By Rana B. Khoury

Excerpted from As Ohio Goes: Life in the Post-Recession Nation (2016) by Rana B. Khoury. Published by The Kent State University Press and reprinted with permission from The Kent State University Press.

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor.
 —Ecclesiastes 2:24

I’m from this little town, raised here all my life. I’m disabled right now, but I worked at a refractory plant for almost thirty-eight years. I used to run the forklift and load and unload trucks. Stopped in 2006. My lungs, I got silicosis in my lungs. And I can’t, I can’t go very far. I have a hard time breathing. I was coming up on retirement. I’m getting disability and social security. We’ve had a few rough times because of the high price of our medication. And we sent our son through college. But we still … we have managed … because we watch what we’re doing and what we’re spending. Some things we would like to do we do not do anymore. We used to love to go and play Bingo. Used to play it three or four nights and we had to cut it out because everything kind of went down. We had to be careful.

My wife, she’s disabled too. She was a nurse for twenty-five years. We have one child, twenty-two. He just graduated from college. He double-majored in economics and business administration. He was at the top of his class, and received five awards from the college. He hasn’t had no work or any offers until just last week. Last week he was very fortunate to get two phone calls for interviews. And we’re hoping that everything works out for him.

I consider myself middle class. We’re not poor because I’ve seen too many people who don’t have anything. I have my home, and we have our vehicle. All of our life we’ve been very careful with how we handled everything, our situations and finances. I have a very wonderful wife who sometimes says, “No, we can’t do that, we have to be careful.”

The refractory plant is a very good place to work. And they tried to do the best they can for their men. Sometimes, it’s hard for both situations: for the men and the company. But they have been kept open and kept everybody busy. We have a union, United Steel Workers. We had a pension plan. We worked and we had vacations. We had paid holidays. We got paid overtime for after eight hours. A couple of times we had to give in, too. We had to have a two-tier for a while, which we didn’t like but we did ’cause we wanted to keep the company going. But now the company is back to just one wage because they were able to work together and everybody is doing just fine right now. They have good benefits for the men. And one of the biggest reasons they have that is because they have families too and they realize that the men have to have hospitalization and stuff. And I think it’s both union and the company working together. It’s been very good. —Gary, 63

[blocktext align=”right”]I consider myself
middle class. We’re
not poor because I’ve
seen too many people
who don’t have anything.[/blocktext]Gary spoke slowly, gently carrying each word out of his mind and into its place in our conversation. Though it had come to him early, he wore retirement comfortably, in a tie-dye T-shirt, blue jean shorts, and white face stubble. It was a blistering hot day; I found him seated on a park bench enjoying the shade. Sitting down, I wanted a share of the tree’s shadow; I also hoped to speak to him. At times it was that easy to get a story; everyone has one, after all. When his wife was ready to leave, he apologized and joined her. I watched as they gradually disappeared: his slow gait, her rolling wheelchair.

Then I left, anxious to learn more about Gary’s disability, silicosis. According to the American Lung Association, silicosis causes fluid buildup and scar tissue in the lungs. The disease commonly affects people who work where they may inhale tiny bits of silica.

Immediately looking up refractory plants, I discovered that silica is a core substance in refractory manufacturing. My mind darted back to Gary and I recalled the close of our conversation.

ME: Was your job ever physically risky?

GARY: Every day.

ME: But you were never affected? Never hurt?

GARY: No, no.

* * * *

When I met George in person for the first time, the energy I had detected in his e-mails was blazing. He had gathered four other autoworkers to join us for dinner at Big Boy’s in Toledo. His air for storytelling was the special sauce to our burgers and fries.

