Colleen Elizabeth Heller
AMERICAN MOSAIC FINAL
Professors Kim Lacy Rogers, Susan Rose, and Tyra Seldon
The thing that makes an economic system like ours work is to maintain control over people and make them do jobs they hate. To do this, you fill their heads with biblical nonsense about fornication of every variety. Make sure they marry young, make sure they have a wife and children very early. Once a man has a wife and two young children, he will do what you tell him to. He will obey you. And this is the aim of the entire masculine role. ~Gore Vidal, 1980
This statement holds true if the necessary laborers in a capitalist system are available, and a widely held ideology of masculinity drives men to endure hard, mind-numbing labor. In the United States, this ideology exists and too often remains unchallenged, which results in cycles of poverty, struggle, and discontent that are difficult to break. In essence, this ideology is partially responsible for the maintenance of the working class. When I interviewed two steelworkers of similar age, status, and background, ideas about masculinity, as well as the patterns that distinguish them as working class, such as poverty in childhood, blue-collar work, and marriage at a young age emerged. Studying the life courses of these two men and relating them to those of other members of the American working class reveals much about what it means to be a working class male in the late twentieth century.
Marin Mitchell “Mitch” Ivanoff and Samuel Charles Heller, III are 47- and 43- year-old steelworkers respectively. I interviewed them this spring as part of the American Mosaic. Initially, I interviewed Mitch in order to gain insight into life as a steelworker and union member in Steelton, Pennsylvania. However, the interview process provided me with more than I expected; I was privileged with information about Mitch’s personal life as well. When the interview ended, my mind bubbled with a mixture of shock and excitement, for the story Mitch told me was familiar: it is the story of Sam Heller, my father. The stories were sometimes nostalgic, sometimes sad, but all very vivid and real in the minds of the two men. The fact that they shared so much in common was more than a coincidence, it was a testimony to the lives of many Americans, a tribute to stories that are too often untold. Their stories are worth exploring.
I began my line of questioning with a focus on the childhoods of these men, because it is no secret that one’s childhood plays a crucial role in not only identity formation, but in determining one’s status later in life as well. Mitch recounted:
I was raised in a part of Harrisburg called Cipletown, a small…working class neighborhood, very diverse, all ethnicities, a couple of speakeasies, a few churches, a little corner grocery store, Johnny the barber, two coal yards, a very neat place. I was raised in my family’s home…we had six children in the family, very close in age, eight years from oldest, myself being the oldest, to the youngest…it was really neat because we had a lot of kids to play with. It was a small row home with three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and a kitchen. As the children kept coming, the house got smaller I guess…growing up, it was idyllic. It was a very nice neighborhood. All the neighbors knew each other and you could walk into someone’s house and the doors were left unlocked. (1)
Both Mitch and Sam express a sense of safety and security within their large, working class families, which were part of an even larger working class community. Similar to Mitch’s childhood, Sam fondly recalls his saying:
It was an interesting childhood. I have a, six brothers and sisters, a total of seven of us, I have two brothers and four sisters so we had a crowded house…I lived in the east end of Norristown, it was a, very culturally diverse, I’m talking a, early sixties. We lived on a very small street that had row houses, that a, our side of the street was all white and the other side of the street was all black. And we got along…There was a corner store I remember. Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig, who we could go buy penny candy at. Right down the street from there there was a barber shop where I got my first every hair cut…then we moved when I was in second grade, to the west end of Norristown, on another very tiny street that was even smaller than the first street, with brick row houses on both sides, a uh, a railroad tracks right behind my yard, and a, a big shirt factory uh, right down the end of my street. And that was an all white lower class neighborhood and uh I remember that everyone, there was a sense of community there…it was just a, tiny little street, there was just a mill at one end, a mill at the other end. And uh, it was hot. People didn’t have storm doors and storm windows so you’d see the front door wide open and people would sit on, they called it their stoop, it was their front steps. (2)
Both Mitch and Sam’s memories of family and community life during their early years are filled with a sense of nostalgia, indicating that more than just in a physical sense, they felt a spirit of closeness in their family and in their neighborhood. They both remember important “landmarks” in their lives, physical ones such as the barber shop and the candy store, and more abstract ones like moving. However, while most of their descriptions were of the good times and events, Mitch and Sam also revealed that like many working class families, theirs were not perfect:
We didn’t have much money even though both of my parents worked, there was so many of us and my dad changed jobs quite a bit when I was younger so uh, we were a bit impoverished uh, we got help from public assistance growing up, different times, so we were used to the system in the state at the time and uh, different church groups helped us out from time to time and…uh, it was a little bit tough…the bad times uh, even as a child I felt funny when the public assistance people came to the house at Christmastime and gave us pajamas and things like that when we were hurting, uh…the free lunch program at school. When kids would ask why I didn’t have to pay for my lunch, I uh, I felt the humiliation even as early as fifth grade I can recall. (3)
Whereas Sam was very forthcoming with his description of the “bad times,” Mitch was less willing to share these details with me. He mentioned simply that his family was poor, and his discomfort in exposing these aspects of his life speaks for those times themselves.
