THE GANG                                          A story by Mike Olszanski       "Piss up a rope," Al Con sweating profus...
Bueller stopped short and pulled back the finger justas Al stumbled, his falling coveralls getting caught up around his kn...
Wiz had hustled Jim Washington out of there before plant protectioncame, mumbling the lame excuse they had to take a leak....
"Coke socker! Don make fun, hilly billy! Dat no good mudderfocker somanabitch is gon too far dis time. Dat Gherman fock!I ...
witness."      "But its fuckin asshole Buellers word against all threeof youse! You mean fuckin Midland Steel fuckin labor...
protect the jobs of fuck-offs, agreed that Con didn’t deserve to be fired. It just wasn’tright.         That night, having...
explained. “Like the bartender said to the horse, Why the long face, Wiz?”         “I was just telling Shar, a guy in the ...
a close-up and personal look at the Tandem Mill pit in question. A solenoid valve hadquit working somewhere down there, an...
caucasians. He made that plain to me when I hired in. He shoulda been born inGeorgia, back in slavery days.”       “Or Ger...
is, it eats rubber insulation..”       “Yeah. Marty the basement mechanic had plant hygiene come in and analyze asample la...
and two other union “ Rank & Filers” were at the plant gate that Monday morning at 5A.M. passing out political leaflets, s...
Wolfgang Manfreid was a kind of younger version of Balanoff. Smart. Tough. A realfighter. He had actually joined the Commu...
“What the fuck do I pay union dues for, anyway,” Mitchell griped, “All you guys do issave the jobs of fuck-offs.”“What, no...
going to say. Whiz was sure Wolf had spent plenty of time with them going over theirtestimony. He had his fingers crossed ...
It’s one thing to keep a guy in that stinking pit half the day, but I don’t think youshould be able to push people around ...
beer.        “I know this,” Whiz said trying to hide the moisture in his eyes, “Now I knowwhat union solidarity looks like...
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The Gang

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A short story by Mike Olszanski, about union workers at a Midwest Steel Mill in the 1970's. Fiction.

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The Gang

  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 Im tellin you to get your ass up and get back down in that pitand get that motor hooked up....ya wanna go home?!" Bueller smiling now, tauntinghim, his face beet red, as red as Al Cons though he hadnt been down in that grimy,steamy pit sweating like Al. Moving closer, his finger pointing into Als 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 Buellers approaching finger, his big hand going up as if towave the finger out of his face--like it was a fly pestering him. "Oh Shit!" Wiz was thinking, almost out loud, he and Jim Washingtonsitting twenty feet across the electric shop from the quickly unfoldingspectacle and powerless to do anything, "Dont hit him. Dont touch him. Theyll fireyou this time sure as hell!" He didnt want to be here, wanted to turn away and notwitness what was happening, but Al was going to need witnesses...and Jim, alsowanting to stay out of it, was turning to head for the door. Wiz grabbed Jims arm,shouting "hey!" to get Als attention away from the finger. 1
  2. 2. Bueller stopped short and pulled back the finger justas Al stumbled, his falling coveralls getting caught up around his knees. Mouthsuddenly 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 fingerhad 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 afrustrated, 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 Als grasp, the foreman wheeled around facing Wizand 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, "YOURE FIRED!YOURE OUTTA HERE! BOY! I GOT YOU THIS TIME!" SOB was what he said, not sonofabitch. Slick bastard that he was, nothing wasgoing 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 whod just "struck" him, yeshim, Henry Bueller, Electrical foreman at #5 Cold Strip Mill, 60" Tandem Mill. Yesthe motor room, they were right in the motor room. Hurry, yes hurry up, there was notelling what the employee might do next. Yes, he was o.k....he didnt seem to be hurtbadly, that is. He would meet them right there in the motor room. He would keep thewitnesses right there, til the officers arrived. 2
  3. 3. Wiz had hustled Jim Washington out of there before plant protectioncame, mumbling the lame excuse they had to take a leak. He wanted to make surethey got their stories right before they talked to anyone. On the way out he grabbed thepanic-stricken Con by the arm, squeezing hard, and told him under his breath,"remember, dont say a goddam word until after you talk to Wolfie. You gottaabsolute right to union representation. Demand to talk to the Griever. Make em getWolfie. Not one word, understand?! Clam up! Get the Wolf!" The next day turn at Midland Steel, the motor room shop buzzed with talkabout Als firing. Though normally electricians assigned to the Tandem Mill hung outand ate their lunch there, today just about everybody in the gang working days, fromthe shear lines, heat treat, temper mills and pickler were there, anxiously speculatingabout Cons fate. Ten or eleven Motor Inspectors, Electrical Control Operators and thethree area Technicians crowded around the lunch table. Mary, the only femaleelectrician in the gang was on the 3 to 11 shift, so the talk was unbridled with concernsabout language. "Coke socker," Stanley Banasski kept saying, pounding his fist on the motorroom table for emphasis. "Coke soccer?" 3
