THE TENSION

For research purposes I've been digging into a couple books about US labor in the 1970s. One thing that leaps out is how much of the disquiet – the grievances, the complaints, whatever you want to call it – among workers had to do with the incredible monotony and boredom of factory work. They had great deals, and seemed to know it, but the great victories of the labor movement in the 1950s created that "golden handcuff" dynamic where you hate the job but you really can't bring yourself to quit because it's just too lucrative. "Where else could I get paid nearly this well?" is a hard question to ignore.

There's a real tension, recognizing that the jobs are terrible but also that the deals (many) union workers had were sweet. That is highlighted all the more dramatically by the fact that the majority of those jobs are now gone, and I'm pretty sure every person who complained about the tedium of factory work would kill to have those jobs back now…or at least their kids and grandkids would kill to have jobs like that now, at compensation rates equivalent to what your average UAW assembly line person was getting back then.

God knows how much cultural product from the Seventies explores that theme – the man working the soulless factory job, dying on the inside, crushing his spirit. Movies, songs, books, you name it. Looking back on it I'm not sure how to feel. Having a job you dislike just seems like…having a job. As Carlin used to say, there's a club for people who hate their job; it's called everyone, and it meets daily at the bar.

I feel for their sense of how limiting, constricting, and repetitive their work was. I also get the sense that it never entered into the realm of possibility to many of them that such jobs could simply disappear. But, that's capitalism for you. People a generation later end up pining for the jobs the previous generation hated. Didn't we used to brag that each successive generation did better?

13 thoughts on “THE TENSION”

  • I also get the sense that it never entered into the realm of possibility to many of them that such jobs could simply disappear.

    Honestly I think this was a large driver of the Proto-Trumpism of the shift of working class whites to Reagan and the GOP in 1980, they'd been primed by years of "Democrats == dirty fucking hippies" and Reagan exploiting this general sense of malaise into a "What have we got to lose?" moment.

    Of course, by the time they did finally realized what they had indeed lost it was too late, either for their old jobs or any way out of the political trap they were in with any hope of saving face. By then they were committed to the modern GOP 100% no matter what the modern GOP did to them.

  • I don't think that the jobs did simply disappear. Post WW2 the government/academic sector intentionally got rid of them, because paying someone well to do a simple and easy if boring job was "leaving money on the table". And since education and lawyering and grifting and whatever else service economy yadda yadda were so much better and more profitable, the faster we got rid of the expensive union dudes the more grad students we could afford. And the CCP and other countries conveniently had a ton of slaves putzing around being mismanaged by commies who didn't have our rich traditions of how to manage slaves for fun and profit. We worked out some deals, and now we have a mostly service economy, and foreign poor people do most of our boring tedious labor. And after FDR and congress took over the unions and Tafted them and purged the communists, the unions, which had always been a surprisingly functional mix of gangsters, workers, and communists, leaned into the gangster grifting without the communists, who were at least mostly honest and idealistic. To a patriotic American worker it would have been almost unthinkable that our elites were going to be willing to collaborate with China to crush the American dream… Like don't they know that the CCP robs people like them puts their uncallused parasitic asses in concentration camps until they either starve or learn to farm? And farming while being mismanaged by douchbags is a lot harder than it looks…

  • You really can't place all the blame on Reagan, Trump, racism, or the GOP for 45 years of offshoring and deindustrialization. That has been the consensus policy of the american ruling class since the 1970's, led by Paul Volker. Since it was some other people unable to get the good jobs rather than current holders losing them, the problem was always abstract rather than concrete and immediate. Now we have a world divided between the winners and "the left behind," neither of which has a particular party affiliation.

  • BlakeFelix: Don't blame the government/academic sector for something the business sector did. Even in the 1970s, employers were trying to squeeze workers. There were a lot of strikes, and, by the mid-1970s, labor was starting to lose. The government was still supporting the worker back then, but it was limited in what it could do in the face of concerted employer action. The academic sector wasn't the one demanding worker give backs, lower pay scales, eliminating pensions and so on. That was business.

