Sunday, April 26, 2015

Those Good Old (Disappearing) Factory Jobs Rant

      Years and years and years ago, when high-paying factory jobs were still available, my best buddy and I loaded up his ’55 Chevy and headed across the George Washington Bridge, our destination sunny California. We made the trip in five days, a journey that included fifteen hundred miles on Route 66, there being no completed Interstates west of St. Louis. This was our big adventure, undertaken at a time when airline trips were still a luxury. Mike and I were high school educated, but even though we had no specific plans and no connections, I don’t recall any discussion of what we intended to do after we settled in Los Angeles. The country was prosperous and jobs abundant.

      We found lodging easily enough, affordable housing also being plentiful, and I landed a job in a Pasadena aircraft factory within a week. I no longer recall the name of the factory, or exactly what it manufactured beyond parts for other parts of commercial aircraft. I don’t recall exactly what the company paid, either, only that it was enough to cover the rent, put food in the fridge and repair a beat-up Packard that got me to work if I didn’t push it too hard on the Freeways. What I do remember, on the other hand, and quite clearly, is my first day on the job.

      I received no training, not even an orientation. A factory foreman escorted me from a reception area onto one of those enormous spaces generally measured in football fields. The whistle signaling the start of my shift had already blown and the din was almost, but not quite, painful. The air smelled of lubricating oil, human sweat and, more vaguely, of scorched metal. We reached my station, a tiny space surrounded by tiny spaces, a few minutes later. I’d been assigned to man a drill press. To my left, as I stood before the press, a rolling bench held a metal box filled with…. I don’t actually know what the small metal items were, and the foreman saw no reason to give them a name. My job, which he did explain, consisted of a single task. I was to place one of these widgets into a depression on the press, drill a hole through the center of the widget by lowering and raising a lever, deposit the completed widget in an empty box on the rolling bench, fit a new widget onto the press and pull the lever again. If at the end of the day, I surpassed my drilled-widget quota, I would receive a bonus.

      What’s the point?

      I’m probably responding as much to a somber tone as I am to content, but when I hear pundits bemoan the permanent loss of high-paying factory jobs, as if they were observing those jobs cross an arbitrary divide separating the eastern and western hemispheres, I cringe. They seem to be implying that something about factory work, some special skill, justified the high pay. Sadly, this skill is not required for the service industry jobs that have replaced those factory jobs and lower wages are not only inevitable, they’re justified.

      I worked in other factories as I passed through my twenties. At no time was I expected to show any more skill than on my first day in Pasadena. My bosses were looking for three traits. First, reliability. Would I show up every day, on time and sober?  Then speed and stamina in equal measure, as the bonus system demonstrates. Productivity was determined by widget count, by how many widgets you drilled and not how well you drilled them.

      The next time you’re standing on a supermarket checkout line, take a close look at the woman or man behind the register. Imagine that you’re managing the market. What do you need from this employee, other than speed, stamina and reliability, in order to do your own job? I would say nothing at all. I would say that the assembly line worker and the grocery checker are equally skilled. I would say that high-paying factory jobs are high paying because the pay is high. I would say that low-paying service industry jobs are low paying because the pay is low.

     It is in the perceived interest of virtually any business to reduce every cost of doing business, and labor is an undeniable cost of doing business. And while there will always be a few “enlightened” employers – Costco immediately comes to mind – businesses generally attempt to reduce the cost of labor, whether by shipping those high-pay factory jobs overseas, or replacing human beings with factory floor robots, or busting unions in Wisconsin.

       On December 30, 1936, auto workers, under the banner of the United Auto Workers, seized General Motors’ Fisher #1 body plant in Flint, Michigan, which supplied body parts for Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. They barricaded themselves inside and prepared for battle by amassing piles of bolts and door hinges at strategic locations. As a second Fisher plant in Cleveland that supplied parts for Chevrolets, was also on strike, the Flint occupation effectively shut down GM’s automotive division.

      Twelve days later, in response to an injunction issued a by a local judge, the Flint police attacked. One might yawn at this point. Police from municipalities all over the country had been attacking striking workers for a hundred years. The difference here, the exception to the general rule, was that the workers inside the plant, fought off several assaults and final routed the police. They paid a price, of course – fourteen strikers were injured by police gunfire – but workers had been paying in blood for a hundred years by then, so….

      General Motors had another card to play. It petitioned Governor Frank Murphy to call out the National Guard. Unfortunately for GM, Murphy had a conscience and he called out the Guard, not to drive out the strikers, but to protect them from strikebreakers and the Flint police. With no options left, GM began negotiations with the UAW and the two parties reached a limited agreement on February 11th that accepted the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for unionized GM workers. That was all the UAW needed. Within six months, it signed up 100,000 workers and those factory jobs, which paid subsistence wages at the time, were on track to support a middle-class way of life.

      A word to the wiseguy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


      I admit that it wasn’t what I expected. I admit that I tried to believe that Eric Holder’s Justice Department orchestrated a cover up, no matter how unlikely that seemed. Then I read the 86 page report on the Michael Brown shooting, then I read it again, then I read it for a third time, taking notes as I went along
      Plainly writ, the physical evidence recovered at the scene broadly, and convincingly, supports Darren Wilson’s overall version of the events as they unfolded on August 19, 2014.

      Michael Brown did lean into Wilson’s SUV - Brown’s DNA was recovered from the vehicle’s interior and from Wilson’s uniform – and he did assault Darren Wilson. Although Wilson’s injuries were minor, those injuries were documented in a hospital emergency room.

      Blood evidence recovered from the interior of Wilson’s SUV proves that Brown’s hand was inside Wilson’s SUV when he was shot for the first time.

