A workingman serves his own master
You build for elegance. You bargain for revenge
In the mid-1940s, Frank Bergmann was an idealistic young freelance draftsman, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright’s conception of organic architecture. But when he discovered that most of his clients wanted a house “like Uncle George’s, ” he quietly put his drafting instruments away and got a job as a carpenter. Now 60, he wrote this story from his home in Surrey, British Columbia, out of the wisdom of half a life spent working with his own hands.
The rain is a dismal, steady drizzle when we come to work. It takes a huge effort of the will to get out of the warm car, away from the cheerful voices on the radio.
On the construction site the mud is ankle deep. Annacis Island is hardly more than a great sandbar in the Fraser River at New Westminster, BC. It had a few halfhearted farms on it before Grosvenor-Laing turned it into an industrial estate, with neat and tidy buildings, pavements, curbs and streetlights.
Folk wisdom has it that you can’t build on sand. We do, and there is nothing the matter with it. You put down a thick, concrete footing, some three feet wide, and a wall on top of that about four feet high, the whole thing well laced with steel rods. You fill the open, boxlike structure with sand and wash that down with water, for days, until every little grain finds a place where it fits perfectly, without even a microscopic space. The sand acquires the density, if not the hardness of rock. The concrete floor on top has a mat of steel sandwiched in the middle. Your building is as solid as the pyramids.
We are putting up forms for the concrete footings and walls, and installing the steel that makes the concrete wellnigh indestructible. It is surprising how the rain finds every chink in your clothing. Working bent over, it gets into the space between hat and collar; the waterproof coat rides up on your back and soon your overalls and pants are sodden across your whole backside. After a while the jokes that usually crisscross the air wherever men are working become desultory. You simply endure.
Try not to think of the cold rivulets seeping down your back and the backs of your legs. Think instead of the beautiful pattern you create with the steel rods as you tie them into place: the uprights curving up from the wide footing, then curving in to where they will meet the floor mat; the horizontals straight and true and level, every intersection tied solid with a short length of soft wire in a sure, swift, precise motion
of the fingers. You glance at your work. Every rod is in place, correctly spaced, lined and fixed; the line of the wall is straight. It had better be — the building is more than 200 feet long. The engineers have a word for it: elegant. It means purposive accuracy and precision, without excess. It is a form of beauty. It was man who invented the straight line; nature doesn’t really care about the shortest distance between two points, except in her forces. Never in her forms.
The water is now seeping down your arms and you rub your sleeves so that the cloth will soak it up. Coffee time has finally come, and you didn’t really feel the time go by. From everywhere men are drifting toward the tool shack, heavy footed in the mud. Some of them are willing to call it a day. Somehow, a dozen of us find room in the little building. We sit on nail kegs, on the floor, or squat on our haunches, and the smell of Thermos coffee comes steaming from plastic cups. Somebody says, “Hell, I’m not married to the job,” and there is a chorus of agreement. Somebody groans. Some of us are married to mortgages and finance companies.
The door opens and the superintendent walks in. He finds a space big enough to squat, and lights a cigarette. He looks around with a half smile, as though he’d like to apologize for the weather. He’s wet too, he’s been out and around in the rain all morning even though he didn’t have to be. It’s his way of communicating with us. It’s one of the things that prevents riots and rebellions, before conception.
He says, “Look, boys, I know how it is, but we’d really appreciate it if you stayed with it. We’d like to pour next week to stay on schedule. The steel frame is going up on a building down the street and the roof will be on it by the time we finish here, so we can swing in there. Okay?” His eyes circle the room again, pausing at every face. Nobody smiles, but there are nods of agreement. He gets up and goes out. Somebody says, “Well, we can’t get any wetter.” We close up our lunch kits and go back to work.
But by next week, when our job is finished, it just happens that another gang has swung into the building with the roof on, and most of us are laid off.
One of the more grotesque TV commercials shows a workman, either a carpenter or a window washer, at work. It is meant to be obvious that the man, as he steps down from his scaffold, is tired and stiff. In fact, he says so: “You work hard all your life, you ache all over, and what does it get you... ?”
