From Millhand to Militant
BAD ECOTUDE EVERYWHERE
It couldn’t be just a nightmare. The memory is too .clear. I used to work at that steel mill six days a week, and I can still see the view I had of it driving to work on the Buffalo Skyway. The mill stretched before me for five miles along Lake Erie. From the fuming block-long coke ovens at one end to the clanging manufacturing shops at the other, all life had been scraped from the land and replaced by a network of furnaces, processing shops, railroads, and, of course, fences, lots of high fences. The plant seemed a mechanical nether world in which blackened behemoths chugged on within a fetid haze.
A bleak and fearsome sight, yes, but not entirely ugly. The mill, and the three million tons of steel it cranked out per year, represented an awe-inspiring industrial might. Standing in contrast to the lake’s limitless gray monotony by day or piercing the night sky with its reddish glow, the steel mill had a certain redeeming beauty lot me as an expression of human power.
With 18,000 people working there, living human power certainly was at the heart of this industrial colossus. Human labor was required to supervise the activities of the mechanical beings down to the last detail— and supervising the humans down to the least detail were other humans in a hierarchical chain of command.
The higher-ups spelled out their underlings’ assignments in a job description book that contained the work responsibilities of some 40,000 positions throughout the steel industry. All authority was moved up the supervisory line, and production personnel had only to worry about the particular machinery they operated. In this manner, workers were incorporated into the very industrial processes that they were supposed to control. They were confined to serving as the machines’ ultimate regulatory mechanisms. Management, too, took on a rote mechanical quality. Supervisors were isolated in little circles of competence and insulated from the mill’s reality by a layer of paperwork. Each strived mainly to maintain the good appearances that protected his privileged situation.
Every day, I witnessed the full extent of the environmental catastrophe that evolved in this deadening atmosphere. It began right on the shop floor with the frustration and stress that results from living out restricted lives in filthy, dangerous surroundings. The first day I worked at the mill, one of my shopmates was on the job for sixteen hours straight. He went home and died of a heart attack, leaving two young daughters. My long-time partner as a mechanic had been an aspiring artist in his youth. Now, alcoholism made his hands shake so much that he couldn’t draw at all. Drugs and alcohol were a common way to make life easier at the mill (“If you don’t smoke, you croak!”), but they also increased the danger as we tried to maneuver multi-ton pieces of steel through grease-caked machines two stories high. The absence of responsibility for the work environment sometimes yielded vicious ironies. One department I worked in, a worn-out automated marvel, was constantly filled with a suffocating mixture of red paint spray and welding fumes. The government had forced the company to stop venting the stuff outside, where it polluted the air! An old Italian mechanic fixing the machines there had a hole in his throat where doctors had removed his cancerous larynx. He couldn’t speak, although he was pretty expressive with his hands. He insisted on working anyway, so the company took him back rather than put him on permanent disability.
If the unseen higher management was indifferent to the internal environment of its mill, the external environment counted for less than zero in its estimation. What didn’t represent usable natural resources was just space for dumping waste products. The air in the surrounding community was so dirty, for example, that laundry hung out on a line would be soiled again by the time it was dry. The mill’s sewers poured untold quantities of organic solvent and grime into a lake that was already near death from other pollutants. Who cared that that body was also the area’s water supply?
Farther afield, I once visited northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, where the mill’s ore came from. There, around the open pit mines that pock-marked the region, I found the same blasted landscape as at the mill. Here too, no plants grew, and nothing moved except enormous machines. More generally, the mill was tied to environmental devastation throughout the world by the consumerist values encouraged in its workforce. Materialism was the glue that held the whole organization together. It kept us toiling away for our paychecks, with individual promotion, not collective revolt, our supposed avenue to freedom. The resulting urban sprawl and conspicuous consumption, the cars and shopping malls and golf courses, adversely affeécted more than just the district around the steel mill. They embodied the destruction wrought by thousands of other inidustries far beyond the mill employees’ usual haunts.
