A story by Mike Olszanski
"Piss up a rope," Al Con sweating profusely, grumbled at the foreman.
"Whaddid you say?!" Bueller growled, sneering.
"You heard me," louder.
"I toll you and I'm tellin' you to get your ass up and get back down in that pit
and get that motor hooked up....ya wanna go home?!" Bueller smiling now, taunting
him, his face beet red, as red as Al Con's though he hadn't been down in that grimy,
steamy pit sweating like Al. Moving closer, his finger pointing into Al's face.
Al was half-way to his feet now, the greasy oil soaked paper cover-
alls half-off and hanging from his hips, his chin still dripping sweat, half leaning,
groping, moving to meet Bueller's approaching finger, his big hand going up as if to
wave the finger out of his face--like it was a fly pestering him.
"Oh Shit!" Wiz was thinking, almost out loud, he and Jim Washington
sitting twenty feet across the electric shop from the quickly unfolding
spectacle and powerless to do anything, "Don't hit him. Don't touch him. They'll fire
you this time sure as hell!" He didn't want to be here, wanted to turn away and not
witness what was happening, but Al was going to need witnesses...and Jim, also
wanting to stay out of it, was turning to head for the door. Wiz grabbed Jim's arm,
shouting "hey!" to get Al's attention away from the finger.
Bueller stopped short and pulled back the finger just
as Al stumbled, his falling coveralls getting caught up around his knees. Mouth
suddenly open in amazement, he was falling toward Bueller still grasping at the finger,
as much to break his fall now as in anger. Bueller would later claim the lousy finger
had been broken--a hairline fracture he said the doctor found.
Al did fall--taking the finger, but not the rest of Bueller with him--in a
frustrated, pitiful, hilariously funny looking heap on the greasy concrete floor,
struggling with the tangle of his coveralls to regain his feet. No one laughed.
Snatching the finger from Al's grasp, the foreman wheeled around facing Wiz
and Jim screaming like a stuck pig, "YOU SAW HIM! JIM! JOE! THE S.O.B.
STRUCK ME!" Then turning back to the now sheepishly rising Al, "YOU'RE FIRED!
YOU'RE OUTTA HERE! BOY! I GOT YOU THIS TIME!"
SOB was what he said, not sonofabitch. Slick bastard that he was, nothing was
going to spoil his triumph. He was on the phone now, so fast your head would spin,
screaming for Plant Protection to come and get this guy who'd just "struck" him, yes
him, Henry Bueller, Electrical foreman at #5 Cold Strip Mill, 60" Tandem Mill. Yes
the motor room, they were right in the motor room. Hurry, yes hurry up, there was no
telling what the employee might do next. Yes, he was o.k....he didn't seem to be hurt
badly, that is. He would meet them right there in the motor room. He would keep the
witnesses right there, til the officers arrived.
Wiz had hustled Jim Washington out of there before plant protection
came, mumbling the lame excuse they had to take a leak. He wanted to make sure
they got their stories right before they talked to anyone. On the way out he grabbed the
panic-stricken Con by the arm, squeezing hard, and told him under his breath,
"remember, don't say a goddam word until after you talk to Wolfie. You gotta
absolute right to union representation. Demand to talk to the Griever. Make 'em get
Wolfie. Not one word, understand?! Clam up! Get the Wolf!"
The next day turn at Midland Steel, the motor room shop buzzed with talk
about Al's firing. Though normally electricians assigned to the Tandem Mill hung out
and ate their lunch there, today just about everybody in the gang working days, from
the shear lines, heat treat, temper mills and pickler were there, anxiously speculating
about Con's fate. Ten or eleven Motor Inspectors, Electrical Control Operators and the
three area Technicians crowded around the lunch table. Mary, the only female
electrician in the gang was on the 3 to 11 shift, so the talk was unbridled with concerns
"Coke socker," Stanley Banasski kept saying, pounding his fist on the motor
room table for emphasis.
"Coke socker! Don make fun, hilly billy! Dat no good mudder
focker somanabitch is gon too far dis time. Dat Gherman fock!
I toll you for years he's no good. How's bout it, Wiz? Da union's
gonna get Al's job back dis time?"
Al Con was married, with three kids, a high school education and, like
Wizowski, nearly 20 years in the mill. They had to save his job. Firing a guy like Al
was the economic equivalent of capital punishment, just like some arbitrator had said.
