Thursday, July 22, 2010

Industrial Valley

Finished Industrial Valley by Ruth McKenney this morning. I have already made a brief notation about Ms. Kenney, and how her work was recommended to me. For a 380 page book, it took me an awful long time to get through. Not because it is uninteresting, in fact the opposite is true and is an indication what it took such time to get through. When I am really into a book, I read slower, not faster. I started reading at reading-out-loud pace. I start acting, basically, in my head. It unfolds dramatically and that, you know, takes time.

McKenney details the events which led up to the Akron Rubber strikes of 1935-36. If this book is to be believed, the labor defiance of that period, in that place, were the most significant movements in American labor relations of the 20th century.

Three significant moments:

In late November, 1935 a nine-week strike at the Ohio Insulator plane in Barberton was ended through a six day siege involving gas-attacks that affected the women and children, families of the striking workers, who lived in the immediate vicinity of the plant.

At 2 AM on January 29, 1936 the first-ever sit-down strike begins at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

And on February 14, 1936 a five week campaign begins at Goodyear, the largest manufacturer of tires in the world, which established the rights of rubber workers to organize and began a cascade of union organization which soon touch steel, the automotive industry and everything else.

McKenney’s technique was only mostly non-fiction. She created a few fictional characters were are represented at the beginning and the end of the book to act as an “everyman” for the reader to relate to. Most of the book is taken with a day-to-day account of events as they occurred and affected the people of Akron and the surrounding area. Often these stories exists in stark contrast to each other, the invisible narrator often adding her dry, ironic observations.

For example, Item: child of worker hitches a ride on the outside of a car because he can’t afford bus fare to the doctor and is horribly killed by an oncoming truck, followed by item: large corporate affair describing ladies dresses in detail. Closing comment; “A gay time was had by all.” I made that up, but you get the idea.

We are drawn from that point in the pit of the Depression, where Akron was a non-functioning city. City services had been stripped to less than the bare essentials, people were hungry, houses were being foreclosed in large numbers, the Mayor was practically insane with cries to the federal government for assistance. It was a major American city in despair.

Roosevelt arrives as some kind of savior, though his election in 1932 was based, in Akron, anyway, entirely on the full-throated desire to never see Herbert Hoover ever again. What he did took everyone on surprise, the most significant of which (in this book) was the NRA which, depending on how you interpreted it, gave workers the right to organize.

At the same time, in order to increase production (and excuse me if I get this wrong) the rubber barons were insisting on certain quotas of production, which led to “the speedup.” Conditions in the factories were increasing intolerable, physically and mentally, for this backbreaking and specialized work. Eventually, in another attempt to maximize profits, Goodyear was to reinstate the eight-hour day. They had previously brought the shift down to six hours, to create more work for more men. By reinstating the eight-hour day, with the speedup, fewer men would be employed, creating the same amount of materials for the same pay.

As profit reports for 1935 came out indicating that even during this Depression, companies like Goodyear were taking in respectable profits (in excess of five million, an increase over previous years) events came together in such a way as the strengthen the resolve of workers, and give organizers the opportunity they were looking for to unionize these large shops.

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