Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Charlie Jenkins
Why Labor Day is Truer to Labor Tradition than May Day
There was an autoworker, Ben Hamper, who used to publish a column in the Flint (later Michigan) Voice, an alt-weekly where Michael Moore made his name by founding. A lot of Hamper's columns were later collected and repackaged in an excellent book, "Rivethead."
Hamper was born in 1956, a fairly clever kid growing up in Flint, Michigan, the chronological and geographic apex of American industrial unionism. Every kid's father worked for GM. Hamper could have gone to college, but he impregnated a young woman, and so went to work on the assembly line. His reasoning does not show a sense of obligation, or that infamous Catholic guilt as a source of motivation for leaving the college path, but because the factory path seems as good a life course as any other. It’s what every man he knew had done, and under the mighty UAW the pay is on par with the kind of “educated” jobs you could get anyway. Why not?
So Hamper went to work on the line and eventually ended up writing a column about it. In his columns he talks about the color of the factory culture, playing soccer with rivets for balls and cardboard boxes for goals, drinking mickeys of malt liquor in your car on lunch break, the absurd fur-suited mascot “Howie Makem, The Quality Cat” GM would feature at rallies and shop-floor tours, being laid off in economic downturns and put into the “job bank” where you get paid waiting to be rehired in the next upswing, and developing a perfect rhythm with your partner, developing into a harmony so perfect you can each trade off doing the two-person job yourself for 4 hours while the other one goes out to a bar on the clock. It was the dignity and solidarity of the American worker.
Time passed and eventually his marriage fell apart but he took it in stride, and his column was recognized and he takes pride in its fame. Then eventually he had an epiphany, and a complete breakdown, which are basically the same thing. The inciting incident is when an older line worker, some guy he’d looked up to as a model of quiet, philosophical stolidity, just literally shits himself and is barely coherent enough to even notice what has happened.
At that moment Hamper realized this man he respected hadn’t been some sort of Zen master, he’d just been a checked-out mindless drunk on the line every day. And he realized the rivethead life is destroying him, that the only thing holding it together was a budding alcoholism, and it’s working the same slow poison on all his co-workers. He looked back even further and found it had done the same to every grown-up man he knew as a child: his father and uncles, men he had looked up to as models of masculine strength and fortitude, actually had just had their spark snuffed out and the life beaten out of them years earlier. Whatever pride they took in the cars out on the road was a defensive attempt to locate in an external form the sense of self-value that had been exterminated within them. When Marx talked about “alienation”, well, this was it. And so Hamper went mad, and couldn’t bear to work on the line anymore, and there’s no redemption, and that’s where the book ends.
And that is what I want to stress. There were two great working class traditions that echoed through the ages, and they were:
1) avoiding work
Back in the pre-mechanized age of small-group workshop manufacturing, workers would celebrate “Saint Monday," which was simply not showing up for work, as they were hung over after the weekend. This was a riff off of Catholic feast days, or holy days, from which we take the word “holiday." As time went on they counted an increasing share of the days of the year. There was a reason poor workers were aligned with the Church, and nobility, in “Altar and Throne” coalitions resisting the development of industrial capitalist liberal democracy.
We see in our own era, particularly the 1980s which were a miserable time in the American auto industry, that one trick which was passed around (pre-internet, so by word of mouth largely) was to look at the codes stamped on car bodies, which would tell you what day of the week they were manufactured, and thus workers knew to avoid Mondays and Fridays. Those days had the highest defect rates, because the workers tended to be drunk, or hungover, or absent. And back in the workshop days, you’d drink at work. Apprentices would be sent out for growlers or buckets of beer, and there were elaborate rules of who in the hierarchy of workers was expected to buy rounds for which person and when.
There was hellacious resistance to attempts to get men to knock this off as the industrial era kicked into swing. Those great satanic mills, where women and children worked in shifts at great water-or-steam-driven sewing and spinning machines, which produced wrenching stories of small children having their hands mangled by the machinery? (Ironically, one of the great moral victories of the 19th century was supposed to be getting women out of the workplace, and one of the great moral victories of the 20th century was supposed to be getting them back in.) One of the major reasons women and children were preferred was because they would actually show up on time every day, and stay sober around all those hand-mangler while the men were drunk.
Some of this may sound like an argument for socialism and worker-owned factories. But as capitalist propaganda will also be glad to tell you, Soviet work culture, at least when the morale thrills of the Revolution and Great Patriotic War faded from personal to institutional memory, was all about shirking and vodka. So when we hear those complaints about how America celebrates Labor Day instead of May Day, ignoring the true meaning of labor - solidarity - in favor of mindless distraction? Psssh. Labor Day is a celebration of the truest, most ancient, most fundamental traditions of labor: not working (especially on Mondays), and getting drunk.
Tara Ann Thieke