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Blue Collar Blues

Where Have All the Robots Gone?: Worker Dissatisfaction in the 70s

by Harold L. Sheppard and Neal Q. Herrick
Free Press, 222 pp., $7.95

The Hidden Injuries of Class

by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb
Knopf, 276 pp., $6.95

The Company and the Union: The "Civilized Relationship" of the General Motors Corporation and the United Auto Workers

by William Serrin
Knopf, 352 pp., $7.95

Bitter Wages: Ralph Nader's Study Group Report on Disease and Injury on the Job

by Joseph A. Page and Mary-Win O'Brien
Grossman, 336 pp., $7.95

Work in America: Report of a Special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare

HEW mimeographed print, 211 pp.

Question: Were you angry at society?

Answer: I thought if we were poor it was our own fault. I told myself that probably my poverty was the result of some terrible acts of my ancestors. I was sad, but I was not angry.

—A captured trooper of the National Liberation Front as cited by
Frances FitzGerald in Fire in the Lake.

I was commissioned once to assess Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo’s governance of the Dominican Republic. In the course of my inquiries, his minister of labor talked to me. He sat at a desk surrounded by the forty-odd volumes that set forth the Dominican Republic’s social welfare decrees, known, of course, as the “code Trujillo.” “Before Trujillo,” he said, “there was just one page of laws dealing with labor. It was left behind by your Marines. Now”—he waved at the shelves—“there is all this.”

Until two days before, he had been minister of education, and not long before that, minister of tourism, and it was plain that he was barely familiar with the backs of these volumes, let alone their interiors. He called in his assistants: one was fair, young, and even more haughty than the first graduate in labor problems from the University of Trujillo quite deserved to be. The other was old, dusky and calloused of countenance, and gave no sign of speech. He was obviously the Labor Ministry’s only professional, and probably left behind by the Marines too.

The four of us explored the mysteries of the “code Trujillo.” The young assistant explained that the Generalissimo had personally ordered the establishment of a safety program for the sugar workers of the Republic. And how many safety inspectors did the Generalissimo provide? I asked. “Two,” the assistant answered. That would be one safety inspector for every 150,000 field hands at the season’s height. 1

We passed on to wage levels and I was handed a sheaf establishing modest minimums for carpenters and plumbers, and on and on. One category was absent. Had the Generalissimo, I asked, decreed a rate of pay for common labor? “Common labor?” the verbal assistant asked. “You know,” I answered, “the unskilled worker, the man who breaks up stones in the street.” Bewilderment was plain on the faces around me, and I struggled on until a light seemed to break upon the old professional.

“Ah,” he said, “el peon.” He turned to explain to the minister of labor, who looked up at length and said cheerfully: “There is no minimum wage for el peon.”

All the books under review reflect our new interest in el peon. A Nader study team provides melancholy details of how he is treated. William Serrin’s account of the 1970 negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the General Motors Corporation suggests the gap that can separate the worker from his union, even one as admirable as the one that represents him in this case. How he feels is the subject of Sennett and Cobb (The Hidden Injuries of Class), Sheppard and Herrick (Where Have All the Robots Gone?), and the Health, Education, and Welfare team (Work in America).

The treatment of workers, of course, ought to appeal to our consciences. But it is, I am afraid, their feelings that currently exert a stronger, if much less worthy, claim on our curiosity. The worker has always been attractive to us as an instrument for increasing the comfort or the authority of his social superiors. The present liberal concern for his feelings is largely due to the suspicion that his discontents have been shifting him from being cozened by the Democrats to being deceived by the Republicans. If we go on neglecting his feelings, we won’t be able to make use of them any more. There ought, somehow, to be better reasons to care about him.

The materials gathered by Sheppard and Herrick and the HEW team are both more abundant and more expensive than Sennett and Cobb could have gathered. Where Have All the Robots Gone? draws upon a survey, commissioned from the University of Michigan by the United States Department of Labor, of the opinions of 1,533 employed persons; and Sheppard and Herrick have supplemented its findings with their own poll of 400 white manual workers in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

The Hidden Injuries of Class is more modest, the result of perhaps 500 hours of conversations with 150 Bostonians, most of them blue-collar workers but a fair sample of them rather more secure in the lower middle class. Eleven of them are intimately presented: a loan processor at a bank, an assembly-line hand, an asbestos worker, an apprentice electrician, a janitor who had been a teacher in his native Greece, a garbage man, a brick-layer, a television repairman, a factory foreman, an equipment painter, and a shipping clerk’s son who is determined to rise to a sphere from which he can manage people for their own good.

