Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Class Struggle and Common Ruin

I once had a job operating a horizontal boring mill in a plant that manufactured punch presses, machine tools and die sets. My job was to bore holes and mill contours on large die sets individually made to the customers’ specifications. The boring mill was an old-fashioned, manually controlled machine, well built and originally quite expensive, capable of turning out high-quality work.

The plant operated on an incentive pay system: each job was time-rated for the machine on which it was to be performed, and the operator received a bonus for all he managed to produce above the eight-hour norm. Jobs varied, but the bonus could account for as much as half a worker’s wage.

In order to be fair to the employees on the bonus system—and the company was nothing if not fair—it was necessary to make allowance for time spent on duties outside of direct production, such as sharpening tools, loading parts on the machine (and waiting for the crane when it was occupied elsewhere), filling the coolant tank, and so forth. Time so spent was recorded on red-colored cards, each coded for a special account, which the operator punched into the clock when he needed to claim an allowance. When I started on the job one of the veteran operators called me aside and explained the system to me.

“You see those red cards?” he asked, pointing at the rack that held them. “If the company won’t give you a raise, you take those red cards and give yourself a raise. That’s what they’re for.”

I took his advice, studied hard and soon became sufficiently creative in the use of the red cards to assure myself several hours bonus most days. I recall a conversation in which another operator asked me what I considered the most value tool in my box. In reply, I held up a pencil.

Across the aisle in the same department, the company installed a new tape-controlled milling machine, able to do more or less the same work as the horizontal mill in about half the time. As soon as it was set up, the company began routing jobs to the new machine, assigning to the horizontal mill only the overflow and the special large jobs that would not fit on the work-bed of the new one. They also re-timed the jobs to fit the capacity of the new machine, making it impossible for the horizontal mill operators to make bonus.

There were three of us on the horizontal mill, one on each shift. As the newest operator I was assigned the graveyard shift. When we saw what was going on, we petitioned for a return to the old rates on jobs that were sent to our mill. When our petition was denied, we slowed down. Since the most we could hope to produce under the new rates, even with intense effort and smooth operation, was about six hours—not enough to make bonus—we opted for collapse, and began turning in under an hour’s nominal output each shift. As we saw it, there was no point in straining ourselves to make the same hourly rate we made coasting.

To the best of my recollection, this little on-the-job strike was set on motion without a single meeting among the three of us, much less the intervention of any of the union officials. (Because of our different shifts we were never all together, although each of us saw the other two daily.) One of us—I no longer remember which—simply announced one day to the operator coming onto the shift after him, “I’m fed up with this. I gave them an hour-and-a-half tonight and that’s all I’m doing from now on.” The next operator followed his example, and after a few weeks we had established our own norm, somewhere around three-quarters of an hour each shift. It became standard, on reporting for work, to inquire of the departing operator how much he had turned in on his shift, and then do the same or less if possible.

Of course the company didn’t like what was going on, but short of assigning a foreman full time to observe each of us, how could they know when a tool burned up and needed replacing, or when the tool crib was out of the required item and it was necessary to wait while one was ground, or when the coolant in the machine needed replenishing, or—any of the mysteries of a machine operator’s job, each faithfully recorded on a red card and punched into the clock-that-never-lies?

Things went along in this fashion for a while, with us pretending to work and the company pretending to pay us, until one day the general foreman came to me and announced that, because efficiency on the horizontal mill was so low, the company had decided to eliminate one of the three operators. As the one with least seniority, the ax would fall on me. I was given a choice: take a layoff, or retrain on the tape-controlled machine, which at the time was idle on one shift.

I chose the latter course, and was soon installed as the third-shift operator there. Shortly afterward, the other two horizontal mill operators were transferred to another department and the mill was sold off for a fraction of its cost to a dealer in second-hand machine tools.

The three of us destroyed that horizontal mill, which originally sold for around one hundred thousand dollars, just as effectively as if we had taken a blowtorch and sledgehammer to it. Although it remained intact and capable of performing the tasks for which it had been designed, it had ceased to exist as capital, the only form of value in contemporary society.

In the first paragraph of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels famously state, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” In the next paragraph they add that the struggle between oppressor and oppressed “each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

The preceding story illustrates the truth of their words. I shall return to this theme in subsequent entries.

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