My friend Bill retired to Bisbee after working in the Detroit steel mills for decades. When I got my copy of Noel Ignatiev’s Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World, I shared it with Bill. I wanted to see how it resonated with his own experiences, and it did. I told him to watch the film, Finally Got the News, about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, now available on vimeo for $2.99.
Here’s what Bill had to say about the film:
“I had to watch this twice. The part that was filmed inside Ford Rouge brought back some bad memories. I did 90 days in the stamping plant there. It was the loudest most dangerous job I ever had. After I got out of the army in ‘64 I had a multitude of jobs. The first was at Firestone Steel Products working on the line that made truck rims. I did about six weeks there and went to McLouth Steel and worked as a laborer in the hot strip mill for eight or nine months. I moved to California and went to work at Kaiser Steel in Fontana for close to a year. When I moved back to Michigan I did that awful 90 days in the stamping plant. My next job was as a proofreader in a print shop. Easy job but it didn’t pay much. I went to Chrysler next and worked in their engine plant for a couple of years. I dropped out of the work force in ‘67 to study drug and alcohol abuse full time and didn’t return to the work force until 1970. In 1970 I hired in to Great Lakes Steel Corporation where I stayed for 30 years. At Great Lakes I worked a variety of jobs until I landed in their blacksmith shop for 17 years. I did my last ten years there as a machinist.
I was aware of the Revolutionary Movement at Dodge Main and Ford Rouge.
I enjoyed the film and getting to know the active participants through the film. They used shots of the Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Art. As school children we were taken to see it. It is a revolutionary piece of work that old Henry Ford wanted to paint over but his son Edsel prevented it. Great choice to show in the beginning of the film.
The guy that wrapped up the film was Kenneth Cockrel. He later became a Detroit city councilman.
Thank you so much for recommending it. It is a film that I needed to see at least twice.”
And here is Bill’s response to Noel Ignatiev’s Acceptable Men:
“Noel Ignatiev is an interesting man but you probably know that. It would be fun to talk to him. Noel worked in the absolute worst part of the mill. The blast furnaces, sinter plant, and coke ovens are like hell on earth. They are also a twenty-four hour, seven-day-a-week operation. The men rotate and work all three shifts in 21 days. The machinery is old and needs a lot of attention. The maintenance crews often have nothing to do if the operations are running smoothly. I once heard a manager say that he liked to see his maintenance people sleeping in a shanty. That meant everything was good with the operation. The company was making money.
I worked in two other steel mills and spent some time on the line at Ford and Chrysler but when I hired into Great Lakes Steel I was not prepared for Zug Island. Zug Island is right offshore in the Detroit River. It is where the blast furnaces, sinter plant, and coke ovens are located. The part of the mill that Noel worked in. The culture there was the same as U.S. Steel in Gary. People sleeping all over the place. Shitty attitudes. All sorts of illegal activity going on. If you came in with a hangover someone would sell you a cold beer to get well on.
At one time the island was predominately Italian but the Italians had been replaced with Blacks. No doubt that it was racism.
I absolutely loved his depictions of his co-workers. I laughed and laughed. He really nailed them.
My experience on Zug Island was actually pretty pleasant. I hired in as a millwright helper. I had a buddy that was working there and he talked me into taking a job on the island. He was working on the stackers that unloaded raw material from the lake freighters, greasing the bearings on the conveyor belts that stacked the raw material into huge piles. When I told the employment office that I wanted a millwright helpers job on the island they looked at me like I was crazy and said sure. I ended up spending my summer greasing bearings and smoking weed. The stackers were in a remote part of the island and we worked at our own leisurely pace. We just checked in with the boss in the morning and told him where we were at. He did come behind us to see if we were doing our job which we were. He left us alone. One morning I was shaking a cigarette out of my pack and a large joint fell out on the ground practically at his feet. He just looked at the sky and rolled his eyes as I picked it up.* In the fall I transferred up to the main plant which was an entirely different world. I spent most of my time working in the blacksmith shop which was a joy. I loved forging. It was also a day shift, only Monday through Friday job. I had regular hours and was able to pursue other things.
I sort of got the feeling that Noel was disappointed with the working class. We weren’t radical enough to suit him. The working class has forgotten their roots. The communist party was heavily involved with the UAW back in the day but most guys today just want to live their miserable little lives. I wish he had talked more about what he learned from his experience in the mill. It ended rather abruptly.”
(This is Beth) *When I worked in a little shop-floor keypunch office, recording stock translations from greasy slips of paper, my coworker left a fat, half-smoked joint on her keyboard. That plant ran on weed and shop-floor romance (Stewart-Warner, Chicago 1977).