Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Arrogance in America.

In my  junior or senior year of high school, as part of the Middletown High School Marching Band, we were trotted out to an open field east of Armco's south gates. In full uniforms we played Sousa marches to the arrival of Governor Jim Rhodes and the local dignitaries, including Armco's top brass. They used gold and silver shovels to turn some loose dirt (the ground was too dry and hard for these old guys to actually dig in and get a real shovel full). Photos were taken. The shovels were collected to be engraved and hung on office walls. Speeches were made. The occasion was the groundbreaking for Armco's "Project 600", a construction project to build the world's most automated rolling strip mill to produce carbon steel. It would replace Tytus's mill that would still run till the project's completion. The "600" in the title represented the projected cost of 600 million dollars (it ended up costing a billion and a half). This mill would use half the men to produce more than twice the steel of the old facilities. The speeches that day tied the event to America's business genius and future prosperity. The American steel industry forsaw no limits to its growth, none.

A couple years later, while I was at school between Armco summers, the steel industry agreed to the most lucrative union contract in history, they were making so much money the thought of a slowdown from a strike caused their  quick compliance to union demands. As always the unions had included items they would deal away for extra pay but they didn't have to. My pay, the bottom rung, went up a dollar an hour. But, the real kicker was a provision that after 12 years with the company each employee was entitled to 13 weeks of vacation once every 5 years with the normal 4 weeks they had earned for the intervening years. As it turned out, many of the old-timers didn't even like this and returned to work after the regular 4 weeks and drew double pay for the other nine. The provision was dealt away the next contract for even greater wage increases. When I was there it did open up work for guys like me in the summer replacing vacationers.

My dad's Armco stock value was approching a quarter of a million dollars in value (as head of Industrial Engineering he was making a salary under $30,000 but he'd been with them a long time and was nearing retirement).

So, my first summer at Armco. I'm in labor reserve. On mondays we go down in the trench under the hot strip (it shuts down a shift on mondays for maintenance) to shovel the scale into a water stream to carry it out into a collection pool for reclaimation. The furnaces are left on so the temperature down there is about 110 degrees F, we work in shifts, three teams 20 min. at a time each. When we come up we're given salt pills to avoid heat stroke. We rest 40 min. before going back down and it takes at least half that to stop sweating.

My actual first day on the job another summer worker and I dug a 5' by 5' by 5' pit down to a pipe that was leaking, using a jackhammer to break up the concrete on top and then shovels and pick axes to dig the pit. But, most of the time I was pushing a broom, sweeping the red-brown dust that covered everything into piles and shoveling it into wheelbarrows. That's what I was doing on this one particular day, I was sweeping up in the huge cavern of a warehouse where overhead cranes lifted the steel coils, several tons each, hot off the mill and moved them to pallets to cool. This space was part of my regular routine by late in the summer. On another day in this same space I had watched a crane leader (the guy on the ground who put the hook into the coil, or out) direct the operator to drop the coil and it came down on the leaders own foot. The next day the big sign at the mill entrance read "0 days since the last major accident". He lost his foot. But, on this particular day, things were normal. I always paid attention to where the crane was and where it was going. A group of guys in suits and hard hats came in, about 30 or more. I recognized a couple of them as guys from my dad's engineering department.They seemed to be leading a tour. The rest were Asian. They were talking to everybody. One came up to me and in perfect English asked how I liked working here and what my duties were. He asked how often my supervisor checked in with me and what encouragement I was given. I answered and he took notes.

I latter asked my dad about this tour. He told me they were Japanese engineers who had paid Armco several thousand dollars for an engineer guided tour. He had, under instructions from the top brass, personally shown them the scale model of Project 600 on the floor of the big conference room and they had poured over blueprints for the new mill  with upper management on hand to answer questions.

Before Project 600 was finished several small automated mills were rolling out steel in Japan and offering it to Detroit at unmatchable prices. By the time the new Armco mill came online they didn't have enough orders to fill more than one shift a day. It would be several years before the mill would run at full capacity. Within 6 years of dad's retirement his stock was worth $40,000, that's when he finally sold it. It would have gone down from there. The steel industry was betrayed by Detroit. They went to Washington to beg for quotas on foreign steel. The Nixon and Ford administrations were deaf to their pleadings. Steel executives blamed their expensive Union workers for their inability to compete, never admitting the part played by their own arrogance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Stupid is as stupid does.

As Loretta Lynn famously said "I may be ignorant, but I ain't stupid", thus making the crucial distinction between  uninformed and slow-mindedness. I, however, have given some additional thought to the concept of "stupidity" since moving to Chicago. In a city this densely packed with people every turn reveals stupidity in all its comic and tragic presence. From the night when a mother herding her 3 children, all of them in dark winter clothing, across the street in the middle of the block that has the streetlights out, in fast moving traffic, barely avoiding tragedy, to the panhandler in a parking lot wearing only a hospital gown and slippers, an IV needle still dangling from his arm, waving his admission papers at me, " They wouldn't give me a drink!", he said, pleading for money to acquire alcohol, stupidity is all around us.