      Blood evidence recovered from the roadway clearly demonstrates that Michael Brown, although he may have initially raised his hands, was moving toward Wilson when the fatal shots were fired, despite being repeatedly ordered to freeze and get on the ground.

      Michael Brown was not shot in the back, either while running away from Wilson or after he fell to the ground. Three autopsies, including an autopsy done at the request of the family by Dr. Michael Baden, failed to uncover any injuries to Brown’s back.

      The credible witnesses – those witnesses whose versions are supported by the physical evidence – all described Brown as moving toward Wilson before Wilson opened fire. They were not, as some have claimed, prejudiced white people. One of them, Witness 103, is an African-American with a felony conviction whose own son was shot by the police.

      Finally, it’s simply impossible to read this report and conclude that Darren Wilson is legally responsible for the death of Michael Brown. But legally responsible and morally responsible are two different things.

      Some years ago, I was interviewing an NYPD detective when I happened to mention that I’d run into Hurricane Jackson on the street. A prizefighter, Tommy `Hurricane’ Jackson once challenged Floyd Paterson for the heavyweight championship of the world. The detective smiled – a rueful smile to be sure – when I mentioned Jackson’s name. Hurricane Jackson, he told me, was a notorious cop fighter when drunk and he, my detective, had been forced to deal with the boxer on more than one occasion. As had many of the patrol officers in that South Jamaica precinct.

      If Darren Wilson’s killing Michael Brown was justified, then my detective would certainly have been justified if he’d gunned down Hurricane Jackson. As a general rule, a prizefighter’s hands are deemed to be lethal weapons. That would be true even of a smaller man. What’s more, Hurricane Jackson’s nickname paid tribute to his incredible hand speed, which generated hurricane force winds. Or so his manager, Whitey Bimstein, liked to claim.

      Hurricane Jackson died in a car accident, and not by a fusillade of cop bullets. That’s because, forty years ago, the cops in that precinct never considered drawing their service revolvers when they confronted him. Instead, they took advantage of Jackson’s inebriated state to crack him across the shins with their nightsticks. Once on the ground, they subdued him, dragged him to the precinct and confined him to the drunk tank until he sobered up. The Hurricane was a really nice guy, I was assured, when he was sober.

      What am I getting at? Wilson claims that he felt like a child confronted by Hulk Hogan when he stared into Michael Brown’s eyes. Brown had the eyes of a demon and Wilson just knew Brown would kill him if he didn’t pull that trigger twelve times. You’d never guess that Wilson stands six-four and weighs more than 210 pounds, or that he, like all cops, was trained in hand-to-hand combat. Or that he had a canister of police-grade pepper spray on his belt, or that he carried a steel ASP tactical baton, which extends out to 26 inches with a snap of the wrist.

      Did Wilson ever consider using less than deadly force? Not according to his many statements. And who can blame him? You can’t stop a demon with a steel club, no matter how many times, or where, you hit him.

      The basic craft of policing has radically changed since my detective confronted Hurricane Jackson on the streets of South Jamaica. Now it’s all SWAT Teams. It’s a boot on the neck, a knee in the back, grind the asshole’s face into the pavement. Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Wilson, himself, according to his statement, alternated “Get on the Ground “with “Freeze”. Leaving aside the obvious, that his demands were conflicting, screaming at the top of his lungs was far more likely to escalate the tension than to produce the result Wilson desired. Assuming he hoped for a peaceful resolution.

      Excuse my novelist’s instincts, but I can’t help imagining a different outcome if Wilson had, as hostage negotiators universally do, initially attempted to ease the tension. If he’d tried to talk the suspect down.

      Wilson leaves his SUV and chases after Brown, whose lost his flip-flops and is now running in his socks. He orders Brown to stop and Brown finally complies after traveling approximately sixty yards. Brown then turns and briefly raises his hand before lowering them. Bad news, because Wilson can see that Brown’s close to losing control, to deciding that he no longer gives a damn. Brown’s standing about 25 feet away from Wilson, which gives the cop some wiggle room. He tells Brown to take a breath, to give him a few seconds. Then he lowers his weapon until it’s pointed toward the roadway.  Right now, he says, his tone as calm and soothing as he can manage, what’s happened here is minor. We need to keep it that way. All you have to do is place your hands where I can see them. That’s all you have to do. Take a second to think about what you’re doing, to consider your family. Because my backup’s on the way and you can’t escape. There’s no reason to make it worse than it has to be.

      Would it have worked? Maybe not, but the end result could not have been more fatal than what happened that afternoon on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

      There’s more here. According to Wilson, Brown was leaning forward, in a “tackling” position, and still a threat to Wilson’s life when the last, instantly fatal, shot was fired. Wilson had pulled the trigger eleven times by then and his bullets had struck Brown at least six, and as many as eight, times. They were not without effect.

      From the Justice Department Report: “In addition to the thumb wound and the fatal shot to the head, Brown sustained a gunshot wound to his central forehead, with a corresponding exit wound of the right jaw. The bullet tracked through the right eye and right orbital bone, causing fractures of the facial bones. Brown sustained another gunshot wound to the upper right chest, near the neck. The bullet tracked through the right clavicle and upper lobe of the right lung, and came to rest in the right chest. Brown sustained another entrance wound to his right lateral chest. The bullet tracked through and fractured the eighth right rib, puncturing the lower lobe of the right lung.”

      The fatal shot, the one that killed Brown instantly, was fired into the top of his head, almost at the center of his skull. Wilson claims that Brown was about to tackle him, but it’s highly probable, given his injuries, that Brown was falling to the ground and posed no threat.

     I’ll leave you to make your own judgment of Darren Wilson’s actions after a final comment. At six-four, Darren Wilson, if we should ever meet, would tower above this writer.