I went into the mill for the job. I had no illusions that the workers needed me. They already had a union, they didn’t need me to do that for them. Only a fool could ignore the reality of the times: there were grave limitations on what you could do in the working class. We knew this was not the period when great struggles were going to take place, when radicals could step in and play a leading role.
There were many things I missed about life in the mill after I left it, but I particularly remember four-handed pinochle. For years I have wished I could find a game like it. Four-handed pinochle, also known as Polish pinochle, was my favorite card game, and I never again met anybody who played it. I did not much care for the traditional three-handed game. My friends on the maintenance welding crew and I would play Polish pinochle every day at lunch, and then try to sneak out a little early on the day shift to play some more.
The main social event in mill life was the retirement party. This affair, which came along about once a month, was the only place where black and white workers socialized with each other off the job. They were always stag events, and the formula was always the same: K, C, and B — kielbasa, chicken and beef — with sauerkraut and potatoes, lots of beer and whiskey, and a craps game. The parties would often go on for ten or twelve hours.
Once a month I would play a regular poker game with some friends, all of them from the mill except for one guy who ran a funeral home. He would carp constantly about what penicillin was doing to his business. Penicillin was new in those clays, and winter — pneumonia season — was always good for business. It occurred to me, listening to him complain, that death is a commodity like everything else in this country. I told him, “Don’t worry, you‘re still in a growth business. You’lI get ‘em in the end.” He said, “But I might not be around to take advantage of it.”
I loved to play Chicago-style slow-pitch softball, the kind that uses the extra-large ball, but the mill was such an all-consuming environment that hardly anyone had any urge to play left in them after a shift. Your only real agenda once you got out of there, besides stopping for a drink at your favorite tavern, was to get the hell home. The union’s softball team was mostly populated by upper-level workers and white-collar types who could spare the energy.
There were stranger hobbies in the house than anything I had been aware of before. One of my fellow welders in the maintenance department, a Norwegian, had been one of the “premature anti-fascists” who went to Spain to fight for the Loyalists during the Civil War. He told me he regretted nothing about going to Spain, but he was not interested in politics any more. Whether it was the witchhunt that did it to him or the attraction of earthier pleasures, I never found out for sure. He made a few attempts to convert me to his new cause, which was pornography. I guess he was on the cutting edge, in the sense that he was anticipating the sexual revolution by about fifteen years. You could say he was a premature pornographer.
My own main concern, off the job, was to help lead a small circle called the American Socialist Club. We were trying to fight McCarthyism, speak up for the black civil rights movement that was beginning to take shape, and get a dialogue going with other radicals. It was one of the early efforts, in a period that was increasingly frustrating for leftists, to regroup and plant the seeds for a comeback. Most of us came from the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party, a small group inspired by the Russian revolution and its leaders, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
The SWP had had its heroic years — it led the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, one of the key steps toward creating a militant labor movement in the United States, and many of its leaders had served prison terms under the Smith Act. But by the early 1950s it had became a marginalized band of die-hards — caretakers, not cultivators, of the revolutionary idea. Many of its younger leaders and labor union representatives in the Midwest had left in protest against the passive, sterile thinking that had overtaken the once-proud party.
The way things were going, we thought, revolution was clearly on the back burner (if it was on the stove at all), and our best hope was in more modest projects: educating people, laying new groundwork, and defending the integrity of the socialist vision. To do that, we published a magazine called The American Socialist. The editor, Bert Cochran, was a United Auto Workers representative and a leading SWP theoretician with a lot of credibility in labor. Another editor was Harry Braverman, a self-educated sheet-metal worker closer to my own age. He had become a noted scholar of American history; later he wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital, an influential Marxist account of the labor process.