All of us are capable of it. Indeed Chicago is the Mecca of Comedy. From Improv classes at Northwestern (include in that recent live sex ed demonstrations), to more comedy clubs than anywhere else in the world, Chicago breeds comedy, most based on incredible stupidity. Saturday we dyed the river green to begin a week of proper Irish drunkeness. I was in the Cuban Cafe "90 Mile" picking up carryout and there were three Chicago Cops trading stories from the Saturday night shift. "Eight hours later I got him out of holding and he was as drunk as when I put him in!" (reference any episode of "Shameless", Sundays 9pm, HBO)

Being intelligent and well informed does not exclude you. Admit it. We have all done stupid things, some we regret, some we remember fondly (I don't know how to categorize the squirt gun ambushes on drunken freshmen while tripping at Ohio State. Hey, it wasn't my Idea. Going along can be stupid too.)

So, let's review.

We know stupid people can act stupid (reference "Jackass the Movie"). Actually stupid people, though plentiful, don't act stupid all the time and most disguise it the best they can. The males usually try to cover it with excessive macho bluster which usually only works for females of the stupid persuasion (reference reality television, ok, and George W. Bush). OMG they're breeding!

Drunkeness can promp stupidness no matter what the IQ or usually sensible nature of the drunk. After all, stupor and stupid come from  the same Latin root meaning numb. (long term drunkeness can make the stupid permanent with the side effect that they think their actually smart, reference Charlie Sheen, and yes, George W Bush, again)

Excessive multi-tasking can cause stupidity usually afflicting those who think they're smart, like the Northwestern student riding his bike down the yellow line on the busiest street in Evanston, his laptop open in the basket, his phone held to his ear, steering (poorly) with the hand holding his cigarette. I do hope he avoided that Darwin Award.

Then there's the world champion causes of stupidness. Love, dispair and desperation. I had this epiphany when I first saw "Raising Arizona" (and I'm loathe to admit this because I really don't like Nick Cage's work). But, our prisons are full of stupid, desperate people. Prisons aren't full of evil genuises and their talented henchmen like most movies would have you think.

All this leaves us to explain the stupidity of the rich white men who allowed this nation of manufacturing to devolve into what it has become.

Here are ideas that try to explain everying:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My first Union

Between my early college years (1965-1968), I worked summers at Armco Steel, one summer in labor reserve, one as plant mail delivery, and one as a fabricator in the tubing division as a member of the Armco Employee's Independent Federation (AEIF). Though they would later be locked out by AK Steel ( a reformation of Armco), starting a prolonged labor action to fend off the company theft of their pension benefits (sound familiar?), at the time I worked in the AEIF they had never been on strike. They would work through a United Steelworkers' strike; in return, the company would agree to terms of the national union's contract without suffering the pain of a strike. The AEIF was originally formed in 1944. Aside from the summer as a mail clerk, this was incredibly physical and dangerous work but, the pay over 12 weeks of summer was enough to finance my education, tuition, room, and spending money for 9 months. Every summer I worked there they had a work fatality, one summer there was more than one. A couple years after I left there were 11 in one year. Those kind of summer jobs don't exist any more. I graduated without a single student loan. (they weren't even available until my last years in school and then they weren't designed to be a huge profit center for private banks).

At the time Armco was the 5th biggest steel maker in the country. John B. Tytus, with a degree in English Literature from Yale, had invented the process to roll wide sheets of steel in huge quantities back in the 20s. His plant was still in operation when I worked there and witnessed its operation. He died of a heart attack in 1944, the year the AEIF was formed. At that time Tytus's rolling mill provided 60% of the skin for General Motor's cars off that line. Armco had also invented the corrugated pipe that became the standard for drainage and culverts nationwide. American Steel was in its prime. Armco offered any employees classes in metallurgic sciences, math, science, public speaking, engineering (on their own time of course). My dad took advantage of these and rose through the ranks in the white collar "time study" department to become an industrial  engineer and, by the time I got there, head of industrial engineering. He never attended college (he was never a union man). But he enjoyed the union negotiated health benefits (without co-pays) and pension plan. He also enjoyed a subsidized company stock purchase plan (Armco Stock only) as a white collar worker.
A close friend of his who retired about the same time as dad converted all his to AT&T. Dad, ever loyal to the company, held onto the Armco stock. The friend made out. Dad's stock lost 90% of it's value within 10 years. That 10 years will be the point of my next post, or "the nearsightedness of overpaid management", or the "overpaid workers" excuse for stupidity.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Their favorite fallacy.

Not all rhetoric is bombast or exaggeration. Indeed, all writing, is, in some way, rhetorical, an attempt to influence the reader's thoughts or actions. Yes, even fiction. Hence, the fallacy of the Straw Man. So, to convince you that all "Liberals" are evil, Mr. Limbaugh will assume the fiction of knowing their innermost motivation and ascribing a yearning for soviet communism to their every purpose. This nonexistent liberal is the straw man that made him a multimillionaire. He is forever attacking the secret motivations, never the ideas, of his enemies in his unending quest to engender hate in his listeners.
     So, here I am to advocate for all the straw men in the imaginations of all the ignorant bigoted fans of fox news, the delusions of the incuriously hateful. To pose the question, "HUH?"