That was all so many years ago. Where once 18,000 struggled to keep the mill going, only 200 labor now. The mill may have been stilled, but my mind continues to work on the memories left behind. I remain struck by how the mill’s alienating hierarchy, and the materialistic culture that supported it, undermined both human and natural ecologies. In a world composed of interdependent social and biological webs, distortions in one area contort the entire scheme.
Now I work under more civilized conditions with an environmentalist organization, whose magazine I help edit. Here, my steel mill experience is central to my attempt to heal rather than plunder. Yet when it came time to issue official biographies for fundraising purposes, I noticed that my history as a steel worker was omitted. It was considered irrelevant, or even besmirching. How could it be viewed otherwise? Look at the way we work: We are divided into individual offices, each concentrating on its own distinct issue—ozone, rainforests, etc. Group directors head up each office, and on top of them is the general director, with a chairman and board of directors above him. Plus, there is a separate administrative staff to cover joint clerical tasks. Everyone has a pigeonhole; no one gets a crack at the integrative analysis needed to discover how humanity and nature can live together in peace.
Perhaps my magazine could contribute the needed synthesis. Unfortunately it, too, is imprisoned by the dynamics of its stratified sponsor. The chief editor is a man who got his job through cronyism; he used his long-time friendship with the general director to convince the organization that it had to put out a prestigious-looking magazine. This fellow actually is unsuited to be a chief editor, never having worked as one before. He has no idea how to coordinate the people working on the project and is mainly concerned with using the magazine as a means of promoting his own reputation as an intellectual. His light, monotonous writing keeps popping up all over the publication as a result. Such pretense also extends to our overall choice of articles. We tend to concentrate on impressive-looking stories by or about major personalities that usually turn out to be mundane hand-me-downs. Other common items include specious reports presented as scoops.
The male conceit at play here is symptomatic of the sexist mentality central to office proceedings. I hadn’t been working for more than twenty minutes on the first day when one of the more compliant women grumbled to me, “This place is really male dominated. The guys at the top, they decide everything.” It is worse than she knew. Behind the female staffs backs, the male management consistently favors those women who embody its version of femininity — attractive, accomplished, and agreeable. Typically, when we were running a speech by an award-winning female filmmaker in the magazine, the chief editor couldn’t mention her name, it seemed, without exclaiming. “What a beauty’ She’s a good friend of mine, too.”
Of course, with ecofeminism a widely discussed topic these days, it has become practically a cliché to connect male domination with human domination of nature and the ensuing environmental destruction. Accepting this idea is one thing, applying it quite another. In a situation in which everybody is compartmentalized, the authorities are free to adapt feminist principles to their own uses. One male philosopher with whom I have dealt is renowned for expounding on the necessity of smashing patriarchy in order to live in harmony with nature, but I notice that he uses his wife as his secretary. His close confederate where I work is notorious for the way he manipulates his all-female staff to keep them underpaid while he gets the credit for their work.
The conception of the environment engendered by this traditional hierarchical structure is an elitist, romanticized one that sets a natural, wild ecology apart from sordid human society. Utopian, pristine nature is something to be protected by the enlightened few against the despoiling masses. The concept that ecological renaissance is attendant on human liberation is not on the agenda. The steel mill? Male-female relations? Forget it. These issues are outside the managerial paradigm.
In its extreme, elitist environmentalism regards humans as interlopers who should go back to stone-age lifestyles so as not to interfere with the natural world, as if it were ever possible for humans to have no influence. More frequently, an interspecies egalitarianism is advocated while an intraspecies one gives way to a desperate and coercive, if not racist, outlook on population control. When researching the AIDS epidemic in Africa, I was not at all surprised to hear jokes about “AIDS as population control” despite the fact that Africa is a diverse, but mostly sparsely populated land that is richly endowed with natural resources.