The mix in Sennett and Cobb is skimpier than in the other two studies. Still the advantage seems all theirs. Degrees of intuition serve social inquiry better than size of data. When Sennett and Cobb’s characters speak, they take on the roundness of their conversations, while Sheppard and Herrick’s are as flat as their answers to the prefabricated questions. When two sources conflict, as those in these two books tend to do, one resolves the quarrel in favor of the more intimate voice. For Sheppard and Herrick elicit opinions; but Sennett and Cobb extract the confessions of victims who are more indignant with themselves than with anyone or anything else.

The tone of the people Sennett and Cobb talked to is almost invariably self-accusatory. “Look,” the garbage man says, “it’s nobody’s fault but mine I got stuck where I am. If I’d applied myself, I know I got it in me to be different. Can’t say anyone did it to me.” Even their foreman can think of himself as only “a little above the ‘drones’ ” and far below the scientists in his aerospace supplier plant: “If I’d really developed in my science, I wouldn’t be involved in such a situation in the first place.”

Most of these people daydream at their jobs. References to their work tend to be in the passive voice, even when they describe such success as it brings them. The foreman speaks of having been “moved from supervising two men to nine.” A plumber rewarded for his ingenuity in solving an engineering problem on his construction job will only say, “They gave me a pay raise when the south wall mess was straightened out.” For many of them the only purpose left to their jobs is to free their children from the empty kind of work they have to do. “Sacrifice,” Sennett and Cobb decide, is, in their condition, “the most fundamental action you can perform that proves your ability to be in control; it is the final demonstration of virtue when all else fails.”

They may seem particularly authoritarian as parents just because they are so obsessed by what they consider to be the lessons of their own failure. “I haven’t got it up here, but my kids are smart; I make ’em be that way.” But then, “The whole point of sacrificing for their children is that their children will become unlike themselves.” For these are families where the father “doesn’t ask the child to take the parents’ lives as a model but as a warning.”

The child’s education in such circumstances is seen not just as a way to rise in the world but, much more important, to escape the wound of character the parents carry from their own childhood. Yet, Sennett and Cobb remind us, this dream has always been elusive for all but a few children of manual workers, and is becoming more elusive still even while the intensity of their parents’ pursuit of it increases. The child makes the passage from a blue-collar family to a white-collar job. He has done his duty by staying in school and earning his credentials, and then, more often than not, he finds that, even after crossing the line, he must start, and may well remain all his life, at a task “whose content requires very little mind at all.”2 The consequence, Sennett and Cobb say, is that

One is twenty-one, with all sorts of dreams of opportunity, others look to one as a person who is going to make something of oneself; and one feels frustrated pushing papers as a clerk or bored selling shoes. That is where the real oppression of the new working class begins, for everything in the society prompts a kid to feel his insides are therefore messed up.

Thus, Sennett and Cobb argue, we face the prospect of an enormous group of Americans upon whom the wound of class is transferred from generation to generation:

The activities which keep people moving in a class society, which make them seek more money, more possessions, higher status jobs, do not originate in a materialistic desire, or even sensuous appreciation, of things, but out of an attempt to restore a psychological deprivation that the class structure has effected in their lives. In other words, the psychological motivation instilled by a class society is to heal a doubt about the self rather than create more power over things and other persons in the outer world.

I do not think that there are many of us who can escape a sudden rush of identity with the persons encountered by Sennett and Cobb. They do not speak in isolation from the rest of us. Theirs do not sound like special feelings but like ones that we can recognize as general in American life. For how many of the rest of us, however lucky in so many ways, do not carry, though less vividly, the same mark of class, do not feel somehow judged? How many of us do not now and again fall back on the need to justify ourselves with the claim to at least a fancied sacrifice for others, if not the genuine sacrifice that is, for the people Sennett and Cobb interviewed, the solitary remnant of the assertion of the self.

