The gang new 1


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The gang new 1

  1. 1. THE GANG 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. 1
  2. 2. 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. 2
  3. 3. 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 about language. "Coke socker," Stanley Banasski kept saying, pounding his fist on the motor room table for emphasis. "Coke soccer?" 3
  4. 4. "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 witness." 4
  5. 5. "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 5
  6. 6. right. 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 said. “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?” 6
  7. 7. “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 day?” “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 shit.” “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 witness…” 7
  8. 8. 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, remember.” “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.” 8
  9. 9. “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 electricity.” “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 wire… 9
  10. 10. “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 ya.” “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?” “Yeah boss.” 10
  11. 11. 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 11
  12. 12. 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.” “Huh?” “His name’s Con. You called him Cohen.” “Yeah. Better watch myself.” 12
  13. 13. 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 back. “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. 13
  14. 14. 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 14
  15. 15. 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 embarrassment.” 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 15
  16. 16. 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 beer. “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!” 16