State of the unions

Hard hat hell

In the heat of the foundry, a union is where you hang your hopes

IAN PORTER May 1 1974
State of the unions

Hard hat hell

In the heat of the foundry, a union is where you hang your hopes

IAN PORTER May 1 1974

Hard hat hell

State of the unions

In the heat of the foundry, a union is where you hang your hopes


The first day on the job, the four of us picked for the casting shop were met at the guardhouse by the head foreman, Tony, his name was, a big striding man. “The work’s dirty,” he said as he led us in, “but the money’s clean.”

We detoured to collect our protective gear: jacket and pants that would show only tiny holes when splattered with molten metal, safety glasses, steel-toed boots. Two of us, myself and a gentle soul named Dick, also about 30. needed the boots. The price would come out of our first pay.

At the casting shop Tony showed us where to punch our time cards and left us in the locker room to change. For a brief moment in our fresh green uniforms we looked like hospital orderlies, except for the boots. Dick stayed in his street shoes.

“I want to see what the work’s like.” he said slyly. “If I don’t like it. I don’t want to pay for the boots just for getting them dirty.”

He didn’t like it.

“Took one look and went back to change into his street clothes,” a forklift driver said, leaning down with a grin. I had

been paired with a man with one finger on his left hand, a

Cape Bretoner named McGuiness. and we were being broken

in on a little preliminary lifting and heaving. The driver was bringing us bundles of copper plate which we had to sort into

piles for the melting furnaces.

“Well, now we know who had the brains,” said McGuiness.

1 grunted. I had a pain in my back. Dick could go find a job in an office. The pain stays in the back of your head in an of-

fice. As you get older and slower and softer.

Sometimes, when I used to sit at a desk with a telephone and a little black book of contacts and a typewriter. 1 would

find myself groping for the words that could make a con-

nection for people in the world outside the office. The job was

to report for the newspapers on labor

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HARD HAT from page 25

affairs: strikes, union negotiations, industrial relations, the sort of stuff you read if it means something to you.

Almost always in the rare world of these news stories, it was the bigshots talking — the politicans, academics, businessmen, union leaders — talking easily and confidently about them, the restless, faceless men and women whose own voices seemed to come from too deep among their feelings to be heard. They erupted in strikes from time to time and then some editor would want to know what they were thinking. That was a noble notion, but it was a bit like

trying to spy on a field, of wheat. There were too many voices. Better to get the word from on high and pass it on.

One spring day, I deserted the office. It was a dull dripping day in February which ended with my job in the foundry.

I had not meant to go so far when I first saw the ad in the Toronto Star. Factory labor, it said. 160 pounds minimum. Experience not necessary. Rate $3.34 an hour to start. Generous production bonus and overtime. Apply in person. 9 a.m. Wednesday.

At least 150 men came looking for work: hairy adolescents, grim family

men, old boozers just window shopping. About half were West Indians or Asians. They stood in small groups, joking among themselves and laughing high private laughs that made me feel white and sulky. As the lines shuffled forward, even they grew quiet.

A student out for a summer job might have found the experience intriguing. It would have made for knowing comments in the coffee shop about the smell of the people and the human condition. Ten years past that and you begin to look more closely at your fellows in the cheap labor pool. On the application form, I had allowed to a grade 11 education; I wondered if that would be too much or too little.

The next day, they called to ask if I wanted a job. I heard myself accept. Fifteen men had been picked, all of us between 25 and 35. all of us white. Perhaps there was more to learn.

“You know why you got a job there?” asked a friend. “Because you’re white.” “That’s part of it, I guess.”

“How long are you going to stay?”

“I don’t know. Three, six months.” “Six months!”

“It’s good experience.”

“Six weeks would be good experience. Six months, you’ll be a walking lunch bucket grumbling about all the fruits at the CBC . . . Besides. I’ve heard about that place. The fumes there, they turn your beard green.”

The casting shop was as big as an aircraft hangar. It was divided into two sections. the Canadian side and the American side. The men with seniority preferred to work the Canadian side. Their furnaces were outmoded, only 2.000 pounds capacity, and they earned less money. But the noise was less oppressive and they sometimes could talk while they waited for the metal to melt.

Jamesy, the shift foreman, led me past their flickering stations. “What the hell.” he decided. “I’ll start you on the other side. That’s where we want you.” Around the corner were the American-side furnaces, smoky and bewildering as gun turrets. There were two levels of noise: the clatter of scrap metal advancing along a shaker table into the melter and the jet whine of air coolers. A black man. burly in his protective clothing. his head turned to avoid the heat, was reaching into one of the furnaces with a long ladle.

“This is Harold,” Jamesy shouted into my ear. “He’ll show you what to do.” Harold was to teach me how to pour metal. He knew more than he needed to know about alloys and told me more than I could remember. One of a handful of West Indians at the plant, he shared the usual opinions about escalating union dues and the tax man’s share

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HARD HAT continued

of the workingman’s dollar. On more sensitive issues — like the plant’s hiring practices? — he had a way of shrugging and turning to find something to do. He consumed work the way some people eat pie and he had a car. an apartment and a single man’s social life to keep up.

