By Robert Bruno
January 21st, 2020
While reading the opening chapters of David Ranney’s evocative extended reminiscence of his industrial work experiences in Living and Dying on the Factory Floor, I was reminded of one of my own. It was the summer of 1974 or ‘75 when I was part of a labor gang assigned to the bricklayers working on the open-hearth furnaces at the Ohio Works of US Steel in Youngstown, Ohio. I was a political science major at Ohio University and looking for a way to avoid burdening my parents with college tuition. My father worked as a millwright at Republic Steel, and my uncle was employed at the US Steel plant and got me the job.
A furnace needed repair and the bricklayers were dispatched to make the unit operable. My part of the masonry work was to simply carry heavy buckets of cement, which the bricklayers used to maintain the brick that lined the furnaces. Standing within the furnace’s four walls was mind-blowing, and despite the unit being down for a while it was still terribly hot inside. The bricklayers were indifferent to the heat and the job was routinely completed. I was impressed and just glad I did not get in the way. But my relief was short-lived.
Everyone heard a loud “pop” coming from the furnace I had just been standing in. The noise set off bells, lights, and a whole lot of yelling. Apparently some of the repair had given way and a small section of the furnace had fallen apart. It was scary to hear but not nearly as horrifying as what came next. My Italian bricklaying brothers, who had up to this point treated me as one of their old-country, loving family members, decided it must have been something I had done. They proceeded one after another to call out—no spit out—my last name, “Bruno!” modified by a particularly profane adjective, which rhymed with the word “trucker.” It was a symphony of obscenities delivered by a chorus of steelworkers who not only knew the intricacies of their craft but also understood the language of hard labor. My dad was fine with me grunting it out over the summer to help pay for college, but that was as far as he wanted my factory career to go.
Ranney spent 1976 to 1982 working in southeast Chicago factories. On one occasion he takes his son to work with him at Chicago Shortening. His boy “peers into a dark entrance of the plant.” Then asks, “Dad, can I go in there?”“It’s kinda nasty and scary,” Ranney replies. “I want to.” So off father and son go. Ranney then describes the “foul odor,” the slippery floors, and the “dimly lit” passageways. Suddenly his son “jerks at my hand and stops” (p. 45). He’s changed his mind and wants to go back. Dad obliges and the boy never ventures into the plant. I did not need to read any further to understand why.
Despite being a tenured professor at the University of Iowa, Ranney left his academic career behind (temporarily as it turned out) and became a manufacturing worker because he believed that a more just society could only be legitimately formed by a “mass organization at the workplace” (Preface). His “dual status” often left him feeling like an outsider among his workmates. His education, however, also gave him a perspective on capitalism and worker exploitation that when shared on the shop floor made him feel that he was part of the movement looking “out” (p. 132).
In this book, Ranney is largely telling stories about how class-consciousness is shaped. Like any story, the plot lines unfold in a particular time frame. In this case, the author is describing factory work in the late 1970s to early 1980s—the time during which industrial and particularly steel production in the United States went into a death spiral—with a contemporary reflection on manufacturing in the closing chapter. On Monday, September 19, 1977, my hometown’s largest manufacturing firm, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, announced without warning it was shutting down its huge Campbell Works. In a heartbeat other mills followed, including the mills where my father, my uncle, and almost all of my neighbors worked. When the carnage was complete less than a decade later, 40,000 jobs had vanished.
Workers had their nasty, mind-numbing, soul-crushing, and dangerous but life-giving jobs ripped away. These jobs were not, as Ranney astutely notes, “middle class” (the average salary of a steelworker in the late 1970s was $24,772.80), but they did provide a living wage. The Rust Belt was born in Youngstown and would soon spread far and wide, including to southeast Chicago. Upon reflection, Ranney sees deindustrialization as planned: “The decline in manufacturing jobs was a deliberate strategy on the part of corporations around the world” (p. 120)….
Living and Dying on the Factory Floor does not provide a theory or analysis of class struggle. It is not a well-researched history of any group, time period, or events. Very few data are presented and nothing original is argued. Moreover, the book is completely devoid of independent and confirming sources. Yet, I could not wait to read the next story. His tales of living and dying through work itself resonated with me. There’s just something about workers witnessing the living and dying of labor that makes you feel like you are in the presence of an important truth.
David Ranney is professor emeritus in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Chicago. Ranney has also been a factory worker, a labor and community organizer, and an activist academic. He is the author of four books and more than a hundred journal articles, book chapters, and monographs on issues of employment, labor and community organizing, and U.S. trade policy. His two most recent books are Global Decisions, Local Collisions: Urban Life in the New World Order and New World Disorder: The Decline of U.S. Power. In addition to his writing, he gives lectures on economic policy and politics and also finds time to be an actor and director in a small community theatre.