These workers emerge in Sennett and Cobb’s account of them as radically different from, and clearly more attractive than, the ideal of them that some of us used to have. Their condition of mind is both terrible and admirable. Sennett and Cobb make us see the workers not as a lever of power but almost as a model of redemption. I cannot say how accurate their model is; what new model of anything, after all, can be guaranteed? But I can say and it is no small thing that Sennett and Cobb, in hope as well as sorrow, have made us think about workers’ lives and our own in ways vastly more intimate and inspiriting than any of the writers who have lately been attending to the working class.3

Sennett and Cobb seldom bring us voices that speak with any confidence that they deserve better than they are getting. William Serrin’s The Company and the Union is powerful witness to how the shared sense of unworthiness inhibits even those institutions which most conscientiously represent the workers’ interests. Serrin’s subject is the 1970 strike of the United Auto Workers of America against General Motors, but his theme is less their transient conflict than the permanence of their accommodation.

“In automobile negotiations, as in most labor negotiations,” Serrin writes, “the first items that are forgotten are the demands for improvement in working conditions, demands that would change the nature of the relationship between the worker and the corporation.” The UAW does what it can to preserve some voice for the ordinary worker in the bargaining: negotiations about working conditions in the plants are left to the local unions, while the national officers reserve company-wide issues like wages, pensions, and job security for their own management, subject, at least in theory, to review by a GM national negotiating committee drawn from rank-and-filers, each elected from one of the union’s twelve regions.

What really happens, however, was described to Serrin by a “labor journalist”:

“These guys [the national officers] …can enunciate these conditions, how shitty it is, but their commitment to changing these conditions is a good deal less than total…. First of all there is the fact of estrangement. Even the negotiating committee does not work in the plant…. They don’t know what a…bitch it is hanging doors…. Labor leaders define their situations as guys who have gotten away from this kind of shit.

“And beyond this is that the guys in the plant—the workers—they don’t put this at the top of their lists…. The sense of self-esteem of the average automobile worker is damn near nonexistent…. You take a guy and you beat him down the way you get beat down in an auto plant, and you burden him with the kind of consumer goodies and time-payments that a guy gets involved in, and he really is trapped. And if you say to him—especially in a bad year like 1970 was—what do you want? Money? Or do you want improvement in your working conditions? He is going to go for money…. So you have this phenomenon every time of working conditions being terribly important when they go into negotiations…but they just kind of leech out because they are really not a priority item for anybody—and because they attack, directly, the auto company’s prerogative of running the company itself.”

The local demands for improvements inside the factory turn on the paltriest matters: “requests for protective gloves, aprons, parkas, sweatbands, protective sleeves, etc., for correction of defective brakes on in-plant vehicles, installation of antiskid materials on plant stairways, etc.” What these demands illustrate, Serrin says, “is the double standard that exists in American labor. Most of them represent benefits that are given to white-collar workers without thought and become frivolous only when blue-collar workers seek them.”

The unrelieved tensions this double standard imposes show themselves in the unrest of the UAW’s local 160 at the General Motors Technical Center. The local represents the 5,000 blue-collar workers who comprise a quarter of the center’s work force. They are in every way an elite, all drawn from their union’s skilled trades department and functioning in a 350-acre reserve where thirty Saarinen buildings are tastefully spaced around a lake. They are sheltered against every disease of industrial production except its class sickness; yet that malady alone is enough to make them one of the most rebellious locals in the union. They complain that they are permitted to pass only through designated doors; that they are barred from the white-collar cafeteria; that the company expects them to wear protective uniforms whose only use in this serene atmosphere is to define the social difference between them and the other employees. Yet those complaints seem hardly less unnatural to their national union officials than they do to GM itself. “The trouble with the guys at local 160,” a member of the UAW’s GM bargaining committee told Serrin, “is they want everything.”

This particular dismissal of parochial complaints is blunter than normal for the union professionals in Serrin’s chronicle. Still, in their talks with him, they show a curious mixture of concern about the things that are troubling some of their members and of suspicion that the complainants may be expecting too much for their station. The UAW leaders can hardly escape some embarrassment when the companies tax them with worker absenteeism and a decline in productivity. “Maybe the Protestant ethic is breaking down,” UAW president Leonard Woodcock has said; and, since he is, as Walter Reuther was, an embodiment of the Protestant ethic, we must assume that he spoke as someone who would deplore its passing. These union officials would have to be of heroic fiber indeed not to fray slightly from the experience of pressing the case of the failed upon the successful.