Even more humanitarian environmental positions, which actually are well represented where I work, frequently betray anti-democratic managerial attitudes. Contending that the “resources necessary for generalizing Western industrial consumption levels are simply unavailable,” one of my coworkers argues for basing Third World economies on a neo-Maoist self-sufficient mix of small-scale farming and low-tech industry. Whatever this model’s desirability, its impetus cannot come from technocrats who themselves live at Western consumption levels. The point is to extirpate materialist value systems, not establish a new ruling class.
These elitist versions of environmentalism are unlikely to inspire a man movement, but they do provide environmental officialdom with a justification for its existence since a group of heroic leaders is deemed necessary to prevent catastrophe. They also provide office staff with a cause to devote itself to so that it members work on the cheap, in substandard working conditions.
For $12,000 per year (or less for those designated as part-time or “outside con tractors”) and no benefits, we work cheek by jowl in dark, stuffy rooms for many more than 40 hours a week. Considering that we’re supposed to be nature lovers, it’s strange that there’s nary a plant to be found. Indeed, our vacations are so meager that we have little contact with nature at all unless we manage to get funding for work-related trips.
With all the crowding and noise, it is difficult to get anything done. Even finding a place to have private conversation is a chore. Recently, I made a major faux pas when I was overheard talking to myself, complaining about what someone else had done.
One wouldn’t think that occupational hazards would be a problem, but they do occur. To cite one case, our ratty desktop copier, which was located in the narrow main hallway, suddenly started leaking noxious fumes every time it was in operation. I refused to use it, and after a few weeks, another staffer learned from an occupational safety group that the fumes were xylene, a potent carcinogen. (Ah yes, xylene. I remember xylene from the steel mill, where we kept a bin of it in our combined lunch and tool room to clean machine parts — and our hands.)
Still nothing was done for months. The director, whose personal life was in an uproar, felt overwhelmed by all the decisions he had to make daily. He couldn’t choose between getting the old copier overhauled or buying a new super-duper $8000 model. Finally, he chose the deluxe route. The place still stinks, though. With the fancy copier now doing the bulk jobs that we formerly sent out, and a new laserwriter going full blast next to it, the hallway continues to get its share of fumes. God help us when the machines get old!
The new laserwriter is part of an elaborate stock of computer equipment that constitutes a major staff nuisance. Computers are the one thing we have in abundance because their flashy aura makes them easily fundable. Describing these PC's as “cutting edge” is accurate in more ways than one. After working on them for hours at a stretch, I suffer from eye strain, headaches, and back pain. If I type a lot on the keyboard, my wrists feel like they are about to break off.
Then there is the information glut I have to put up with. It comes by mail and modem from other environmentalists’ word processors. The computers’ enormous data shuffling capabilities have tended to proletarianize us, making our jobs more like those of file clerks than political activists. Their usefulness in mass mail campaigns has reduced our time for critical thinking still further by channeling our creativity into public relations. One of my Washington acquaintances rages, “We’ve become direct mail advertising agencies. I used to send out twenty million pieces of mail a year, but what did it have to do with fighting for the environment?”
Computers aside, unquestioning subservience to the money-raising imperative subverts the whole environmentalist project. To my mind, the people in the office working on the environmental effects of Third World military buildup constitute the most innovative group we have. I was once shocked, therefore, to hear them belittled by a member of the more marketable, richer dolphins and whales group as “a drag on the organization. . . We’re the important ones who keep things afloat by raising all the money...
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, the officers of the organization attained their positions in the hierarchy through their reputations as successful fundraisers. This oh-so-typical link between money and power finds its validation in the materialist ethos expressed in the above put-down. And because of that ethos I’m editing a magazine for readers who were largely attracted on a sentimental “save the whales” basis. I do not have the opportunity to garner the radical ecologist readership for whom I would prefer to publish because such an effort would restrict our overall audience.