Gary came to mind when George declared that he would not stand for being put in danger at work. That resolve briefly lost him his job in 1977 — his first year with Chrysler. Back then he was working on Jeep Cherokee tailgates that hung by hooks above the workers. Each tailgate weighed about seventy pounds, and a jerk in the line could cause the hooks to break, sending those metal hunks tumbling down onto the men below. George, with the audacity of a rookie, demanded that a safety cage be placed below the tailgates. Instead, management handed over a single hard hat, apparently to be shared among the four men on the floor. Some days later, a tail-gate fell, landing six inches in front of George — Boom! The crash set George off. He shut down the line, nailed his union card to the wall, and declared he would retrieve the card and resume working only if and when the situation was addressed. The plant manager asked George if he was refusing to work. When George defiantly said yes, the manager called in a replacement. Ignited beyond containment, George picked up his hammer and threatened, “Anyone who’s gonna come do this job is gonna go through this hammer!” Security guards swept in and escorted him out of the building.

Book CoverWitnesses to the episode, George’s fellow workers initiated a wildcat strike. They informed management that if the safety issue was not addressed by the following week, they would not return to work. The strike succeeded. That weekend, the company installed seventy-five feet of safety cage, and the men returned to the line. Three months later, George did too. He had taken his case to the National Labor Relations Board, which awarded him back pay and reinstatement. He particularly enjoyed the ninety-day posting of a public apology on the bulletin boards in the plant.

Three decades after his rebellion, when he told me his tale, George was still an employee of Chrysler and a member of the United Auto Workers (UAW). By his lights, the two — work and labor activism — are inseparable. After graduating from Ohio State University, where he was a self-professed “campus radical,” George ran out of money. He applied for the job at Chrysler as a way to pay the bills. On arriving at the plant on his first day, he found his new colleagues outside the main gate drinking beers. When he asked what was going on, they told him that they “hit the bricks” to protest a safety issue. Apparently, a millwright had been up on a ladder when the boss started up the assembly line beneath him; the automobile on the line hit the ladder and knocked it down, leaving the man holding on for his life above the moving line. The workers stopped the assembly line, brought the man down to safety, and then called a wildcat strike. George looked around him and thought, “So all these guys are drinking beer, having a wildcat strike, and I says, ‘This is the job for me! This is where I belong!’”

He knew at that moment that he would be active in the union, a commitment he kept. Among other organizing activities, George participated in a buyout committee that bid to make Chrysler an employee-owned corporation in 2006. (The committee established a line of credit, but the effort failed because, George contends, “they’re not going to let these major automobile companies become employee-owned any more than they would let the slaves own a plantation in Georgia.”) Occasionally George had union experiences that “were not so good” because of his tendency to make trouble; lightheartedly, he mentions that at one union meeting he was knocked unconscious. It’s not hard to imagine why “some people wanted to kick [his] ribs in at meetings.” George is charismatic, outspoken, humorous, intelligent, and politicized. Those characteristics made him threatening to some. They also made him popular among most. When I started my search for autoworkers to speak to in Toledo, it did not take long for me to hear about George.

Perhaps that’s because George resembles Toledo. His face is an inviting kind of handsome, topped with thick brown hair surrendering slowly to white, entering into a distinguished maturity. The city wears its age in a similar fashion. Toledo is an old manufacturing town made beautiful by the wide Maumee River rolling through, owing into the bay and out to Lake Erie, a mosaic of blues and greens. Just behind the trendy waterfront restaurants are the industrial plants; just below George’s fashionable fisherman’s hat is the dirt beneath his fingernails. Donning a denim shirt with his worn jeans, George’s person is literally blue-collar.

If northwestern Ohio could wear a collar, it would be blue too. With Toledo at its heart, the region contains about one-fifth of Ohio’s total manufacturing industry, the largest share in the state. Manufacturing predominates statewide, too. One out of every five dollars earned in private-sector wages in Ohio is made in the manufacturing industry, constituting the largest share of total private wages in 2011. Moreover, Ohio’s industrial activity moves the nation. The state ranks second in the country in the manufacturing of primary and fabricated metals and third in motor-vehicle production.

