Page 5 of Wheels

"So if I turn you down, if I decide to back up Frank the way he just said I should, what then?"

Illas said stiffly, "We'd be obliged to go through further grievance procedure."

"Okay." The assistant plant manager nodded. -That's your privilege. Except, if we go through a full grievance drill it can mean thirty days or more.

In the meantime, does everybody keep working?"

"Naturally. The collective bargaining agreement specifies . . ."

Zaleski flared, "I don't need you to tell me what the agreement says! It says everybody stays on the job while we negotiate. But right now a good many of your men are getting ready to walk off their jobs in violation of the contract."

For the first time, Illas looked uneasy. "The UAW does not condone illegal strikes."

"Goddamit, then! Stop this one!"

"If what you say is true, I'll talk to some of our people."

"Talking won't do any good. You know it, and I know it." Zaleski eyed the union committeeman whose pink face had paled slightly; obviously Illas didn't relish the thought of arguing with some of the black militants in their present mood.

The union - as Matt Zaleski was shrewdly aware - was in a tight dilemma in situations of this kind. If the union failed to support its black militants at all, the militants would charge union leaders with racial prejudice and being "management lackeys." Yet if the union went too far with its support, it could find itself in an untenable position legally, as party to a wildcat strike. Illegal strikes were anathema to UAW leaders like Woodcock, Fraser, Greathouse, Bannon, and others, who had built reputations for tough negotiating, but also for honoring agreements once made, and settling grievances through due process. Wild-catting debased the union's word and undermined its bargaining strength.

"They're not going to thank you at Solidarity House if we let this thing get away from us," Matt Zaleski persisted. "There's only one thing can stop a walkout, and that's for us to make a decision here, then go down on the floor and announce it."

Illas said, "That depends on the decision." But it was plain that the union man was weighing Zaleski's words.

Matt Zaleski had already decided what the ruling had to be, and he knew that nobody would like it entirely, including himself. He thought sourly: these were lousy times, when a man had to shove his convictions in his pocket along with pride - at least, if he figured to keep an automobile plant running.

He announced brusquely, "Nobody gets fired. Newkirk goes back to his job, but from now on he uses his fists for working, nothing else." The assistant plant manager fixed his eyes on Illas. "I want it clearly understood by you and by Newkirk - one more time, he's out. And before he goes back, I'll talk to him myself."

"He'll be paid for lost time?" The union man had a slight smile of triumph.

"Is he still at the plant?"


Zaleski hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. "Okay, providing he finishes the shift. But there'll be no more talk about anybody replacing Frank."

He swung to face Parkland. "And you'll do what you said you would - talk to the young guy. Tell him what was said was a mistake."

"An apology is what it's known as," Illas said.

Frank Parkland glared at them both. "Of all the crummy, sleazy backdowns!"

"Take it easy!" Zaleski warned.

"Like hell I'll take it easy!" The burly foreman was on his feet, towering over the assistant plant manager. He spat words across the desk between them. "You're the one taking it easy - the easy out because you're too much a goddamn coward to stand up for what you know is right."

His face flushing deep red, Zaleski roared, "I don't have to take that from you! That'll be enough! You hear?"

"I hear." Contempt filled Parkland's voice and eyes. "But I don't like what I hear, or what I smell."

"In that case, maybe you'd like to be fired!"

"Maybe," the foreman said. "Maybe the air'd be cleaner some place else."

There was a silence between them, then Zaleski growled, "It's no cleaner. Some days it stinks everywhere."

Now that his own outburst was over, Matt Zaleski had himself in hand. He had no intention of firing Parkland, knowing that if he did, it would be a greater injustice piled on another; besides, good foremen were hard to come by. Nor would Parkland quit of his own accord, whatever he might threaten; that was something Zaleski had calculated from the beginning. He happened to know that Frank Parkland had obligations at home which made a continuing paycheck necessary, as well as too much seniority in the company to throw away.

But for a moment back there, Parkland's crack about cowardice had stung.