Seeing it for the first time, the viewer may perhaps think that he is about to hear, right out of the workingman’s world, a new opinion on the workingman’s condition, something on security of employment or the future of labor. I mean, after all, working people do think about something while they are putting in all those hours at a job that requires, once learned, not too much intellectual attention. Well, don’t they? Not this man. All he wants is his back rubbed to ease his aching muscles. This mindless ape in workman’s clothing, who has presumably spent half a lifetime at this kind of job, glows with approval after one application of the advertiser’s liniment at the hands of a smiling wife. This grinning slob has no serious concern for the fact that he has been trading the precious, irreplaceable capital of his body for a mere living, that he may be, at 60, a muscle-bound, arthritic wreck, and at 65, after a short period watching Lawrence Welk and football games on the television, ready for the crematorium. This is the TV image of the workingman, and it would not be surprising to discover that here and there a steel-toed boot has gone sailing straight into the middle of the expensive screen.
The timekeeper in the front office asks what I want and when I tell him “A job,” he jerks his thumb toward an open door behind him. “The boss is in there, go on in.” Carl Swenson is a Swede with pitch-black hair who looks like a Hungarian. He has a reputation as a fast operator and builds a lot of houses in Vancouver. I’m a very /
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inexperienced carpenter who wants to learn how to build houses and I’ll work for what his foreman thinks I’m worth.
I start at 75 cents an hour and three months later I’m making a dollar an hour, not bad in 1946. The union rate is $1.10. We frame houses. First we put up the forms; the cement gang comes to pour the concrete and we move on to another site while the foundation is setting. Framing includes putting up the wooden shell of a house, the stairs, making and installing window and door frames, installing the windows and the outside doors, and whatever siding is needed. When we leave, the house can be locked up.
Some weeks after I start, a union organizer comes around to ask whether I shouldn’t join the carpenters’ union. “Hell, I’m hardly better than a beginner. I couldn’t pass for a union carpenter. But I’ll tell you what. When the foremen tells you I’m good enough, I’ll join.”
Shortly after Sam had recommended to my employer that I was worth a dollar an hour, the union man was around again. “Sam tells me you’re pulling your weight. Shall I make out your card?” Perhaps I should have told the boss that I had joined, but he only talked with the foreman, and he never seemed to see that I was there. One or two paydays later, though, he sought me out.
“I see you joined the union, just after
I raised your wages.”
“Sam and the boys thought I might as well.”
“I should have fired you!” He roared away. Sam laughed. “Don’t take it seriously. He always takes off like that.”
The boss didn’t lose any money on me. Four of us and one apprentice built a house a week for two years running.
The workman has become inarticulate. Realizing that alone he is powerless, he has given his own voice to the union, and now speaks in combination with 10 or 100,000 others through the voice of a $20,000or $40,000-a-year union executive. Unfortunately, this places the executive in a position where he may belong to the same clubs and play the same golf course as the directors of the companies his members work for. By a process of psychological symbiosis, he cuts himself off from the rankand-file member. Powerlessness is being the lone dissenter at a union meeting.
The vast indifference which faces the workingman everywhere, from the Prime Minister (who will forget his “mangez de la merde”?) down to the television industry which pictures us as mindless louts, is met on our part with an equally huge reservoir of resentment and hostility. For a great many of us who read newspapers — the poor man’s university — the pictures of directors on
the financial pages show us the face of the enemy, and the incredible array of administrative personnel which seem to be required to oversee the simplest operations forms an overburden that we must willy-nilly support. Perhaps because we are given the impression that we are merely a necessary evil, many of us hate our jobs and do them only out of economic need. We know that the nature of our jobs precludes the possibility of ever rising to our so-called level of incompetence.
And so we are, except for our immediate families and our friends who must perforce put up with us, not really very nice persons to be with. We use a great many swear words. Some of us drink too much and most of us are probably responsible for the increasing consumption of tobacco.