    Reagan ran on a platform of union busting, but he exploited racism and cultural factors to get union support. The first union to support him, PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, was the first union he busted when they went on strike in 1981. You could say it was the government in that case, but it was the government with union support. The academics were on the sidelines, yet again.

  • Erik Loomis has a good discussion of the Lordstown strike in History of America in Ten Strikes which hits on this issue.

  • Fritz Eifrig says:

    Rivethead, by Ben Hamper is a pretty great look at life on the assembly line before Detroit completely imploded.

  • Yeah, I don't mean to hold business innocent, but they were responding to the incentives the government set up. It's not that no Mom and Pop stores tried to compete with Walmart, or no factories tried to compete with China. When a factory fails it's the business owner, when all the factories fail it's the government. Our healthcare system, infrastructure, and legal system are all terrible, how can our businesses be expected to compete?

  • @ Kaleberg:

    What you said. I was in a union for 8 yrs. The only democrats most of the rank and file would vote for were locals. Steve Lynch was elected to Congress while the same guys were voting for Shrubya and Lord Skeletor–twice.

  • Thomas Costello says:

    Cf: Paul Schrader’s, Blue Collar (film), as well as Loose Bolts (documentary).

    Pink Collar movement emerged in 70s. Thanks

  • Thomas Costello says:

    Cf: Paul Schrader’s, Blue Collar (film), as well as Loose Bolts (documentary).
    Pink Collar movement emerged in 70s.

  • My father was career USPS as a WWII veteran. I went on to be career VA (hospital job, prosthetics department) from 1984 to 2008.

    When I would hear stories from friends in the private sector, it horrified me. The idea of someone walking into your open plan office, pointing at two or three people and saying 'clean out your desk' seemed dystopian. Especially as the remaining staff knew that they would have to shoulder the workload of the 'downsized'.

    What truly alarmed me, though, was the growing perception that civil servants, as a group, were unduly rewarded for our work. 'What, you have paid vacation leave, sick leave, guaranteed lunch breaks *and* a degree of job security?!' Instead of desiring the same benefits, many working people became resentful that public employees even had them.

    I think I'm the only person I know who's been a union local officer. That's dismaying.

  • A lucrative job you hate: When unions had power to negotiate there was a significant amount of debate what to ask for. Wages were obvious and generally, within limits, not fought hard against by the corporations. Work conditions, mostly safety and line rates, were generally acceptable to the employers as long as they were reasonable, and not too expensive.

    There was one thing that European unions were pushing for and able to get that US unions seldom asked for and the corporations fought tooth and nail: control over work. Europeans were able to get union members on the corporate board and they had significant influence over what was manufactured, how it was made, and how the work was organized.

    Union auto workers had no such control and the 'dark days' of the late 70s were demoralizing to them. Cars were poorly designed, poorly built, and often rolling off the assembly line with known, obvious flaws. The US auto makers got handed their ass, lost market share to imports, and ultimately lost money. Even as auto workers were making $40/hr but ashamed of the cars produced. The GM board, and others, neglected the auto manufacturing business as they ventured into finance. This was the height of hating a lucrative job.

    By the time the corporations got back to their core competences offshoring jobs had become a fashion trend everyone indulged in. Announce that you were moving jobs overseas made your stock prices quiver and jump. Never mind that later analyses would show that moving costs and shipping products back to the US ate up all that was saved in labor costs. There were some increased profits given that manufacturing plants in Mexico were modern and replaced Detroit lines that were built in the 50s. The few US plants that got rebuilt at the time showed similar increased profitability. And they didn't have to ship parts overseas and a car back to the US.

    Of course increased efficiencies were not the real motivator for offshoring. It was all about the stock price and bonuses.

    Had the labor unions declined to be paid-off with excessive wages and demanded some control over the work their members would have been a bit poorer but far happier. There is some chance GM, and other would have resisted the siren call of easy money through finance and the gimmick of offshoring. Perhaps the US would still have manufacturing. Just a thought.

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