by Jarrod Shanahan
February 28th, 2019
David Ranney was part of the wave of US socialists who went into factories in the 1970s to organize workers. In an interview, he discusses his new book about those explosive years — and the pitched battles his coworkers waged against both their corrupt union and the company.
In 1976, David Ranney gave up his tenured academic job to organize on the South Side of Chicago. He ended up working in a number of factories in Chicago and Northwest Indiana — home at the time to roughly one and a half million industrial jobs, one of the largest concentrations of heavy industry in the world — while also providing pro bono legal assistance at the Workers’ Rights Center and organizing with socialist groups like the Sojourner Truth Organization and News and Letters.
Ranney writes about those years in his new book, Living and Dying on the Factory Floor: From the Outside In and the Inside Out. Jacobin contributor Jarrod Shanahan recently interviewed Ranney about factory life in the early days of deindustrialization, the highs and lows of a strike he and his coworkers waged against the company and their corrupt union, and strategies for organizing under global capitalism today.
JS: While the Chicago region was at this time synonymous with metal production, as you point out, steel mills themselves only accounted for about one-seventh of a diverse industrial landscape. What kind of shops did you work in?
DR: I tried to get in the mills, but the jobs were beginning to tighten up even at that time. I worked at Chicago Shortening, a factory that made cooking oils made of animal fat — really bad for people. Then I worked in a paper-cup factory, Solo Cup. Then there was a chemical plant that made materials used in processing steel: insulating materials and chemicals added to separate impurities. Then I worked in a railroad-car factory.
JS: What was the typical division of labor you encountered, along the lines of race, nationality, and gender?
DR: It was different at different plants. Generally speaking, black workers were at the bottom of the pecking order. At Chicago Shortening, most of the black workers were either pumpers or cleaners. Those jobs were the dirtiest and the lowest paid. When I came there, the racial tensions were extremely high: the Mexicans and blacks hated each other, they all hated whites, and the whites hated all of them.
They actually had a division of where they took their breaks. There was a locker room that everybody supposedly shared, but it was the place that blacks used for all their breaks. The Mexicans had devised a breaking area, where they just pulled boxes near where they worked. The whites, mostly maintenance people, had our own special locker room that had keys to the door. We had high security lockers, a couch, and an easy chair.
That was one of the challenges for me off the bat. So I told the other maintenance workers I was going to take my breaks in different places to get to know people. But most of my breaks I spent with black workers.
JS: The centerpiece of Living and Dying is your experience at Chicago Shortening, culminating in a strike that appears to be in almost equal parts against the company and the union of which you were ostensibly a member. How did this transpire?
DR: Chicago Shortening was a small plant with thirty-four workers, the majority of them black, a handful of whites, and the rest predominantly Mexican. Very nasty, dirty place. The union was nonexistent as far as I was concerned when I first got there. Nobody talked about it.
A union business agent came into the locker room one day and announced we were at the end of the second year of a three-year contract, and they were going to reopen the contract and try to get us better terms. The workers were exceedingly rude to this guy.
When he left, the workers told story after story about how corrupt the union was, how they were in bed with the company, and how if they were opening the contract, there was a reason for it, and it wasn’t for us.
JS: What happened next?
DR: They asked us to form a negotiating committee and went through this charade of negotiations. Everything our representatives brought up was shot down; the union had come with a list of points they wanted in the contract that nobody had seen before.
So we had a discussion in the locker room about what people wanted in the contract and what they didn’t, and I wrote up a little memo summarizing the points from that discussion and put them on the bulletin board. After I did that, another worker wrote his own memo, which was much more rhetorical — scathing against both the union and the company — and he put that up on the bulletin board too.
We voted on the contract. Everyone said they had voted against, yet the tally came out in favor of the company. The company and union stole the election.
JS: So you were now on their radar.
DR: I got a call one day to report to the vice-president’s office. I knocked on the door, a voice said “come in,” and there sitting at the vice-president’s desk was the union rep! The first words out of his mouth were: “Who do you think you are, stirring up all the niggers in the plant?”
I yelled at him, and he yelled at me. He grabbed me and started knocking me around and knocked me out of the door of the office. I grabbed a wrench out of my tool belt. He said, “I’m gonna put you on the floor for good.” Suddenly the president of the company appeared, put his arm on the rep, called him by his first name, and said “Don’t do it here.”
I walked back into the plant, and my face was a little swollen. My coworkers asked what happened, and I told them. They went rushing up to the office and tried to get our union guy. He was running down the street. They chased him, somebody threw a concrete block through the back window of his car.
That’s how the strike started. They came back in the plant, said, “We’re gonna shut this place down,” and started shutting everything down. And we were on strike.
JS: During the strike, you saw a lot of the walls that had separated the workers at Chicago Shortening come down.
DR: Once we got on the picket line, not only did the national and racial tensions break down, because we were being commonly oppressed as a class, but workers were also open to talking about things that they probably wouldn’t have been under other circumstances. For instance, the Iranian Students Association came to the picket line and said, “We’re here to support you.” They explained where Iran was, and who the Shah was, and one of the workers said, “He sounds like a bigger motherfucker than who we have to work for here!”
Later we were having a court hearing, and it just happened that Iranian students were there for another court hearing. One of the Iranian students was stabbed by a Savak agent, and the Shortening workers all took off after him!
The struggle can be a school for learning more about the world. That doesn’t come from leftists but from organic experience and making connections.
JS: The company and union were calling it an “illegal strike,” because it hadn’t been called by the official union apparatus.
