Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

Labor: A Romance

Dawn Potter

In March 2011 Maine's newly elected Republican governor, Paul LePage, made an executive decision to remove a large commissioned mural from the lobby of the state's Department of Labor. The mural's subject was the history of Maine's working class: it depicted loggers, shoemakers, ironworkers, women riveters working during World War II, a papermill strike, child laborers before reform laws were passed. It was a record of simple historical fact.

Why did the governor want to rid himself of this mural? In the words of a scathing editorial in the New York Times, "his office cited some complaints from offended business leaders and an anonymous fax declaring that the mural smacked of official brainwashing by North Korea's dictator," whatever that might mean. The governor never explicated his correspondent's contorted comparison between the oppressed citizens of a totalitarian regime and a democratic state's vigorous working-class history. Merely, "Mr. LePage's acting labor commissioner suggest[ed] replacing the mural with neutral paint."

At the time of this debacle, I'd been living in the small central Maine town of Harmony for close to two decades—virtually all of my adult life. Both of my children were born here. I'd raised animals and a garden, kept house and written books, hung laundry in the spring air and shoveled out barns in the snow. I had immersed myself in Maine, and the governor's actions made me not only angry but also hurt by this blow to the honor of the state and its people.

Yet at the same time my thoughts kept flying away from Maine—back to southwestern Pennsylvania, to my mother's hometown of Scottdale, to my grandfather Jim Miller, to my own automatic, childish, unthinking assumption of the definition of labor: a small, strong, rough-skinned man in a white T-shirt and green workpants, his clothes spattered with burn holes from the molten steel he'd been pouring at the mill: his sweetness; the fidgety hours that my sister and I spent waiting for him to come home from his shift, to sit down on a kitchen chair, to take us both into his grimy lap. We loved him so much, not least for his patient ease in his own skin.

To us, he never revealed a sign that he cared to rise in the world, to become another sort of man. But perhaps that apparent acceptance of his lot in life was tragic endurance rather than simplicity. Perhaps I didn't comprehend his resignation. Human motivations are always more shadowy than we know, and our own are often the most obscure. Consider the governor of Maine, for instance. In removing that mural, he also erased his own Franco-American history from public view. Writing in the Portland Press Herald, columnist Bill Nemitz notes that one of the panels depicts "the 1937 shoe mill strike in Lewiston-Auburn," twin cities that span the Androscoggin River and that have a long industrial history.

Seventy-four years ago… 5,000 of the area's 6,300 largely French Canadian shoe workers voted to walk off the job over low wages, dangerous working conditions and discrimination, to name but a few of their grievances.

They shut down 19 shoe factories before it was over, but paid dearly when police and then the National Guard moved in and forcibly put down the insurrection.

Just a thought, but how many of those workers do you think might have been named "LePage"?

Why are people so prone to distorting the image of the laborer, even at the cost of distorting themselves? The Maine governor's bizarre conflations are only one version of that pattern, for sometimes the unlikeliest of suspects have fallen into the opposite camp—the one composed of the romancers. Andrew Carnegie, for instance. In Triumphant Democracy, his 1886 opus on the wonders of American capitalism, the Pennsylvania steel magnate rhapsodized about his workingmen, among whom "wife-beating is scarcely ever heard of, and drunkenness is quite rare." Like many people before and since, he had succumbed to the romance of the laborer; and literature, which he read voraciously, was undoubtedly a great promoter of this vision. If you consider that the Gilded Age was also an era of public recitation, you can easily imagine how many of his contemporaries, young and old, must have admired, for instance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1841 "The Village Blacksmith"—that sentimental narrative of the mighty smith swinging his hammer, "week in, week out, from morn till night… Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing." With such a vision in mind, Carnegie could have had no trouble declaring that a modern worker was equal to his employer, bearing the "dignity of an independent contractor" and holding a "sacred" right to unionize, even as the boss quashed strikes, ignored dangerous working conditions, and lengthened factory shifts.

In Meet You in Hell, a brief history of the fraught relationship between Carnegie and coke king Henry Clay Frick, writer Les Standiford remarks that "Carnegie continued to make noble statements about the workingman to the very end of his life, seemingly untroubled by those who criticized his business and labor practices. As to why he might have done so," Standiford suggests that "the history of American business shows that Carnegie is scarcely the only man of prominence who wanted very much to be liked." Perhaps so. But I can't discount the power of romance; for I, too, a century later, also succumbed to it. My version differs from Carnegie's to be sure, as our lives differ. Nonetheless, we share certain traits that may have predisposed us to idealism—notably a skewed sense of ourselves as eternal members of the underclass even as we cut paths into lives that sever us from any true fellowship with those grubby roots.