  4. 4. "Coke socker! Don make fun, hilly billy! Dat no good mudderfocker somanabitch is gon too far dis time. Dat Gherman fock!I toll you for years hes no good. Hows bout it, Wiz? Da unionsgonna get Als job back dis time?" Al Con was married, with three kids, a high school education and, likeWizowski, nearly 20 years in the mill. They had to save his job. Firing a guy like Alwas the economic equivalent of capital punishment, just like some arbitrator had said.Joe Wizowskis ears smarted from the ethnic crap. As a kid hed heard his immigrantold man teased for his accent, called a D.P. (that means Dumb Polack, kid) and justlike Stash, pa never forgave the Germans. Christ, Al would catch hell if some of theseguys knew he was half Jewish. It seemed like there were hardly any Jews in the mill atall, that you knew about, anyway. How the hell we gonna build up the union with allthis divisive, racist...he caught himself. The issue was Als job. No time to save thegoddam world. Besides, before he got active with the union, he was almost asprejudiced as some of these guys himself... Prejudiced is too nice a word. Fuckingracist 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 heknew that. He might even testify for the foreman. Naw, not Jim. He’d never rat outanother worker. .. "I dunno, hearings next week. Got Jim and me for witnesses.I dont count. Jim aint made up his mind yet what he saw. We could use another 4
  5. 5. witness." "But its fuckin asshole Buellers word against all threeof youse! You mean fuckin Midland Steel fuckin labor relationsor management or whoever is gonna take the word of a snake like..." "Listen to yourself, Mitch," Bernardo broke in, "when didMidland Steel ever take a union mans word over a supervisors inthe thirty years you been here?" "But we got Wiz...and Jim..." "Wiz is a union steward. Like he says, his word dont count.They expect him to lie to save a guys job. You would, too, wouldnt you Wiz?" "Motor Mouth" Mike Mitchell saved Wiszowski the trouble of answering. "Igotta go take a fuckin wizz. You jus better," he cracked, turning to glare atWiszowski. "Get Als job back, or you an your fuckin union aint shit with me." What precious irony! Mitch was the guy who only months before had snickeredin Wiz ear "I just heard a rumor your good buddy Al Cons a fuckin jew-boy,Wiszowski, fugitive from the fuckin ovens." And the latest scuttlebutt was Mitch hadbeen offered a foreman job. Midland Steel was a Union Shop, which meanseverybody 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 into get an electrician to splice a magnet cable. The consensus was clear: whether youliked Con or not, and many guys didn’t, the union couldn’t let him be fired. Even guyswho were known to complain that the only thing their union dues paid for was to 5
  6. 6. protect the jobs of fuck-offs, agreed that Con didn’t deserve to be fired. It just wasn’tright. That night, having dinner at the Lake Street Cafe in Gary with his currentwoman friend Shar, Wiz ran into an old friend, past-president of the Lake Steel localunion on the other end of town. Married young, Wiz had found after eleven or twelveyears in the mill that marriage, swing shift work with over-time and unpredictableschedules, along with union activities didnt mix well. Divorced for about five yearsnow, 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 herdegree from IU. “Hey Jack, meet Sharon. Jack’s a union rep at Lake. Lives around the corneron Union Street.” “Hi Jack,” Shar smiled.” Cute. A union rep who lives on Union Street. Areyou 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,” shesaid. “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 ata few thousand degrees in those big tall furnaces you can see from the road, then blowhot 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 6
  7. 7. 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 cutsanybody 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 allday?” “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 aboutsafety as far as toxic chemicals and stuff…” “Maybe PCB’s?” Jack said. “Christ, probably,” Whiz answered. “Probably everything under the sun, andstuff from places where the sun don’t shine in that pit. That rolling solution they use onthe strip to lubricate it is made out of animal fat. Rancid animal fat. Smells worse thanshit.” “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 complaintwill save Al’s job at this point, though. But it’s worth a shot. If we just had one goodwitness…” Three-to-eleven turn the next Sunday Wiz and Joe got a chance to talk, and got 7
  8. 8. a close-up and personal look at the Tandem Mill pit in question. A solenoid valve hadquit working somewhere down there, and the two of them had a line-up to fix it. It wasa mill down—turn, a repair turn for mechanical and electrical, so there wasn’t theurgency of trying to get it running to prevent down time on the mill. Down time wasmeasured in minutes and seconds on a running turn, and a foreman would be breathingdown 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 valvewas under several inches of muck—used roll solution mixed with every kind of oil andgrease 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 mixtoo 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 aboutto 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 themidnight 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- 8
  9. 9. caucasians. He made that plain to me when I hired in. He shoulda been born inGeorgia, back in slavery days.” “Or Germany during the Third Reich.” “Told me I’d never make an electrician. Said he believes blacks are scared ofelectricity.” “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 toall’ 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 youthere if you can help.” The work went fast with the talk to take their mind off the rotten flesh smell andthe filth they had to scrape away from the solenoid connections to find the burned offwire… “You got any plastic tape, Wiz? Just used my last roll. Like it’s going to holdup in this crap. Hell, the wire insulation is swollen and falling off. Whatever this stuff 9
  10. 10. is, it eats rubber insulation..” “Yeah. Marty the basement mechanic had plant hygiene come in and analyze asample 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 hurtya.” “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 inthe 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.”It was the 1980’s and tough times were starting for the union. Midland Steel, a hugeintegrated mill that had blast furnaces, basic oxygen furnaces and rolling mills, wasbuilt 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 10