The work absorbed anv anger. Anger, outrage, insult were made strav wisps in the mind by the rhythm of the work, by the monotony, by the noise, the whine and clatter that shivered the simplest thoughts into fragments.

Work on the American side took men who were young or else very tough, not yet broken by the noise and extreme heat. In return, the money was the best in the shop, well over $300 a week with production bonus and overtime. It sounded good, but before long came peculiar pains in the chest, ulcers and. inevitably. burns. The older men knew all about it. if anyone was listening. It was like being warned against easy finance.

“Well, what do you think about this damn place now?” Harold asked me after a few' days.

“No one’s giving anvthing away.”

“You think you’ll stav?”

“Not forever.”

“Yeah. I think I’m going to get out of here too. in another 10 months, maybe.”

He was a good teacher, the kind w'ho understands that confidence is everything and w'ho makes no mystery of his subject. He let me go at my ow'n speed and if I had accidents, well, they w ere no more than diversions from routine.

One time, the lab sent us the green light to pour a heat w'hile Harold was gone for a quick lunch of doughnuts and coffee. I was pretty sure I knew' the procedure by this time. I couldn’t think of any reason not to switch on the water and start without him.

The holes in the running box were plugged and metal was splashed over the molds and water pipes bv the time Harold sauntered back from the canteen with a jelly doughnut in his hand. Until he saw me waving at him. he had the benign look of a man with a trouble-free evening going for him.

“Oh. man. what vou trvin’ t’ do t’ me?” he said in his soft island voice.

“I don’t know' what happened. The holes just plugged up.”

“That happens if you pour before it’s hot enough.”

“Listen. Harold.” I said, poking with a crowbar at the metal that had hardened around the molds like yellow candle dripping. “I’ll clean it up. You can still

get away.”

“Never no matter now.”

After a while. I learned to have preferences in scrap. Best were the bits and pieces of tubing compressed into 400pound biscuits that slid into the melt without a trace. Boxes of oilv millings

from the machine shop — “hay” —left more ash and the oil burnt oft in great rushes of smoke. Usuallv, the millings were saved for the night shifts when the exhaust could pour unscrubbed and unseen over the city. Worst were bundles of oxidized wire that had to be wrestled into the melter and were good for three barrels of ashes each heat.

It paid to be on good terms with the forklift drivers who scurried from shaker to shaker with the various kinds of scrap poised above them. They could be persuaded to leave the dirtv stuff for the next shift, or to find a few clean biscuits to top up a good melt.

Skimming was unpopular but it had a certain mindless rhythm about it and I could think about anything while I did it. It was only when I had finished that I w'ould find myself drenched and trembling from the heat.

The shower room was the social

centre. A rough, brief get-together was the best it offered, what with 20 or 30 grimy casters jostling beneath a dozen show erheads. The black dust of the shop coated us alike and the showers restored our personalities. Faces took shape beneath the water and furrv bellies glistened. Two or three voices would emerge out of the banter to speak the mood of the shift and give it character.

Sometimes the conversation would touch on politics or the union. Nobodv wanted to hear much about either. An odd favoring comment about the New Democrats might be okay but anything tending tow'ard mention of the Liberals would always be sabotaged with jokes about “would-be capitalists.”

Not long before I was hired, the plant had been shut down for three days over the firing of two casters. The result was a standoff. One of the men returned as a sort of celebrity; the other w'ent elsewhere. The company, however, was to get its way in the future.

According to shower-room talk, the brief strike had demonstrated the weakness of the union and the spinelessness of the local leaders. What was needed

was more representation from among the stout hearts of the casting shop. The rallying cry was given in grampus tones in the shower by a stocky Yorkshireman known as “Brother.” He was our candidate in the coming election of officers.

The first on the floor at the beginning of a shift, the first to finish, the first into the showers, the quickest to laugh, w'as Gerrv Downey.

Gerry couldn’t bear inactivity. He was a chunky man in his mid-twenties w'ith curly auburn hair and a broad face that lit up like a kid’s. He’d never been able to sit still, he told me. even when he was going to school in rural New Brunswick. Since coming to Toronto, he’d w'orked as a carhop, a night guard, a gas station attendant, a janitor, before getting into the foundry. I worked as his helper.

“Casting can be fun. if you’re making bonus.” he once said almost seriously.

In the rest of the foundry, men worked alone and production was a matter between the individual and his foreman. Apparently, teamwork was too uncontrollable a quality to be built into the machinery or to be defined by New York efficiency experts. “Be your own boss.” was the slogan (“but don’t show any lag-time on the furnace’s temperature chart”).

Gerry w'orked on the one unit too big to fit this concept. Management had reluctantly conceded that an extra man was necessary to make it produce its rated capacity of 50 tons each shift. Gerry and I exceeded this target within a couple of wreeks.

