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Blue Collar Blues

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

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

The Hidden Injuries of Class

by Richard Sennett, by 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, by 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

  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.”

    Where Have All the Robots Gone? even cites Ivar Berg’s interview with an insurance executive who was especially scornful of those naïve academics who complain, and whose complaints are reflected in the HEW team’s unease, that “the economy itself has not been changing rapidly enough to require or absorb the spectacular increase in the educational level of the workforce.” “This highly placed executive [told Berg] that clerical personnel ‘are easily trained in their jobs…. If they stayed on in larger numbers they would become wage problems…. They would form unions and who knows what the hell else. It’s better to hire girls who are too well-educated to stay happy with the jobs we assign them to do. That way they get out before it’s too late.’ “

  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.

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