There had been an instant when the assistant plant manager wanted to shout that Frank Parkland had been ten years old, a snot-nosed kid, when he, Matt Zaleski, was sweating bomber missions over Europe, never knowing when a hunk of jagged flak would slice through the fuselage, then horribly through his guts or face or pecker, or wondering if their B-17F would go spinning earthward from 25,000 feet, burning, as many of the Eighth Air Force bombers did while comrades watched . . . So think again about who you're taunting with cowardice, sonny; and remember I'm the one, not you, who has to keep this plant going, no matter how much bile I swallow doing it! . . . But Zaleski hadn't said any of that, knowing that some of the things he had thought of happened a long time ago, and were not relevant any more, that ideas and values had changed in screwy, mixed up ways; also that there were different kinds of cowardice, and maybe Frank Parkland was right, or partly right.

Disgusted with himself, the assistant plant manager told the other two,

"Let's go down on the floor and settle this."

They went out of the office - Zaleski first, followed by the union committeeman, with Frank Parkland, dour and glowering, in the rear. As they clattered down the metal stairway from the office mezzanine to the factory floor, the noise of the plant hit them solidly, like a barrage of bedlam.

The stairway at factory floor level was close to a section of assembly line where early subassemblies were welded onto frames, becoming the foundations on which finished cars would rest. The din at this point was so intense that men working within a few feet of one another had to shout, heads close together, to communicate. Around them, showers of sparks flew upward and sideways in a pyrotechnic curtain of intense whiteblue. Volleys from welding machines and rivet guns were punctuated by the constant hiss of the power tools' lifeblood - compressed air. And central to everything, focus of activity like an ambling godhead exacting tribute, the moving assembly line inched inexorably on.

The union committeeman fell in beside Zaleski as the trio moved forward down the line. They were walking considerably faster than the assembly line itself, so that cars they passed were progressively nearer completion. There was a power plant in each chassis now, and immediately ahead, a body shell was about to merge with a chassis sliding under it in what auto assembly men called the "marriage act." Matt Zaleski's eyes swung over the scene, checking key points of operation, as he always did, instinctively.

Heads went up, or turned, as the assistant plant manager, with Illas and Parkland, continued down the line. There were a few greetings, though not many, and Zaleski was aware of sour looks from most workers whom they passed, white as well as black. He sensed a mood of resentment and unrest. It happened occasionally in plants, sometimes without reason, at other times through a minor cause, as if an eruption would have happened anyway and was merely seeking the nearest outlet. Sociologists, he knew, called it a reaction to unnatural monotony.

The union committeeman had his face set in a stern expression, perhaps to indicate that he hobnobbed with management only through duty, but did not enjoy it.

"How's it feel," Matt Zaleski asked him, "now you don't work on the line any more?"

Illas said curtly, "Good."

Zaleski believed him. Outsiders who toured auto plants often assumed that workers there became reconciled, in time, to the noise, smell, heat, unrelenting pressure, and endless repetition of their jobs. Matt Zaleski had heard touring visitors tell their children, as if speaking of inmates of a zoo: "They all get used to it. Most of them are happy at that kind of work. They wouldn't want to do anything else."

When he heard it, he always wanted to cry out: "Kids, don't believe it!

It's a lie!"

Zaleski knew, as did most others who were close to auto plants, that few people who worked on factory production lines for long periods had ever intended to make that work a lifetime's occupation. Usually, when hired, they looked on the job as temporary until something better came along. But to many - especially those with little education - the better job was always out of reach, forever a delusive dream. Eventually a trap was sprung. It was a two-pronged trap, with a worker's own commitments on one side - marriage, children, rent, installment payments - and on the other, the fact that pay in the auto industry was high compared with jobs elsewhere.

But neither pay nor good fringe benefits could change the grim, dispiriting nature of the work. Much of it was physically hard, but the greatest toll was mental - hour after hour, day after day of deadening monotony. And the nature of their jobs robbed individuals of pride. A man on a production line lacked a sense of achievement; he never made a car; he merely made, or put together, pieces - adding a washer to a bolt, fastening a metal strip, inserting screws. And always it was the identical washer or strip or screws, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, while working conditions - including an overlay of noise - made communication difficult, friendly association between individuals impossible. As years went by, many, while hating, endured. Some had mental breakdowns. Almost no one liked his work.