Joe Wizowski's ears smarted from the ethnic crap. As a kid he'd heard his immigrant
old man teased for his accent, called a D.P. (that means Dumb Polack, kid) and just
like Stash, pa never forgave the Germans. Christ, Al would catch hell if some of these
guys knew he was half Jewish. It seemed like there were hardly any Jews in the mill at
all, that you knew about, anyway. How the hell we gonna build up the union with all
this divisive, racist...he caught himself. The issue was Al's job. No time to save the
goddam world. Besides, before he got active with the union, he was almost as
prejudiced as some of these guys himself... Prejudiced is too nice a word. Fucking
racist is the word. And Al, he had been telling n-----r jokes himself not that long ago.
Wonder if Jim had heard about it? Not much chance of getting him for a witness if he
knew that. He might even testify for the foreman. Naw, not Jim. He’d never rat out
another worker. ..
"I dunno, hearing's next week. Got Jim and me for witnesses.
I don't count. Jim ain't made up his mind yet what he saw. We could use another
"But it's fuckin' asshole Bueller's word against all three
of youse! You mean fuckin' Midland Steel fuckin' labor relations
or management or whoever is gonna take the word of a snake like..."
"Listen to yourself, Mitch," Bernardo broke in, "when did
Midland Steel ever take a union man's word over a supervisor's in
the thirty years you been here?"
"But we got Wiz...and Jim..."
"Wiz is a union steward. Like he says, his word don't count.
They expect him to lie to save a guy's job. You would, too, wouldn't you Wiz?"
"Motor Mouth" Mike Mitchell saved Wiszowski the trouble of answering. "I
gotta go take a fuckin' wizz. You jus better," he cracked, turning to glare at
Wiszowski. "Get Al's job back, or you an your fuckin' union ain't shit with me."
What precious irony! Mitch was the guy who only months before had snickered
in Wiz' ear "I just heard a rumor your good buddy Al Con's a fuckin' jew-boy,
Wiszowski, fugitive from the fuckin' ovens." And the latest scuttlebutt was Mitch had
been offered a foreman job. Midland Steel was a Union Shop, which means
everybody except supervisors were signed up with the union when they were hired.
Taking a foreman job was crossing the line. It put you on management’s side.
The discussion went on most of the morning, until the mill foreman wandered in
to get an electrician to splice a magnet cable. The consensus was clear: whether you
liked Con or not, and many guys didn’t, the union couldn’t let him be fired. Even guys
who were known to complain that the only thing their union dues paid for was to
protect the jobs of fuck-offs, agreed that Con didn’t deserve to be fired. It just wasn’t
That night, having dinner at the Lake Street Cafe in Gary with his current
woman friend Shar, Wiz ran into an old friend, past-president of the Lake Steel local
union on the other end of town. Married young, Wiz had found after eleven or twelve
years in the mill that marriage, swing shift work with over-time and unpredictable
schedules, along with union activities didn't mix well. Divorced for about five years
now, he was currently dating a pretty redhead (what was this thing with redheads,
anyway) who was lots of fun, but just a bit slow on the uptake at times, despite her
degree from IU.
“Hey Jack, meet Sharon. Jack’s a union rep at Lake. Lives around the corner
on Union Street.”
“Hi Jack,” Shar smiled.” Cute. A union rep who lives on Union Street. Are
you an electrician like Wiz?”
“Millwright,” Jack answered, sliding onto a chair at their table.
“ I’m confused. I thought everybody in the mill were called millwrights,” she
“Mill-RATS. We’re all Mill-Rats,” Jack chuckled.
“And what part of the mill do you work in?
“Blast Furnace. The first part. We make iron. We melt iron ore, limestone and coke at
a few thousand degrees in those big tall furnaces you can see from the road, then blow
hot air through the molten metal to drive the impurities out.”
“Then they roll it into a thin strip in Wiz’s department?”
“After it gets turned into steel in the Basic Oxygen Furnace, yeah,” Jack
explained. “Like the bartender said to the horse, Why the long face, Wiz?”
“I was just telling Shar, a guy in the gang’s suspended preliminary to discharge.
Al Con. They’re claiming he hit a foreman. I was there.”
“He do it?”
“Should have. Shoulda decked the mother. Guy’s a real asshole. Never cuts
anybody any slack. Really has it in for this guy, I think cause he’s Jewish.”