The Nader study team was surprised to find very little enthusiasm among the UAW’s national officials for those provisions of the new Occupational Safety and Health Act that permit workers to complain directly to the Labor Department about dangerous conditions in their plants. The national union sent an administrative letter urging that all locals send their complaints instead to the nearest UAW regional director, who would then decide whether they deserved forwarding to the Department of Labor. “Without this chain of command,” a UAW safety engineer explained, “we would run the risk of having self-appointed experts in hundreds of plants operating singly, on the one hand, or being inundated with requests here at headquarters, on the other.”

There is no certain way of saying whether the ordinary worker cares more about how much he is paid or how he is treated. What we know is that the unions have given wages, hours, and employment the priority, perhaps from habit and perhaps from the consciousness that to challenge the rules of the workplace is to undertake a revolutionary assault on fundamental folkways.4 The burden of Sheppard and Herrick’s data does, it is true, fall on the side of those who argue that the blue-collar employee is more concerned with the conditions of his job than he is with the wage it brings him:

Interesting work, enough help and equipment to get the job done, enough information to get the job done, and enough authority to do their jobs—all were very important to more workers than was good pay.

Thirty percent of Sheppard and Herrick’s blue-collar sample from Michigan and Pennsylvania said they were discontented with their jobs. 5 Their expressions of dissatisfaction ran mostly to the absence of variety and responsibility in their tasks, their dead-end nature, and the sense that life had fallen far short of the goals at its outset.

Yet these findings turn out to offer unexpected support to what I take to be Sennett and Cobb’s judgment that the ordinary worker is more resigned than rebellious. Certainly most blue-collar jobs are monotonous and barren of initiative; and most are dead ends. Yet Sheppard and Herrick calculate that at least 70 percent of those who do them will not even confess themselves dissatisfied with their lot. That is a degree of acceptance which hardly justifies a title that asks “Where Have All the Robots Gone?” A substantial majority seem to be still there and still faithful; and I do not, with Sennett and Cobb’s portrait of their true, if injured, dignity so fresh in my mind, mean to say that it is unworthy of them to endure without complaining, but rather that it is horrid that they be taught to think themselves unworthy to complain.

To pass from Sennett and Cobb to Sheppard and Herrick is to return to that world where we are accustomed to speak of the worker as only a commodity. There is a kind of social research—and it is the one kind that need never worry about getting itself funded—that never really tries to find out how people feel but contents itself with announcing their fevers according to readings from thermometers. The most striking generalization offered by Sheppard and Herrick comes from their concern that “bad jobs make workers more susceptible to political demagoguery”:

Our statistical analysis convinces us that it is not a “fluke” that the discontented workers in our sample had a very high percentage voting for a person like George Wallace.

This unease, comically enough, is carried over to the report Work in America, prepared for the President under commission by his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. ” ‘Alienated’ workers,” it warns, “tend to cast their ballots for extremist or ‘protest’ candidates.”

Now we have a President who apparently profited more from the resentment of alienated manual workers than any other Republican candidate in history. Yet his subordinates tender him a solemn warning of the peril to our social fabric presented by those victims of the “blue-collar blues” who are “alienated from their society, aggressive against people unlike themselves, and harboring an inadequate sense of political and social efficacy.” One would dearly wish to argue only from the pragmatic position, if so many pragmatists these days did not insist on disguising their moral suasions as arguments founded on the severest practicality. They even imagine their arguments efficacious with someone like Mr. Nixon, who has just received the most solid assurance that the bad citizen described by the petitioners is, for his purposes, the very best citizen indeed. The utopianism of the practical is the only truly derisory kind.

Work in America is considerably flawed by the disposition of its authors to assume that the only useful way to alert practical men to an injustice is to describe it as dysfunctional. Still, a considerable number of horrors and portents do manage to manifest themselves through the smog. The accident rate increases; the productivity rate declines. Less than a quarter of blue-collar workers would choose the same job if they had a chance to choose again. Workers have an “almost overwhelming sense of inferiority.” “Perhaps 70 percent of all those employed will never receive a private pension check, even though a large percentage may be employed in firms with pension plans.” Private pension plans are so constructed that most workers will not benefit from them. It has become a custom for “otherwise healthy elderly Americans to adopt a ‘sick role,’ a culturally sanctioned reason for admittance to a nursing home, when the real reason is family rejection.” Our schools are authoritarian and rigid in order to break their pupils to the discipline of the workplace.