Gerry’s guiding notion was that the bonus system should yield the optimum paycheque, a take-home bundle representing maximum return for energy expended. The point was never to overproduce too consistently. Management would come to expect it. he was convinced. and then there would be no peace with the foreman on days when we didn’t feel like highballing.

The search for the optimum paycheque made for a daily game w'ith the foremen. To appreciate the game, understand that foremen are the last high priests of the work ethic in a society that doesn’t quite know' what to think about w'ork. Certainly, it’s a thankless calling. At best, a foreman gains little more than a pat on the back w hen his superiors are pleased. The men regard him as little better than a queue hopper. He has the power to fire any one of them but he is ill-advised to use that power except in the most flagrant cases. Anv respect he mav command is only the result of his personal bearing.

“Why push so hard if you don’t get a cut of the production bonus?” I once asked Jamesy.

“I’m old-fashioned. I guess.” he answered. “I just happen to believe you

should give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

“Most Canadians don’t know how to work anymore. Look at the European guys. The Germans and Polaks, they know how to work. You can tell right off they’re not Canadians.

“And the kids. The kids are the worst. Even mv own son . . . Geez. he makes me sick sometimes . . .”

Variations of the game are many.

One of the more sobering ones could be called “Reproach Me Not.’’ a game for men who have spent their lives on the run from economic hardship and want no trouble now. It’s mainly grimlipped laboring in morbid apprehension that a foreman is watching.

Another game is called “Sneaking Off For A Drink.” More diverting, but no better for the health. Many men play it from time to time but only a few become real adepts.

Considering the going price for copper at the scrapyards. “Theft” hardly qualifies as a game, although it does help to pass the time. There is talk of legendary figures who made it a practice to walk out of the plant each day with as much contraband as they could carry in their lunch boxes or in carefully constructed vests.

But there are only so many diversions. What passes between union and management. for example, is not a game. The squabbles over the rules, the tit-fortat, might look like a game but the stakes are too high and the taste of defeat too bitter. Even a victory can only bring partial satisfaction: compensation at best for the knowledge that no one works in a foundry if he has a reasonable alternative.

Sooner or later, a man will admit it himself, that he is trapped. Perhaps it will start as a w-hispered “I told you so” in the ear of the caster who thought his nerves would last forever. It may be blurted in the form of a confession when the doctor tells him he’d be better off in a different job. It is easier to admit it: he may be able to work on a forklift, not for the same money, it’s true, or in the scrap room. He will be freed from his little secret: that he had learned not to hate his job but to fear it.

“I’m broken.” a man of 40 or so told me over a beer one night. “I’ve got a good home . . . great kids. My daughter. you should see my daughter . . . But something in me is broken. Maybe it was the noise.”

“A foundry?” asked a man who had just cadged 50 cents from me. “Nobody works in a foundry!”

“Your record of employment.” said the counselor at the employment agency. “I think we’ll just not mention this bit about a foundry.”

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HARD HAT continued

“You men are all the same.” protested a young lady who is heady with liberation. “You worship hard hats because you think they’re so tough.”

What can you say? Their distaste is impersonal; it marks the native-born from the immigrant, the schooled from the unschooled.

You stay silent when they ask what goes on in a foundry. How can you explain the daily expenditure of will and effort and the peculiar feeling of serving as the handmaiden of a machine?

Gerry and his wife. Dianne, invited me home for supper one night. We picked up some beer and we were to go smelt fishing after dark. Dianne cooked a roast with lots of mashed potatoes and four vegetables, the meal a workingman expects with his wife at home.

They were married in their mid-teens and Dianne is still a shy woman. While we ate she told us of her shopping trip that day with their four-year-old princess. Gerry grumbled at how his women spent his money and Dianne mentioned new clothes for school. The child stared shrewdly across the table at me.

Later. Gerry and I left Dianne with the dishes to go for a walk along the ravine near his apartment block

“You’d almost think you weren’t in the city.” I said.

“One place we lived in when I was a kid.” he answered, “the nearest town was 34 miles away. My old man said it was cheaper living in the bush because you couldn’t spend any money. The only store we had was a truck that used to come out once a week. We kids thought it was a big deal to buy bubblegums and stuff for a penny. Sometimes it couldn’t get out to us in the the winter.”

“I really miss the country,” I said. “When I was a kid I used to love to work on the farm in the summer. Don’t you miss it?”

“Well ... I don’t know.” Gerry said. “We’ve sort of got used to living here.”

My good-byes are quick and painless. “You’re leaving today?”

“Yeah, something just came through.”

“Anything to get out of this place, eh?”

“It’s not been that bad.”

“Sez you. Well, see you around.” “See you.”

A new fellow who has been waiting for my job moves up and the ranks close. I take my steel-toed boots with me and leave my uniform behind in a dirty bundle. Outside in the factory yard, the sun is bright and I feel elation as I walk past the guardhouse to the street. This narcotic moment of escape will pass. 1 know that, and turn back long enough to wish I could salute the kind of courage 1 am leaving behind. 0