“You’re gonna be a witness. Got anybody else?”
“Yeah. Shaky one. Dunno what he’ll say.”
Shar, broke in, “Didn’t you say this foreman had your buddy in a greasy pit all
“Yeah, filthy. You can’t imagine the nasty stuff in that pit, Shar.”
“Like toxic nasty, you mean? Is it legal? I mean you’re always talking about
safety as far as toxic chemicals and stuff…”
“Maybe PCB’s?” Jack said.
“Christ, probably,” Whiz answered. “Probably everything under the sun, and
stuff from places where the sun don’t shine in that pit. That rolling solution they use on
the strip to lubricate it is made out of animal fat. Rancid animal fat. Smells worse than
“Did they give Al a rubber suit?”
“Paper. You know those cheap bastards.”
“Sounds like an OSHA violation,” Jack surmised “Safety man been notified?”
“Hey I’m glad you two brought this up. Don’t know if an OSHA complaint
will save Al’s job at this point, though. But it’s worth a shot. If we just had one good
Three-to-eleven turn the next Sunday Wiz and Joe got a chance to talk, and got
a close-up and personal look at the Tandem Mill pit in question. A solenoid valve had
quit working somewhere down there, and the two of them had a line-up to fix it. It was
a mill down—turn, a repair turn for mechanical and electrical, so there wasn’t the
urgency of trying to get it running to prevent down time on the mill. Down time was
measured in minutes and seconds on a running turn, and a foreman would be breathing
down your neck before ten minutes had passed if the mill was supposed to be running.
But there was no electrical foreman out this turn, so they were on their own.
They both got rubber suits, boots and gloves out of the storeroom. The solenoid valve
was under several inches of muck—used roll solution mixed with every kind of oil and
grease you could imagine, along with small sharp pieces of steel scrap and plain dirt..
The 440 volt pump motor Al had been sent to connect was actually running,
amazingly, halfway submerged in all that crap.
“Better cut off the power before we jump in there, Wiz. 440 volts don’t mix
too good with water, or whatever that nasty shit is.”
“Got it, Joe. After you.”
“Mighty white of ya, Wiz. Man, we should have respirators. The stink is about
to knock me out.”
“How long did Bueller have Al Con down here the other day?”
“All morning. It was lunch time when Buehler caught him taking a break,
“Lunch time. And he was down here all morning. Yeah, he relieved the
midnight turn on the job.”
“What the fuck. That’s like, cruel and unusual punishment, ain’t it.”
“Bueller hates him. Partly cause he’s Jewish, I think.”
“Yeah, I can relate to that. Kurt Bueller don’t have no love for any non-
caucasians. He made that plain to me when I hired in. He shoulda been born in
Georgia, back in slavery days.”
“Or Germany during the Third Reich.”
“Told me I’d never make an electrician. Said he believes blacks are scared of
“Mother fucker said that to you?”
“Yeah. Nobody around. Just me and him. And he didn’t say ‘blacks’.”
“Whad you say?”
“Told him, ‘Jus watch me, boss man.”
“You got a lotta patience, Jim.”
“Raised that way, Wiz. Momma didn’t raise no dummies.”
“You thought about being a witness for the union?”
“You mean for Al?”
“Yeah, but you know…”
“Yeah, I don’t need no speech. I know about your ‘injury to one is an injury to
all’ union principles. I’m thinkin’ about it. Can they make me show up?”
“Company don’t want you there if they can avoid it. Union only wants you
there if you can help.”
The work went fast with the talk to take their mind off the rotten flesh smell and
the filth they had to scrape away from the solenoid connections to find the burned off
“You got any plastic tape, Wiz? Just used my last roll. Like it’s going to hold
up in this crap. Hell, the wire insulation is swollen and falling off. Whatever this stuff
is, it eats rubber insulation..”
“Yeah. Marty the basement mechanic had plant hygiene come in and analyze a
sample last year. There was something growing in one of the tanks down there.”
“What’d they say?”
“Said it was a brand new life form, never before seen by man. But it won’t hurt
“Sounds like Midland Steel plant hygiene. Those jokers don’t give a shit.
Should get OSHA to test this stuff.”
“Yeah. Pete the Union Safety Steward is on it.”
“Old Pete? He’s kinda slow.”
“Yeah. You want the job?”
