I Become an Electrician Overnight

My withdrawal slip from the horrible forge factory

After the heady days of May 1970 things mellowed in the real world and the string of strikes fueling the Student-Worker Action Committee petered out slowly. But no matter. I was 23, recently fired from my day job at the Occidental Life Insurance Company of America (wish I could say they didn’t have a case) but rescued from penury and job-hunting by corporate greed. Occidental cheated me of a week’s severance and my intake worker — musta some kind of closet Commie — took affront and huffily denied Occidental’s challenge to my unemployment claim even though they had me dead to rights.

I got $60/wk for 26 weeks, karmically extended to 39 weeks when the economy tanked in the first of several cosmically aligned layoffs that would give me 39, 52 and even 65 weeks of state-sponsored free time to organize the revolution. You could sort of live on $60 a week in 1970, gas was about $.35 a gallon, my rent was $100 and dope was still 10 bucks a lid.

Of course SWAC as a genuine home-grown movement group of 20 some activists doing good stuff among the workers attracted all sorts of organized leftists on raiding expeditions. I have told the story of Steve Kindred and the International Socialists’ work in SWAC in my addendum to Dan LaBotz’ obituary of Kindred here. The days of free-wheeling meetings and discussions with ordinary rank-and-filers were soon to wane, 1970 being a high spot for strikes and all manner of other shenanigans, but not without a trace. $500 at 50, a pension reform group one of our Teamster wildcat buddies alerted us to hooked up with some midwestern Teamsters to form Teamster United Rank and File and that morphed over time into Teamsters for a Democratic Union which became a power in national Teamster politics and exists to this day. Once I joined an actual (self-described) revolutionary group my days were full of discussions, reading, meetings and other attempts to absorb the rich history of revolutionary thought and action, which I had hardly been aware of before. I was one of those people who always marched in antiwar demonstrations but never gave a thought to how they came about.

Some of us became convinced through our strike support work that there was nothing for it but to become workers ourselves. The IS thought this was cool, so with the recent Teamsters wildcat strike in mind and anticipating the publication of Farrell Dobb’s Teamster Rebellion (about the legendary 1934 Minneapolis General Strike), we resolved to become professional truck drivers.

The IS in those days was into penetrating the working class. What with the Teamsters wildcat strikes on a semi-national basis, a big auto strike in September, the emergence of Miners for Democracy in the UMW, a rank and file upsurge in the United Steelworkers that would find reflection in the Sadlowski campaign, it seemed like a good time to make the move.

We became Teamsters. Once we had commercial drivers’ licenses and medical cards in hand the drill was simple: show up at the Teamsters’ Hiring Hall in the City of Industry, a pretty woebegone affair, and hope for work to come our way. Different truck lines with more work than workers would call the hiring hall and ask for drivers for day work. The wage was $6.44/hr, a fortune to us college boys. After everyone with a union card went out the dispatcher would call us up, in the order we showed up that morning, and send us out.

This was an unfathomably different world. No one told you anything unless you asked and if you asked too much you would nail yourself as not even vaguely one of the guys. So you had to triage your information-gathering and hope you survived whatever driving experience came your way. On my first day delivering stuff to the downtown LA garment district I went the wrong way on a one-way street in a big-assed truck, had to carry a sewing machine up a bunch of flights of stairs because I couldn’t find the elevator and was very very late everywhere. Fortunately nobody much cared unless things went really wrong, like the day I got a truck I couldn’t get out of the high transmission range, or find anyone to show me, so I just drove it until I burned out the clutch and stranded a huge load of booze on an on-ramp to the Glendale Freeway. That resulted in a Do Not Send This Guy To Us Ever Again Letter to the Hiring Hall and a major ass-chewing from the dispatcher.