DR: That’s correct. The union actively opposed the strike throughout, the reason being that it was a wildcat. They came out to the picket line the first day and tried to get us to go back. Everyone was just mocking them, and told the guy who knocked me around: “You wanna take on Dave right now, again?” They left pretty quickly.
They took legal action against us, as did the company, and the two pretty much joined forces. We had some moments during the strike, but we ultimately lost it. One of the workers who was a major leader in the strike had been out on disability at the time the strike started, and even though he came to the picket line, he was technically not in violation and they had to take him back after the strike. (Most of the rest of us got fired.) He got in a fight with one of the scabs, and the next day the scab ambushed him and stabbed him to death. That was a huge blow.
Charles’s death was a big deal not only for him and his family — he was married and had a couple of kids — but for all the rest of us. I think about it a lot. I was very conscious — even at that time but more so today, given all that happened — about the special responsibility of somebody like me doing that kind of work. I came in there with an Ivy League education and a PhD, well aware that if things went south that I’d likely land on my feet, and that most of them would not. I always felt a special obligation to not agitate, but at the same time not hold people back from doing things they thought were right.
I didn’t start the Chicago Shortening strike. All I did was outline a summary of demands they had articulated in the locker room and put it up on the bulletin board. I didn’t say, “If you don’t do this we should all go on strike,” and I didn’t say, “Let’s strike” after I got beaten up in the vice-president’s office. They just did that. Then, I did play a role.
I think we also have an obligation to pick up on the most militant forces and help them in any way they can.
JS: So you weren’t trying to recruit people to your organization or educate workers about a particular line. What was your strategic orientation?
DR: When workers struggle as a class, they have insights into what a new society might look like — there are many examples in the book that I saw — and also how to get there. There’s a lot of self-organization in the workplace. I think our obligation as revolutionaries in a workplace or any other situation is to recognize these things and actively support them.
JS: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the precursor to ICE, played an important and terrifying role in the lives of many workers you encountered.
DR: There was a particular period of aggression on behalf of INS, who Latinos called La Migra. They would surround a factory with armed guards, drag out people who appeared to be Latino, and deport people.
I talk about a small incident, where I happened to be changing a lightbulb in the front office when two Migra agents came in. I went down and warned the Latinos on a line that La Migra were in the plant. They all took off, and I started trying to do the line myself. Several black workers came up and started helping too, so by the time La Migra came up there were four or five black workers and me manning the line.
JS: As you moved from factory to factory, jobs got harder to come by. At one point you were part of a process requiring fifteen workers, while it was being redesigned to only require two.
DR: We didn’t know what was happening as it was happening. Deindustrialization didn’t just happen all at once. The steel mills started tightening up their hiring, plants started going down, but they didn’t go down all at once. What I can see very clearly today is it was a very deliberate strategy on behalf of global capital to save itself. It was in crisis. There was a lot of militancy from workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the system itself had to have a major reorganization to survive. What we saw as deindustrialization was part of a strategy.
A number of people ask me: if we had realized what was happening, what would we have done differently? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I think we might have shifted our focus to trying to disrupt that strategy somehow.
Much later when they began to institutionalize a new system of capital accumulation, then a movement started — to try to stop NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank from opening up the whole world to capital movement and seriously undermining all kinds of workers’ movements. That got very militant, there was the so-called Battle of Seattle in 1999. All that got totally deep-sixed when the Iraq War came along, when the movement turned toward antiwar work and stopped any efforts to try to resist these new developments.
Today, the system that was put in place in the 1980s is also suffering from the periodic crisis of capitalism. We’re in a period I call “churning and flailing.” There is no clear strategy for a reorganization of capitalism worked out yet. Lots of things are being tried. The Left needs to be really tuned into that, like we weren’t in the 1980s, to come up with approaches to resist another reorganization of capital on a global scale.
JS: The book begins with you hearing Trump refer to bringing back “middle-class” factory jobs, to “make American great again.” This makes you quite angry.
DR: When somebody like Trump uses that language, or even Obama — I mean they all do — none of those people have any idea what they’re talking about. It’s just an empty political slogan aimed at people who are either out of work, or once worked in factory jobs and now work at Walmart and are making minimum wage. First of all, most of the people I knew back then really hated their jobs. They were very dangerous. At Chicago Shortening I had a very bad industrial accident, which I describe in some detail in the book.
The only thing was, we were making living wages in that time. That was the result of the fights labor had had over several generations, that they’d got wages up to the point where someone could send their kids to college, or could buy a car and not have to drive an old wreck. My pay in today’s dollars would have been $23 to $24, and that was at the low end. When they reorganized capitalism, they pulled the rug out from under all that, so there aren’t wages like that today. The unions are reduced to saying, “Fight for $15.” We’re in a bad place if we’re fighting for a wage people can’t even live on.
Another thing about conditions is we really polluted the hell out of the environment. The chemical plant I worked in became a Superfund site. All kinds of waste were covered over in dirt. This is all over the South Side of Chicago. There’s high rates of cancer. We don’t want to bring all that back. It didn’t make America great at the time, and it certainly won’t today.
JS: What do you have to say to younger people trying to orient themselves as political actors amid the present “churning and flailing?”
DR: I don’t think we should replace the potential of a mass movement with some vision we have from our own studies. I think we should try to take a broader perspective of what’s going on in the world and bring it to the workplace and to our day-to-day associations.
I was with the guys at Chicago Shortening every day for a year and a half, and I got to know them well. We really need to integrate ourselves. It doesn’t have to be a factory, it can be a working-class community, it could be a place like Amazon or Walmart, where the objective is to really know who the people are and listen to what they see in relation to things that are going on, on the job and in the world.