Industry around here used to be even bigger. In 1970, nearly one and a half million Ohioans worked in manufacturing. By 1990, the number was down to about one million. The next two decades saw a commensurate loss, leaving fewer than seven hundred thousand Ohioans working in the sector by 2012. The decline is national, of course: between 1970 and 2005, the United States lost 20 percent of manufacturing jobs. But in Toledo’s Lucas County, manufacturing jobs declined by 54 percent. And while the nation made up for its manufacturing losses in other sectors, total employment in Lucas County grew at just half the national rate. Given the auto industry’s former predominance, George never could have fathomed its financial ruin. “When I was in my twenties, if somebody had said General Motors is going to go bankrupt, I would have said, ‘I want a six pack of what you’re drinking, because that’s crazy!’”

[blocktext align=”right”]…between 1970 and 2005, the United States
lost 20 percent of manufacturing jobs.[/blocktext]Somebody get this man a beer.

The financial troubles of the “Big Three” — Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler — hit hard and fast. In spring 2008, gas prices climbed to new highs, access to credit evaded companies and consumers alike, and auto sales dropped to new lows. At GM, for example, sales in 2008 were down 16 percent from those of the previous year; by March 2009, they were down 53 percent from that low. Assembly lines slowed or shut down altogether, plants closed, and workers lost their jobs — the lucky ones lost only their benefits. The car companies reached their nadir. But the real fear was whether the whole industry — perhaps the whole economy — might collapse. Should Chrysler or GM fail (both were in worse shape than Ford), their own job losses and those of other workers connected to the industry would cause national unemployment rates, already high, to soar. Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally, reflected that a total bankruptcy at GM or Chrysler might well have “turned the U.S. recession into a depression.” To prevent that outcome (and save themselves), the Big Three went to Washington to request government loans, first from Bush’s administration and then from Obama’s. On condition that the companies undertook substantial restructuring, Washington paid out to Detroit. GM and Chrysler led bankruptcy and accepted sixty-four billion dollars in bailout funds, while Ford borrowed a more modest but still critical six billion dollars. Another twenty billion dollars went to the companies’ affiliates.

With billions at play and the structural integrity of the American economy in the balance, politicians and pundits eagerly offered their diagnoses and prognoses. The industry’s decline was variously explained as the product of creative destruction, of excessive union activism, or of a lack of corporate innovation. The wisdom of the government’s rescue plan was similarly touted and pouted. The issue reemerged as a central theme in the 2012 presidential campaign, by which time it was widely considered a success. Mitt Romney rued the day he penned the words, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” while Barack Obama boasted repeatedly that, thanks to him, “GM is alive and Bin Laden is dead.” At a cost of eighty-five billion dollars, the auto rescue saved upward of one million jobs and more than seven billion dollars in unemployment payouts and Social Security benefits, as well as preventing personal income losses of ninety-seven billion dollars. Furthermore, within a few years, the government had recovered most of the money it had disbursed in loans and — surely eager to extract itself from the business of selling cars — had sold off its stock in the auto companies.

After the auto industry had hemorrhaged forty thousand jobs in just over a year, the bleeding stopped in Ohio. The government’s rescue package arrived when employment in the state’s manufacturing industry had hit a historic low. Over the following three years, tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs came back, each one a boon.

* * * *

Though so many engage in it, work is an intimate endeavor. Often, people spend more time at work than in school, at home, in bed, and with family. We work to make money, but our attachment to work seems to be about more than paying the bills. Our need for work is characteristic of our humanity, perhaps because it is how we seek some sense of purpose in the world. As Studs Terkel put it, work is about “a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread … for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” When I conducted my interviews, the easy conversational transitions from work to personal life needed no prompting from me. My subjects took both pride and pain from their work lives; it was defining of their perception of self.