But like all worlds this became comprehensible a little at a time and in a couple of months there were a bunch of us driving around LA, getting into political conversations with other drivers at various locations — you might pick up or deliver to 20-30 businesses in a day —  and there were usually other trucks from other companies at the same dock and a tradition of bullshitting since there were no lurking bosses. We talked union politics and world politics and pretty soon we were selling our newspaper, The Torch, to all sorts of people. Five paper sales a day was a good day, not bad for a paper that called for revolution on pretty much every page.

The trajectory of our cohort that joined the revolution on May 4, 1970 (think Kent State) was from one small group to another different but smaller group, that being the character of those days, but as true believers we were betting on the come. At our narrowest, after numerous splits, we found ourselves to be 20+ people living in Detroit. We spent a year from 1976 to 1977 working our way into the Socialist Workers Party, a behemoth to us with over 2,000 members and seemingly The Big Time. Little did we know that life in the SWP would simply reproduce the small. It all worked. By the time we had fused with the SWP and dispersed to various of its branches to start finding union jobs the whole process of becoming this or that sort of worker has become pretty routine to people with our peculiar history, plus we were kids and thought we could do anything.

So when John Eisenhower of the West Side SWP branch in Chicago suggested to me that I might want to apply for a maintenance electrician job at the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, where he worked, it did not seem totally insane. A stretch, yes. So I consulted with Steven Wright, an actual electrician who worked on this railroad, but he had little patience after finding out how ignorant of electricity I was and just handed me his textbook, which I gamely attempted to ingest in one night. Not successfully.

I showed up for the written test to become an electrician for the C&NW, sleep-deprived from my excursion into the 500-page textbook, and found after scanning the 40 or so questions, that there was not a single one I could answer. I was embarrassed and didn’t just want to give up instantly and leave this room full of people scribbling away with my tail between my legs. So I fidgeted, and soon discovered that the actual test paper was mystifyingly thick and bulky. Mindful of my fellow test-takers surrounding me, I discreetly investigated. I discovered that the two-sided test paper was actually three sheets bound together: two ordinary pieces of paper and a sheet of carbon paper sandwiched between them. Why? Because the correct answers to the (multiple choice) questions were indicated by little boxes printed on the reverse of one of the sheets and the carbon paper transferred one’s “x’s” to that sheet, where they fell within the box if your answer was correct and elsewhere if not. Thus the test could be “graded” by an idiot. Once I made this discovery the only remaining task was to line up my “x’s” on the front of the sheets with the positions of the boxes on the back, without giving away to anyone sitting around me, or to the bosses conducting the test, what I was up to.  Challenging, but not as challenging as conquering electrical theory in 24 hours. I left one question marked incorrectly for verisimilitude, turned in my paper and was hired within a week. That put me as a journeyman in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the old-line electricians’ union with a sorry history of red-baiting and busting United Electrical Workers organized shops.

We performed routine maintenance on locomotives used in the commuter wing of the Chicago and Northwestern’s business. Most of the work was just changing parts and I had actually very little chance of killing myself electrically plus there was a cadre of old guys who knew what they were doing who would help you out if you approached them with humor and self-deprecation. I was just another guy fucking the bosses are far as they were concerned.

Well, one thing leads to another and there is nothing like having a job when you are trying to get a job, so a little electrician’s experience went a long way. I moved to Milwaukee and got a job as a maintenance electrician in a foundry, undoubtedly the foulest work situation I have ever experienced. It lasted a month because I was just too ignorant of everything to keep the job but meanwhile I got to watch the unearthly sight of gigantic molds shaped by rare and foul earths placed on vibrating beds that would “shake” off the dust from the molded metal pieces, dust that was partially drawn off by gigantic fans and carted off every day in multiple open-topped railroad cars to God knows where. It was some grim shit. My next electrician job was in a forge and there I began to learn how to actually attempt to troubleshoot electrical troubles by looking at blueprints. Finally in Seattle I landed jobs is two steel rolling mills and in the second one ran across a book, written by engineers for untutored apprentices, that explained the craft in enough detail that, after many months of study, I could actually do the job and figure stuff out.

My withdrawal slip from the horrible forge factory

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