“O.K. Wiz, you made your point again. You know I ain’t getting involved in
the Union stuff. I got enough on my mind.”
“Man, this is some shit in this pit.”
“Could be worse. Could be the Coke Plant. That’s where most black guys are.
You die of lung cancer after 20 or 30 years in that hole.”
“Yeah, so how’d you get into this paradise, James?”
“Told ya. I’m a token. They needed one colored guy. For their quota.”
“They actually told you that? When you hired in?”
It was the 1980’s and tough times were starting for the union. Midland Steel, a
huge integrated mill that had blast furnaces, basic oxygen furnaces and rolling mills,
was built on land fill on the southern end of Lake Michigan. Nine months of the year,
pretty much, cold winds off the lake whipped over the mill and parking lots. Wizowski
and two other union “ Rank & Filers” were at the plant gate that Monday morning at 5
A.M. passing out political leaflets, shoulders hunched against the wind and rain. Jim
Balanoff, the center-left Rank & File Caucus Chair and local union president was with
them that day, which was one reason Wiz had dragged himself out of bed to be there
that cold gray dawn. If Balanoff, thirty years older and a mill hand and union fighter
since his teens could do it, so could Wiz. The election was once again coming down to
red-baiting—was Balanoff, or had he ever been a member of the Communist Party.
Joe Wizowski had joined the Rank & File partly because of the red-baiting. Anybody
that got called a Commie as much as Balanoff must be good for the union, Wizowski
reasoned. Lots of the Local’s 18,000 members must have felt that way. Stories still
circulated about how Balanoff, Griever in the machine shop in the 1950’s once
slammed an 18” pipe wrench down on the foreman’s desk to make a point. Now in his
sixties, Balanoff had mellowed a bit, but still had some of the fire in his belly. Nobody
ever asked which side he was on. A union man. Period. Not too many union reps had
the fire any more, it seemed. Wiz wanted to be with the ones who did.
“Tough case,” Wizowski told Balanoff as they huddled behind the bus shanty
talking about Con’s discharge hearing.
“If it was easy, everybody would do it,” Balanoff told him. “You got your
witnesses lined up?”
“Maybe. But you know how they intimidate guys.”
“Yeah. Just tell ‘em they gotta stand up. It could be one of them next time.
Wolfgang the Griever?”
“Yeah, he’ll be defending Con at the hearing.”
“Good man. He’ll do a good job. Follow his lead.”
Wolfgang Manfreid was a kind of younger version of Balanoff. Smart. Tough. A real
fighter. He had actually joined the Communist Party for a while, then dropped out over
some issue or other. People in his department called him “Wolfie the Red”: behind his
back. They elected him Griever by a huge vote every time. You could count on him to
back the employees.
“Whaddaya think, Wolf?” Wiz asked him.
“It’s all about the witnesses. Caseman (The Company’s Labor Relations guy)
is fair. I’d rather take a decision from him than take it before an arbitrator. He won’t
fire him if he doesn’t have to. But we have to convince him that Cohen never touched
the guy. Never even cursed the guy. The company knows Bueller’s an asshole. But we
have to prove it. Al’s a little shaky, when I talked to him. Hope he won’t shoot himself
in the foot.”
“You said Cohen.”
“His name’s Con. You called him Cohen.”
“Yeah. Better watch myself.”
That Tandem Mill had a major breakdown that Tuesday, and they held over
everybody on the midnight crew. “An emergency,” they said.
“Can they do that, Wiz?”
“Come on Mitchell .Whaddaya think? Ever look in that contract book they gave ya?”
“Forced overtime! Midnights to fuckin’ days! Mother fucker!”
“Yeah, you love the money, though. You eat up that time-and-a-half.”
“Yeah just makes up for the concessions we gave ‘em in the last contract.”
“Yeah, funny how that works…”
“What the fuck do I pay union dues for, anyway,” Mitchell griped, “All you guys do is
save the jobs of fuck-offs.”
“What, now you callin’ Al a fuck-off?” Bernardo snapped.
“No. Not Al. He’s one of us. But the union ain’t saved his ass, yet,” Mitchell shot
“Motor Mouth, ain’t nothin’ ever makes you happy. You should be a foreman,”
Bernardo finally said. Strangely, it shut him up.