Stories of poverty in childhood such as these are common among many working class adults, according to Lillian Rubin, who studies embers of the working class in her book, Worlds of Pain. Rubin writes, “The first and fundamental fact of most of their lives was that they were poor. Not one person, even those from the most solid and integrated homes, failed to mention growing up poor – some worse off than others, to be sure, but all whose dominant experience of childhood was material deprivation.” (4) Rubin’s argument is demonstrated by the narratives of the two men; regardless of the sense of family and community, one cannot and does not deny the painful feelings of deprivation that often accompany a working class life. This fact is significant because poverty during childhood seems to be the first step in the working class cycle, as well as an influential element in the development of one’s identity and beliefs.
After exploring the basic structure of their childhoods, I began to wonder why Mitch and Sam’s families were poor. In other words, what in particular caused them to be members of the working class and what effect did this have on their lives? First, the fact that each family had a large number of children certainly did not help their economic situation; the greater the number of children, the more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. The second factor that led to a membership in the working class dealt with job stability. Mitch stated that his father “worked many jobs,” but that eventually his father gained stable employment at Phoenix Central Iron and Steel. (5) Sam recalls that his alcoholic father
had a pretty bad temper, so he changed jobs quite a bit. I think he told more than one employer where to go and…He told me that back in the 60s if you quit a job, you could walk down the street and get hired on at the next place down the street…[he was] always looking for that, what he called a ‘good job,’ uh, he finally found that I guess, somewhere around 1970, when he got a union job working for a construction company and he joined the Teamsters. (6)
The fact that these two men had many jobs is not so much a reflection on their character as it is on society at the time and on behavioral patterns and norms of asserting masculinity found among working class men during this era. Once again, the oral histories compiled by Rubin demonstrate that the behavior of Mitch and Sam’s fathers was actually quite common. She describes these men as “hard-livers” and “non-conformists,” and analyzes their behavior saying “the ability to say ‘take your damn job and shove it’ makes a man feel like a man again, at least for a moment. He can stand tall, at least until he faces the reality that his wife and children won’t eat so well next week. He can defer dealing with that reality by getting drunk.” (7) Once again there is a vicious cycle; a man needs a job because he is poor, he hates his job and quits to assert his independent manhood, by not having a job he loses part of his manhood, he drinks the pain away causing him to slump further into debt. It is here that the problems of a masculine ideology and the traps of the working class become apparent. While the roles of their fathers as providers were important in determining the social class of Mitch and Sam, the roles that their mothers played are of equal importance. “We really didn’t have a lot of money growing up, we had six kids, and mom stayed at home like your regular fifties America. My dad worked and we got by…” (8) This statement indicates that Mitch’s mother did not contribute financially to the family, thus adding to hardship. At the same time, Mitch’s words suggest a belief that the role of mother as homemaker was the norm for working class people at this time. However, while the 1950s for many represented a return to female domesticity, in actuality “rising real wages in women’s industries increased the costs of staying home and provided new incentives for married women to work.” (9) While Mitch’s family attempted to live the “American Dream,” Sam’s family lived the American working class reality, where mother not only worked, but was essential to the family’s survival. Whereas Mitch’s mother was a homemaker, Sam’s was a breadwinner. He describes his mother as the “stabilizing force” in his family, who provided emotional and financial support for his father and their seven children. He also adds, “she went in to do what she could do in addition to raising a family, and that was waitressing. She’s been waitressing for over forty years now so, that’s about what she did…and that’s a hard job for anyone who’s ever done it…she’s a hard worker and she put that work ethic into us.” (10) That Sam’s mother worked to remedy an otherwise unstable financial situation, and in turn instilled a strong work ethic in her children, is the more common story of the working class, even during the 1950s.