Remedies for this awful state of things suggest themselves. One is to redesign jobs. Instead of maintaining the assembly line, for example, the auto companies might consider breaking their workers up into separate teams, each of which would have the responsibility of putting together one complete automobile. But every such suggestion serves only to reinforce the immutability of the general condition. Serrin tells us that during a lull in the 1970 Ford negotiations, Kenneth Bannon, the UAW’s chief negotiator, suggested that the company consider the team assembly concept. “The Ford negotiators were surprised by the proposal—a proposal so revolutionary that not only would the company not institute the idea, but neither side gave it serious thought.”

To say that Work in America, which a Republican cabinet officer addresses to a Republican president, speaks to the deaf is not to suggest that it would find many open ears among the Democrats. The Nader study team gives us a devastating analysis of the langour the Nixon Administration has brought to the implementation of the new safety law; but it honorably refrains from inflicting upon us the illusion that the President is departing very much from the spirit of his Democratic predecessors.

For more than thirty-five years, the Nader study reminds us, the Department of Labor has been empowered by Congress to void any government contract whenever the contractor fails to meet adequate health and safety standards. Its jurisdiction covers 75,000 firms. In 1969, the Labor Standards Bureau managed to inspect barely 5 percent of them, discovered safety violations in 95 percent of the few it covered, and ended up withdrawing the government’s sanction from just two contractors. Under the Johnson Administration, the Labor Standards Bureau had inspected only 3 percent of the contractors, but, to be fair, ended up voiding three contracts. After all, as one Labor Standards Bureau inspector told the Nader students, “Sometimes you have to have a heart; it is not our job to put them out of business.”

That understanding spirit breathes through a speech Hollis Dole, then overseer of the Bureau of Mines, made last summer to a group of inspectors recruited to enforce the new mine safety law. “You must,” this coach told the team,

avoid at all costs the pointless futile, self-defeating game of cops and robbers with mine management…. You must reconcile the requirements of mine safety with the need for efficient production…. For the law not only specifies diligent attention to mine health and safety; it demands as well that private enterprise be fostered and encouraged to develop the mineral resources of the nation for the benefit of its people.6

Dole did not speak as a Republican or a Democrat. He spoke, as the President used to say when he could be heard to speak, for all America. And in all America, too, there seems to exist very little law for el peon.

Letters

Sticking to the Union April 19, 1973

Sticking to the Union April 19, 1973

  1. 1

    A ratio squarely in the tradition of the New Deal, which the Generalissimo so much admired. As late as 1968, the Nader study team reminds us, American states employed half again as many game wardens as they did job safety inspectors. 

  2. 2

    “Traditionally,” the HEW report points out, “lower-level white-collar jobs in both government and industry were held by high school graduates. Today, an increasing number of these jobs go to those who have attended college. But the demand for higher academic credentials has not increased the prestige, status, pay, or difficulty of the job…. It is not surprising, then, that [the Labor Department’s] Survey of Working Conditions found much of the greatest work dissatisfaction in the country among young, well-educated workers who were in low-paying, dull, routine, and fractionated clerical positions.” 

  3. 3

    They do not mention Wilde’s claim that “the chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from the sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.” Still, better than anyone else lately, they remind us of the force of Wilde’s remark. 

  4. 4

    In The American Worker: An Endangered Species (Ballantine Books, 1972), Franklin Wallick, himself a labor publicist, points out that one “AFL-CIO legislative Monday morning strategy session devoted two minutes to the status of the safety bill then in conference, but spent 45 minutes rounding up votes for the supersonic transport.” 

  5. 5

    The University of Michigan’s survey of a blue-collar sample of approximately the same size had turned up a proportion of the discontented of only 17 percent just two years before. This disparity suggests that social inquiry from prepared questionnaires produces results not only flat but none too safe to sit upon. 

  6. 6

    As reported in The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 1973.