Workers say “We’ll do whatever it takes to survive”
Contributed by a worker correspondent
International Harvester, onetime giant of the farm and construction equipment industry, is going broke. Its future is in the hands of the banks, and it may not survive the summer.
Harvester’s workers are paying the price — and not just with their jobs. Gains won through long and bitter struggle are being undone. The article below, by a Black worker with 18 years’ seniority at Harvester’s Melrose Park plant near Chicago, shows just how much is at stake.
In 1963 I took a test for a mechanic’s job at Melrose Park. I passed and was supposed to be hired in January 1964, but I wasn’t. I was making the rounds looking for work, and in May I went back to Harvester to find out what had happened to my job.
The guy in the employment office acted like I was on trial. He asked all sorts of questions — how long had I been unemployed, how much was I getting a week, where my wife worked, how did she get her job? At this time they were only hiring whites.
He took me into a little room and said, “You think you can take the test again?” He said he’d lost the first one. I knew what he was really saying. He thought I was stealing answers, since no Black man could possibly pass the test they had given me.
So I took the test again, in a little room separated from all the other people taking it. Afterwards I asked how I did. He said, “You did good,” but he never did tell me my score. He said, “You look like you’re strong. Can you do lifting?”
So my first job was stacking pallets. I took all those tests so I could stack pallets. I got so I could do it in my sleep. I’ve never forgotten what they made me do. Fighting on the shop floor After three years I was still trying to become a mechanic. They told me I couldn’t transfer because they couldn’t get a replacement for me. I knew that was nonsense.
In those days Blacks didn’t go through the union, because we were denied representation. I went to Industrial Relations and told them they were hiring people off the street and not letting me transfer. I didn’t say they were hiring whites and not Blacks, but they knew what I meant. I think they gave me the job just to keep me quiet.
I wound up in the tractor department. We formed a caucus to try to get some democracy in the union, get it to represent the workers and not management. Since we were unified, we became very strong. In the summer it would hit 90° on the shop floor. We walked off the job. Later other departments joined us. But we were the first department to get fans, because we made such a ruckus about it.
They’re closing down our department now. Today we built the last tractor. Threefourths of the plant is gone; there’s just the engine line left. It’s like a ghost town — you can hear your echo. They moved out all the machines, all the people, like a cancer spreading throughout the plant. If you’d asked me what I thought about my department closing down when it was first announced, I’d have been more frightened, more concerned. But now my attitude, most people’s attitude is, well, we got to do whatever it takes to survive. I mean, from day to day there’s anger, but if you let it eat you up, you won’t survive no kind of way. I talk to my wife about it sometimes, but I don’t want to burden her. It gets her down, too.
Racism on the rise People are concerned about their jobs, and they’re getting more concerned because of how the company is playing favorites. Blacks are now being given less time to qualify for jobs. The union is going along with it. People are being forced to take a layoff instead of being allowed to bump someone with less seniority.
The contract says people on the assembly line who transfer to the machine shop are supposed to get a three day break-in period. One Black guy with 14 years on the line didn’t even get a chance. They just told him, “You can’t do it,” and he was laid off. A white guy got the job. They even fired one Black guy for selling peanuts inside the plant.
People who are able to are retiring early, getting out any way they can. The rest are just trying to hold onto their jobs as long as possible. It’s a mefirst situation; everybody’s big worry is, am I going to make it? There are no jobs out there, you know.
The crisis is hitting whites as well as Blacks. When all this first started some whites wouldn’t hardly speak. But now they’ve come around and started talking. They’re realizing they’re just workers too.
The union isn’t doing anything. Nothing about helping laid off people get food stamps or anything like that. They haven’t even cut our dues. The chairman of the shop committee just crawled into a hole. I think they just want to keep a few people working, so they can keep getting their union salaries.
The International rammed a concessions package down our throats. We didn’t even get to see it until the day we voted on it. Most people didn’t want to give the company anything. I mean, we’re not the ones who are going to save the company. Why should we give up what we stayed out six months for, when it won’t make any difference, won’t help us any?
We need to get rid of International president Doug Fraser. Then we need to try to gain back unity like there use to be in the UAW when it was so strong.
When they first built the engine line, they set it up with younger workers who didn’t know what was going on, and the company just got away with everything. Now, with the layoffs and the transfers, you have older guys going over to the engine line who knew what it used to be like. They’ve already stopped the line a couple of times.
Come September, if the company is still around, people are going to have to turn things around. During the last election, a lot of whites ran with the attitude that they were only going after white votes. But now these same union people are shafting whites, too, with concessions and all. If we make it through the summer and still have our jobs, I think we can start pulling together, get back to basics and rebuild the union.