One of the psychological effects of years spent at physical labor is the view that work that does not involve physical exertion is not really work at all. Wrong, of course, but try telling a steelworker or a cement finisher or a foundryman coming off shift that you are exhausted from writing a report for your boss. To the laborer a sit-down job seems like a holiday; a day off is a precious thing because of the absence of compulsory effort. To win a sweepstake equates with the hope of heaven.
The nearest thing to pleasure in physical work is perhaps experienced by the tradesman, who can enjoy the intricacies of a job because his skill enables him to treat it as a problem-solving exercise. He may be a prince of labor, but he is still — labor. He too has his resentments and they are surely felt at the bargaining table. His ills are not economic. Who really needs eight dollars an hour when he is already getting seven? That extra dollar asked does not mean extra value to be added to his efforts, or greater skills acquired and expended. It is a penalty. It is a form of revenge exacted from his employer because the labor of his hands is treated as a commodity, in a market where costs and values are manipulated as though they meant the same thing.
White Rock, BC, is a little city rising on a terraced hillside from the northern shore of Semiahmoo Bay. The wooded southern shore is in the State of Washington and forms a green backdrop for the blue sparkling waters of the bay. The foreshore is so shallow that at low tide White Rock Beach is a tremendous playground, crowded in good weather with thousands of people at leisure. For the workman, busy at some outdoor job on this hillside, to look up momentarily at the spaciousness of sea and sky and wooded hills means a brief release from the captivity of the matter at hand.
Phil Buchanan (which is not his
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name) did not like to see his workmen stop to stand and stare, even for a moment. It was a waste of his time. Like many a small enterpriser who has found himself in an economic trap where miscalculation may spell disaster, he had allowed frugality to become meanness, and his stinginess with quality materials was an encouragement to shoddy workmanship. “That’s good enough,” was his favorite phrase.
He would not allow us to put up a scaffold to install the gutters on a house, and we would squat or kneel on the edge of a roof slope to nail the wooden sections into place, somehow. The shiplap boards that used to form the subfloor before plywood came into general use had to be well nailed down to prevent squeaky floors. But he would say, “Why use two nails when one will do?”
It was a time when thousands of European immigrants were entering the labor scene, many of them good tradesmen, and all of them anxious to make a quick stake in a new land. In an expanding construction market many of them organized themselves into little groups. By taking any job and by working from dawn to dusk, Sundays and holidays, they ensured their economic survival.
One day Buchanan said, “You know, I’ve been looking into my costs, and I’m losing money by keeping you guys on. I can save from 10% to 25% by letting my jobs out on subcontract. I can get my basements done for $300, the frame for 75 cents a square foot, and the finishing for 45. If you guys want to work for that, okay. Otherwise, I won’t be needing you after this week.” Getting laid off is hardly ever a pleasure, but there are exceptions.
Ernie Winch, for more than two decades a CCF member of the BC legislature and a thorn in the flesh of the Social Credit government, was an irascible old socialist who felt compelled, during the postwar boom, to provide decent housing for the forgotten old-age pensioners. His New Vista Society raised, by one means or another, the 10% equity required to trigger provincial and federal government grants and loans and built many duplex houses and small apartment blocks in Burnaby at rents low enough to fit the absurdly low pensions of the old folks.
The old man left us in no doubt as to the kind of workmanship he meant to have. “There is no reason to think that just anything is good enough for the old people. They deserve the best you can do and they should get it.” But frugality of time and material was a consideration. Alan Winch, the old man’s son and our superintendent, was the most fabulously accurate estimator a contractor could have had. It was an uncanny thing to nail the last piece of plywood sheath-
ing to the wall of an apartment block and to see that there wasn’t a single board left. My partner and I misait one 12-foot stringer for the fire escape; since there was no allowance for errors of this kind, we simply took the truck during our lunch hour and bought another one from the local lumberyard, at our own expense. No one told us to do it. It was expected.
It was expected, too, that every shelf that touched a wall must touch it over all its length so that not even a slip of paper could be pushed behind it. I discovered that it was possible to install the lock on a door, and make it fit with a satisfying click, in 13 minutes flat, and to keep on doing this all day.