Headshot 2

Author Rana B. Khoury

Yet work is also larger than each individual. A core concern in the field of economics, one that matters in all modern economies, is the capital-labor split: how the income from production is divided between labor and capital, that is, between wages and profit. This question faces the owners and managers of multinational corporations and small businesses alike: how much of their earnings should they keep to save or invest, and how much should go to the laborers who produce the output? There is no simple economic answer to this question, no exact distribution that guarantees the success of the firm or makes everybody happy. In no small part, that’s because the capital-labor split is deeply intertwined with politics.

Work is bigger than the individual and even bigger than the market. It is a political question. Naturally, capital and labor are often in contest over the distribution of income. In the past, these confrontations sometimes turned violent. The arsenal of workers is their labor power, or their collective refusal to use it; strikes are a traditional weapon of choice. Capital’s strength is in its money and power, its ability to replace striking workers with “scabs,” to hire private mercenaries or call in the government’s police or armed forces, and to shut down operations and move production elsewhere.

George from Chrysler may be a radical by today’s standards, but labor militancy worthy of the name came and went before he arrived on the shop floor. From the 1880s to the 1970s, American workers went on strike as frequently as their European counterparts. American strikes lasted longer — on average twenty days. They were also bloodier. Since 1850, more than seven hundred people, mostly workers, have been killed in strike-related violence. Ohio workers have shared in these struggles, from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Great Steel Strike of 1919 to countless local strikes and individual acts of resistance.

Disputes over income distribution need not be violent or contentious. Labor and capital can and do engage in formal politics to achieve their ends. But in this realm, U.S. labor seems less successful than its European counterparts. Unlike most other advanced industrial nations, we do not have a labor party, let alone a socialist one, representing working-class interests in national politics. What gives?

Social scientists have been asking this question for a long time. For some, the answer is in the nature of American ideology, capitalism, and social mobility. They point to the ability of regular people to acquire property in a country of cheap and abundant land; to the lack of feudalism in our history; and to a capitalist system in which wealth was never as concentrated as it was in the Old World. Others counter that none of these traits would prevent the emergence of class-consciousness. Rather, America’s unique ethnic and racial diversity prevented the harnessing of consciousness into collective action. An especially compelling explanation — if only because it is so technical — is found in the structure of the U.S. government. With a first-past-the-post (winner-takes-all) voting system, our electoral contests are won with a simple majority; this rule correlates with a two-party system — third parties are squeezed out. Add to any of these explanations years of violent corporate and governmental repression against workers, our rivalry with the communist Soviet Union, and capital’s converse success in securing its influence in national politics.

Labor’s accomplishments in the workplace — in securing wages, benefits, overtime, and so forth — are more impressive than its accomplishments in national politics, whatever the historical or technical explanation. To be fair, labor has achieved a few critical goals, notably the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guaranteed the right to organize. Yet labor’s success in both realms, the workplace and national politics, has been declining for decades. I have already enumerated the significant declines in union membership. When a membership-based organization loses members, its effectiveness in representing its group interests likewise declines. In 2001, unions made up just 1 percent of organizations with representation in Washington, D.C., while corporations made up 35 percent. That latter number is rising steadily. Between 1981 and 2006, corporate representation among Washington, D.C., pressure groups increased by 62 percent; in absolute numbers, 1,898 more corporations had gained organizational representation over the course of twenty-five years. Unions, on the other hand, increased their representation by 0 percent; in absolute numbers, that’s zero. People keep working despite low levels of representation — they always will. But the system is not necessarily working for them.

Rana B. Khoury is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of As Ohio Goes: Life in the Post-Recession Nation (Kent State University Press, May 2016) from which this article has been excerpted.


Rana Khoury reads from and discusses As Ohio Goes at 7:30 pm Tuesday, May 31, at the Happy Dog Tavern, 11625 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Sponsored by the City Club of Cleveland, Khoury will be joined by Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio.

In Chicago, Khoury reads from and discusses the book at 7:30 pm Thursday, June 2, at Women and Children First Books, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago. Belt Magazine editor-in-chief Martha Bayne introduces Khoury.

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