  11. 11. and two other union “ Rank & Filers” were at the plant gate that Monday morning at 5A.M. passing out political leaflets, shoulders hunched against the wind and rain. JimBalanoff, the center-left Rank & File Caucus Chair and local union president was withthem that day, which was one reason Wiz had dragged himself out of bed to be therethat cold gray dawn. If Balanoff, thirty years older and a mill hand and union fightersince his teens could do it, so could Wiz. The election was once again coming down tored-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. Anybodythat got called a Commie as much as Balanoff must be good for the union, Wizowskireasoned. Lots of the Local’s 18,000 members must have felt that way. Stories stillcirculated about how Balanoff, Griever in the machine shop in the 1950’s onceslammed an 18” pipe wrench down on the foreman’s desk to make a point. Now in hissixties, Balanoff had mellowed a bit, but still had some of the fire in his belly. Nobodyever asked which side he was on. A union man. Period. Not too many union reps hadthe 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 shantytalking about Con’s discharge hearing. “If it was easy, everybody would do it,” Balanoff told him. “You got yourwitnesses 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.” 11
  12. 12. Wolfgang Manfreid was a kind of younger version of Balanoff. Smart. Tough. A realfighter. He had actually joined the Communist Party for a while, then dropped out oversome issue or other. People in his department called him “Wolfie the Red”: behind hisback. They elected him Griever by a huge vote every time. You could count on him toback 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’tfire him if he doesn’t have to. But we have to convince him that Cohen never touchedthe guy. Never even cursed the guy. The company knows Bueller’s an asshole. But wehave to prove it. Al’s a little shaky, when I talked to him. Hope he won’t shoot himselfin the foot.” “You said Cohen.” “Huh?” “His name’s Con. You called him Cohen.” “Yeah. Better watch myself.” That Tandem Mill had a major breakdown that Tuesday, and they held overeverybody 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…” 12
  13. 13. “What the fuck do I pay union dues for, anyway,” Mitchell griped, “All you guys do issave 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 shotback.“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 Steelprovided for a hearing, prior to discharge at which the employee on suspension coulddefend himself. The Local Union Chairman and Secretary of the Grievance Committeeattended along with The Department Grievance Committeeman (Griever) along withany witnesses. Local 20 at Midland was a big local--the biggest in Basic Steel at thattime, and had a full time Chair and Secretary of the Grievance Committee TheInternational Union staff rep was there too, but the Local handled their own cases to amuch greater degree than smaller locals did. Midland’s head of Labor Relations was there, with the departmentSuperintendent, the Foreman, and any company witnesses. In this case it looked likethey had none, thank God. Bueller, Caseman, Weinberg and several others Wiz didn’tknow 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 13
  14. 14. going to say. Whiz was sure Wolf had spent plenty of time with them going over theirtestimony. He had his fingers crossed under the table. Manfield read the case number and charge: Failure to obey a direct order froma 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 andwhispered something in Caseman’s ear. Out in the hall through the open door Whizcaught a glimpse of Mike “Motor Mouth” Mitchell, trying to look cool but lookingnervous, and cleaner than Whiz had ever seen him, in a sport coat and turtlenecksweater. 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 addedto the witness list just today. Mr. Mitchell explained to me that it had been a difficultdecision for him to testify on behalf of the grievant, since he had recently discussedwith his general Foreman the possibility of taking a foreman job with the company. Hesays 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 youscreaming at Al Con and calling him a sonofabitch, so I stepped back into the storagearea where I could see you, but you couldn’t see me. I saw you knock him off hisbalance with your finger, and saw him fall down. He never said a word. 14
  15. 15. It’s one thing to keep a guy in that stinking pit half the day, but I don’t think youshould 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, stunnedeverybody, and effectively settled the hearing for Caseman. Mueller lost itcompletely, jumped up red faced and screaming, “The sonofabitch lies. Just flat-outlies! I don’t have to listen to this crap!” “Yes, actually, you do, Mr. Mueller,” Wolfie grabbed the opportunity to saydryly, “unless you’d rather just drop the charges now and avoid furtherembarrassment.” The tables now turned, Mueller just sat with his head in his hands as Al, Jimand 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 thesweet 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 StripMill 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’sgotta be next. It’s a no-brainer for a negro.” “Shit, I never even seen you in the motor room, Mitchell,” Al said shaking hishead. “Fess up. Were you really there?” “You’ll never know, will ya?” Mitchell said slyly, tossing back the last half of a 15
  16. 16. beer. “I know this,” Whiz said trying to hide the moisture in his eyes, “Now I knowwhat union solidarity looks like.” “Union. Fuck,” Motor Mouth Mitchell shot back in his usual sarcastic, tryingto sound macho voice, “It’s the gang. Can’t let ‘em break up the gang!” 16

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