat a fucking tuna sandwich without desecrating it, you have no business in this country.”

And another:  A veteran of the Korean war was kept on by the company because of his service, even though he was an alcoholic.  He wore the 2nd thickest glasses in the factory.  However he was late or missing once a week.  The union couldn’t do anything about this, nor did they want to.  Ultimately new managers fired him and he ended up selling t-shirts at festivals or buying TVs and raffling them off in bars.  He died after being beaten in a bar fight at the age of 60. 

Macaray makes blue-collar workers ‘visible’ and human – no small feat in this time of bourgeois consumerism, not proletarian laborism.  According to him, the San Remo plant is still there and this community continues to this day, unlike so many others.   

Many similar themes also pop up in the fiction book ‘Factory Days,’ announced below.   

Books on similar topics reviewed below:  Reviving the Strike,” “Class Against Class,” “Save Our Unions,” “Embedded With Organized Labor,” “Chavs”, “Class Action" and “Southern Insurgency.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 1, 2016 

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