The man who wrote several times castigating us for killing trees to put out our biased rag of a magazine may have been a crank, but he did have a point. He saw the relationship between workplace and nature in a way our organizational form does not allow, even though such recognition is the starting point for a broad ecological consciousness that connects the way we work with environmental disruption.
Of course, there are many people its the organization who sense the connection anyway. The small gang of upstarts I was part of did for a while attack the heart of the matter. Our temporary rebellion demanded workers control in the form of a staff-elected board of directors. The point was precisely that a conventional management structure is incompatible with environmentalism, but we never could formulate this idea in a clear manner. Since the required conceptual tools were beyond our grasp, we substituted general democratic principles for a more specific critique. The lack of official personnel policies became a major issue. and staff committees to draw them up were formed.
To call our campaign a “revolt” is really an exaggeration. People who are committed to their work are not militant. They do not strike or engage in sabotage. The liberal atmosphere in which we operate does provide plenty of opportunity to talk, though. So that’s what we did— we went to meeting after meeting to air our proposals.
The response we received from the powers-that-be had nothing liberal about it. They handed out the same capitalist, Reaganite arguments that you could get at any company. First there was the efficiency argument. Workers’ democracy leads to endless committee meetings in which nothing ever gets decided, it was claimed. We need the skilled, assertive leadership that hierarchical management provides so that we can act vigorously in these times of environmental crisis. (Sure, buddy. When you gonna get the copier fixed, huh.?)
Then there were the usual financial arguments. Suddenly, the organization was running out of money and was just too poor to make any improvements now. (Actually, close examination of the figures revealed that we were in a temporary cash flow crisis, which was more a reflection of the administrators’ abilities than of any long-term poverty.) It was further alleged that democratic management specifically stood in the way of fundraisintg because donors would only give money to groups watched over by independent boards of directors. You can’t beat the system.
Finally, there were the personal attacks. After a snide exchange with a board member, one of my colleagues suddenly announced to me, “I’m going to have to pull back. I’m getting labeled as a troublemaker.” I was regarded as an immature whiner, but I knew that would happen from the steel mill. Bosses blandly give out their commands as part of the natural order of things. Objecting subordinates have to engage in aggressive, “nasty” behavior to have an impact.
Sometimes one incident becomes emblematic of a whole affair. For me, that moment came at the end of an especially acrimonious meeting, when the general director growled at one of the clerical people, “I know what’s wrong with you. You don’t really want to answer the phones, and you’re bored by doing the books. The problem is you want to be an environmental activist. The next time, we’ll get somebody who isn’t as educated and just wants to do their job and go home.” Talk about nasty! (But anyway, what’s going to happen when there’s an emergency, and the alienated employee is expected to work overtime in a frenzy for the “cause.")
None of the dissidents were fired, but they did get worn out. Several left for greener pastures and were replaced by more accommodating individuals. The ripple of dissent gradually petered out.
We did manage to win one staff representative on the board of directors, which changes nothing. We also won some improvements in working conditions and benefits. Eventually, management promises to provide health insurance and regularize the status of the underpaid “outside contractors.” These economic measures also are accomplishable without altering the current power structure.
That power structure is apparently a stable one. Its particular combination of hierarchy, self-serving ideology, and tactical resources for overcoming dissent mean that change is unlikely to come from within, at least for the foreseeable future.
Working under deleterious conditions manipulating people’s perception of nature to enhance the prestige of the leadership above me, and with only limited economic change possible, am I really that far from the steel mill? The difference is that formerly I worked with the actual physical resources nature provides whereas now I work with the ideas that it suggests. Doing the latter is more benign in the immediate sense. I do contribute to enhancing the widespread environmental awareness existing in this country.
My long-term contribution is still deadly, however. If the discussion needed to constructively integrate human society with the natural world is precluded by the hierarchy I prop up, then we environmentalists are condemned to fight an endless series of defensive battles. As usual, we are losing so much because of the vanity of a few.
by Green Fuchsia