The old man said, “This is not a business. We are providing good accommodation for people who need it. There is no profit here for anybody except the privilege to do things well.”
An old lady from one of the already occupied apartment blocks up the street came over one day to look around and smile at us: “Old Ernie is building himself another jewel to wear in his heavenly crown. You tell him that.” We looked at one another with much laughter at the possible response we might get from Ernie, that confirmed old agnostic.
I remember that lunch periods were always too short, with five or six talkative, literate, articulate and argumentative socialist carpenters dissecting the world and all its works. (Who remembers the defeated? Carpenter Ron Irvine ran, unsuccessfully, for the House of Commons in some forgotten election in the 1950s. Carpenter Cedric Cox was for years a member of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly.) Who remembers Ernest Winch, now gone to his reward? And hundreds of old and forgotten people who for the first time in their lives, were provided with civilized habitations?
The work site is a 30-acre field, stripped bare down to yellow clay, with deeper excavations in exact patterns across the whole area. A barren, lunar landscape. Around the edges huge piles of topsoil and behind them, tall evergreens. In July, with the sun a shimmering golden fireball the way Van Gogh saw it, day after day in a cloudless summer sky, the place is an oven. Many of the carpenters have cut their overalls off at the knees. Our hard hats seem heavy and they’re too hot to touch, but they keep our brains from frying.
The site is crisscrossed with line wires and dotted with elevation pegs. We are building forms for the concrete foundations that will make the bases for the countless steel towers of an electricity substation, a transfer point for the power lines that feed Vancouver’s industry. It seems like a rough, dirty, job,
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but it stretches you to capacity. Accuracy is expected, precision is demanded, and any man who doesn’t worry about a sixteenth of an inch might as well go home. When we are finished with a section, the foreman sends a fieldman from the engineering office to make a check of distances, positions, diagonals, lines, elevations. Our steel, to which the tall steel towers will be bolted, has got to be right. When the fieldman has made his measurements and the entries in his little book, he presses thumb and forefinger together and raises his hand in salute. His grin of approval is an accolade. Right on!
The application of labor to material is a personal, individual thing. The touch of a man’s hands to a thing to be fashioned is a form of creation that has not altogether lost its mystique of half-forgotten divinity. The Balinese saying, “We have no art. We do everything well,” expresses this feeling of labor as creation, and the Christian who takes a serious interest in his faith should wonder how it was that the Son of God came to be a man who worked with his hands, and not a rabbi or philosopher. It is a far cry from the view of the workman as creator to that of the workman as nigger.
Look around you. Everything you see exists because it was made by human hands. The car you drive was built by human beings bored to near insanity by an inhuman method called assemblyline production. The building you work in is the result of labor spent by straining human bodies. The watch on your wrist, the lamp you read by, the clothes you wear, the carpet underfoot are the results, not only of a series of incredibly
complex technical procedures but bear the imprint of human beings who would like to be proud of what they made.
Things have no status in themselves, nor can they confer it on their owners, but they carry a patina of humanness that should be respected. They were created, not by directors meeting in a boardroom, not by market analysts, not by salesmen, but by the touch of human hands for the use and convenience and enjoyment of other human beings.
It is the evolution of the middleman between maker and user that has put FOR SALE signs on all things lovely, and led to the rejection of the market society by so many of our children. But old truths never die and ancient certitudes are never quite forgotten. There are new listeners to the words of Krishna, written in the Bhagavad Gita 2,500 years ago: “Let the wise man work unselfishly for the good of all the world.”
A new work ethic? The inadequacy, decline and rejection of the old one are everywhere apparent. The incapacity of the shopkeepers to build civilizations lies like a shadow over the barbarities of our precarious affluence. It remains unrealistic to expect that all the world’s work can ever be done without the workman’s hand, that automated industry will turn us all out to grow daffodils.
Meantime the workman, whose employer views him as nothing more than some unruly, self-willed machine, to be turned on and off at the whim of market pressures, can keep his sanity only by looking at the products of his hands as a contribution to humankind and not as an item for sale. Only by desiring to do things well can he remain a creator and not become a slave. ■