Our stories are equivalently simple, though his was far more dramatic. Carnegie, son of a handloom weaver, became an industrialist. I, granddaughter of a mill worker, married the grandson of a mill owner. There must be millions of parallel family tales and subtales, sequels and editions, revisions and remakes. Even Governor LePage has lauded his own Horatio Alger-like rise—"the oldest son of eighteen children in an impoverished, dysfunctional family,… [leaving] home at the age of eleven,… liv[ing] on the streets of Lewiston for two years, making a meager living shining shoes." Maybe it's human nature to tinker incessantly with our own narratives. Maybe Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie's partner and eventually his bitter rival, was the exception. As Charles M. Schwab recalled in the 1930s, Frick was a man "without emotion or impulses. Absolutely cold-blooded.… The most methodical thinking machine I have ever known."

You might imagine Frick to be the last person on earth to share a story with my humane and noble grandfather. But you would be mistaken. Among other things, they shared Scottdale. Frick was born in West Overton, a hamlet that lay just over the town line; and for many years the H. C. Frick Coke Company was headquartered in Scottdale—though the town was known as Fountain Mills until 1874, when it was renamed in honor of Thomas Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Scottdale is located directly over the Connellsville seam, which journalist Dan Rottenberg describes in The Kingdom of Coal as a bituminous "coking coal basin… about thirty miles long by an average of two and a half miles wide" running through what today is hawked to visitors as the Laurel Highlands. By the 1870s the Connellsville seam was well on its way to becoming "the backbone of [Carnegie's] newly created United States Steel Corporation," and already the Pennsylvania Railroad was the region's major purchaser of steel. In the matter of names, a railroad magnate's clearly trumped a fountain's. But by the 1970s, when my sister and I were waiting for my grandfather to come home from the mill, the coal seam had been played out, and the Pittsburgh steel industry was dying. As for the fountain, it was never heard from again.

Nonetheless, despite the Rust Belt decay around us—the empty, eyeless buildings on Pittsburgh Street, the lingering particulate grime in the air—we always, without question, thought of his labor with pride. During my mother's childhood, he had worked in the mines—night after night winching his way down the Leisenring shaft into the pit. During our childhoods he poured steel, though he never told us exactly what his job entailed. Perhaps it was similar to how one 1880s mill worker described the process of transforming pig iron into steel: "Little spikes of pure iron like frost spars glow white-hot and stick out of the slag. These must be stirred under at once.… I am like some frantic baker in the inferno kneading a batch of iron bread for the devil's breakfast."

I don't recall my grandfather ever mentioning the name Frick. Only my father, son-in-law historian and ex-Jersey farm kid, mentioned Scottdale's coke king, and then only in quick revilement. My sister and I have no memories of ever visiting Frick's birthplace. We never saw a coke oven. We knew nothing about the man or his influence on the region, nothing except that quick hiss of dislike, as if his name were too poisonous to speak. Even years later, when I first visited the Frick Collection in New York City, I felt a wave of disloyalty, as if, by looking at his art, I wronged the memory of my grandfather.

Yet in truth, my grandfather had been our family's last standard bearer of the Frick dream. He had done the work that Frick and Carnegie and Scott had laid out for him, and he'd done it willingly, with grace. The rest of us? We left Scottdale, and left the soiled dream behind. So when I acknowledge my complicity in the romance of the laborer—this habit of distortion that I share with oafs such as LePage, with empire builders such as Carnegie—I also have to acknowledge that my grandfather may well have voted for the oaf and admired the empire builder. "Business first!" cries the oaf, and the laborer agrees. What other choice does he have? Writing about Pennsylvania coal miners in the 1870s, Rottenberg says, "Isolated from the rest of the world, lacking transferable skills, unable to articulate their grievances… , [they] represented the dark underside of the bright new day that their product had ushered in." Meanwhile, there was "The Village Blacksmith"—

Onward through life he goes;

Each morning sees some task begin,

Each evening sees it close;

Something attempted, something done,

Has earned a night's repose.

As that 1880s mill worker explained, a man who wrestles with iron and coke is quickly, and far too young, "all wore out."

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