The contract between the United Steelworkers of America and Midland Steel
provided for a hearing, prior to discharge at which the employee on suspension could
defend himself. The Local Union Chairman and Secretary of the Grievance Committee
attended along with The Department Grievance Committeeman (Griever) along with
any witnesses. Local 20 at Midland was a big local--the biggest in Basic Steel at that
time, and had a full time Chair and Secretary of the Grievance Committee The
International Union staff rep was there too, but the Local handled their own cases to a
much greater degree than smaller locals did.
Midland’s head of Labor Relations was there, with the department
Superintendent, the Foreman, and any company witnesses. In this case it looked like
they had none, thank God. Bueller, Caseman, Weinberg and several others Wiz didn’t
know lined the company’s side of the long heavy mahogany conference table.
Wiz, Wolf, Al and Jim were on the union side, with Burt Manfield and Jose
Martinez, Secretary and Chair of the Union Grievance Committee.
The cards were on the table and it was too late to go over what Al and Jim were
going to say. Whiz was sure Wolf had spent plenty of time with them going over their
testimony. He had his fingers crossed under the table.
Manfield read the case number and charge: Failure to obey a direct order from
a supervisor. Intimidation of a supervisor. Cursing a supervisor. Striking a supervisor.
Everything but the kitchen sink.
Caseman got up and started to call on Mueller to tell his story.
A door opened before he could do it and a young secretary scurried in and
whispered something in Caseman’s ear. Out in the hall through the open door Whiz
caught a glimpse of Mike “Motor Mouth” Mitchell, trying to look cool but looking
nervous, and cleaner than Whiz had ever seen him, in a sport coat and turtleneck
sweater. His eyes met Whiz’ and it seemed like he was… winking. What the fuck?
“You’re late, Mr. Mitchell. Come in and take a seat.”, Caseman said.
Whiz held his breath as Mitchell came in and sat down. On the union side of the table.
Whiz shot a confused glance at Wolf, who smiled, just slightly.
“Mr. Chairman,” Wolfie explained, “you will note that Mr. Mike Mitchell was added
to the witness list just today. Mr. Mitchell explained to me that it had been a difficult
decision for him to testify on behalf of the grievant, since he had recently discussed
with his general Foreman the possibility of taking a foreman job with the company. He
says conscience compelled him to testify in this matter to insure justice.”
“But, he wasn’t even there!” Mueller erupted, out of order.
“Yeah, actually I was Mr. Mueller. I decided to stay out of it when I heard you
screaming at Al Con and calling him a sonofabitch, so I stepped back into the storage
area where I could see you, but you couldn’t see me. I saw you knock him off his
balance with your finger, and saw him fall down. He never said a word.
It’s one thing to keep a guy in that stinking pit half the day, but I don’t think you
should be able to push people around like that.”
Caseman was on his feet calling for order in the meeting, but it was too late.
Mitchell’s statement, uncharacteristically measured and penetrating, stunned
everybody, and effectively settled the hearing for Caseman. Mueller lost it
completely, jumped up red faced and screaming, “The sonofabitch lies. Just flat-out
lies! I don’t have to listen to this crap!”
“Yes, actually, you do, Mr. Mueller,” Wolfie grabbed the opportunity to say
dryly, “unless you’d rather just drop the charges now and avoid further
The tables now turned, Mueller just sat with his head in his hands as Al, Jim
and Whiz all testified on Al’s behalf. They had the creep. And he knew it.
Afterwards over beers at Pete & Mable’s Al, Whiz, Jim and Mitch savored the
sweet taste of victory, and Budweiser. Somebody dropped a quarter in the jukebox,
and “Take this Job and Shove It!” came pouring out. The whole Midland Cold Strip
Mill gang sang along.
“What made you fnally do it, Motor Mouth, I mean Mitch?” Jim finally asked.
“ God knows Al and I ain’t exactly buddies, but I figure they get him, the black guy’s
gotta be next. It’s a no-brainer for a negro.”
“Shit, I never even seen you in the motor room, Mitchell,” Al said shaking his
head. “Fess up. Were you really there?”
“You’ll never know, will ya?” Mitchell said slyly, tossing back the last half of a
“I know this,” Whiz said trying to hide the moisture in his eyes, “Now I know
what union solidarity looks like.”
“Union. Fuck,” Motor Mouth Mitchell shot back in his usual sarcastic, trying
to sound macho voice, “It’s the gang. Can’t let ‘em break up the gang!”