A strong work ethic is important because it makes for good workers. It becomes even more important to teach your children when they are key players in the family economy. In her study of families and work, Valerie Kincade Oppenheimer explores the strategies used by large blue-collar families to maintain a comfortable standard of living, one of which is sending adolescents to work. Oppenheimer states “children provide an important source of family income…the work of children while they are adolescents or in young adulthood, could compensate for both large family size and the waning abilities of the father to be the economic mainstay of the family.” (11) Like many working class children, Mitch and Sam began working during adolescence, starting at ages 12 and 11 respectively. Mitch recalls:
I worked at my church as a grounds keeper if you like. I cut grass and washed pigeon poop off the front of the church and trimmed hedges and generally swept up and whatever they wanted me to do, wash the priest’s car. Stuff like that. It was a very good job…I worked there through the end of eighth grade. Before I went to high school, I got a job working at the old Harrisburg Decorating Company which we decorated primarily the Farmshow for all the different events… (12)
While sharing his life history, Mitch seemed to recall certain years of his life by the jobs he had at that time. Sam’s memories were similar:
That was important in my family, that if you had a job you had some worth in our family, you could contribute…When I was 11, my older brother had been working for a few years down at the restaurant, or the diner, it was a dining car that my mother worked at. At one time in my life every member of my family has worked there…we did without a lot, so we realized that if you wanted things, the sooner you got a job, you could get em… (13)
Sam went on to recall several other jobs he held as a young man, each time providing details about his age, tasks, and pay. Besides sharing empirical information, Sam’s narrative also echoes the themes of deprivation and the importance of a work ethic that emerge in many working class narratives. Additionally, his life history tells of working for oneself, not necessarily for one’s family. According to Ellen Greenberger, this new story of working for self reliance is one that becomes more and more common in recent years: “Today, the family’s subsistence needs no longer consume most teenagers’ earnings, nor is most youngsters’ chief motivation for work the family’s financial need. In fact, the benefits of teenagers’ employment redound mainly to themselves: they spend their earnings to underwrite a level of personal consumption that their family cannot, or will not, provide.” (14) Sam, who is a few years younger than Mitch, becomes part of this new young working class, whose experience is also found in the interviews of Lillian Rubin. One young narrator said:
It wasn’t any fun not having any money for extras like other kids had. If you wanted something for yourself, or some money so you could have some fun, you just had to go out and get it. And that’s what I did. I knew my way around, and by the time I was fourteen, I had my first real job in a lumber yard. After that I always had at least a little money so I could hang around with the guys and do things with them. (15)
For these two men, whose income is not relinquished to the family, work becomes a means for freedom, independence, and the ability to leave home in order to live a life outside of poverty.
Not long after their adolescence, Mitch and Sam needed to work to support themselves and a family, only this time the family was their very own. Having grown up in large working class families where resources and opportunities were scarce, it is not surprising that Mitch and Sam both graduated from high school and began working in a steel mill shortly thereafter. Another steelworker of the same age, interviewed for the book, Portraits in Steel, shares a similar story:
“I graduated from Lackawanna High School in June of ’73. I was trying to get into the mills ever since I got out of school. I started working in August at a place downtown, making rubber stamps and police badges.” (16)
For many young working class men, steelwork provided an opportunity to earn a living without the college training they were unable to afford. Mitch was fortunate enough to attend Harrisburg Area Community College for one year following high school, but became sucked into blue-collar work as a result of his summer job at Bethlehem Steel in Steelton:
When I graduated from high school, I had a few jobs through high school, and after school, I went to HACC for a year. And I actually started in the steel mill as a summer job after the first semester at HACC. I was nineteen when I started…The money. That was the hook. I just didn’t umm; I am not too smart… That first paycheck just blew my mind. (17)
Having worked for seven years at this point, and coming from a family with little money, work seemed natural to Mitch, especially work that paid well. Mitch reveals that it was the money that influenced his decision to drop out of school to work in the mill, a decision that he often regrets.
Sam went through a similar experience when he graduated from high school. Even though he pursued an academic course, Sam did not have the opportunity to attend college. As a result, in June of 1976 he found himself “out of options” and simply looking for a place where he could “make a career.” (18) He found this in Superior Tube Company:
I graduated from high school and then I went right into the job I have now. Graduated in June and started my job I work now in July 1976. And…that was a shock to get $4.50 an hour at that time. I thought I was living large at the time, making $4.50 an hour… (19)
Like memories of deprivation and poverty in childhood, the memories of work for these two men are vivid. These images become especially clear when recalling their first days on the job. Mitch remembers the date and time that he began working in the mill, the fact that he was late, the work that he did, and the people he met. He provides extensive detail about these topics, as well as how he felt about them: “I didn’t want to go back, I really didn’t want to go back. It was really; I never worked like that in my life. A lot of heat and lots of hot steel all around me, and it was pretty physical…” (20) Sam too shared a large amount of detail about his first day on the job, highlighting in particular the sights and smells that he experienced as the “new guy” in the plant:
Nothing prepared me for the mill. The smells when you go in there just overwhelm you. There’s chemical smells, there’s uh, we use radiac saws to cut, it’s [such] a horrible smell that it’s hard to believe that you ever get used to it and don’t even notice it. The first night I was in there, I met people from all walks of life…I started at four in the afternoon, I remember by six o’clock at night I looked around at all the, the structure work, the beams and everything and just said ‘Oh my God! What did you get yourself into?’ (21)
The uncertainty that Mitch and Sam felt on their first day in the mill is not uncommon, especially considering that their transition from high school boy to working man occurred in only a matter of months. In fact, their sentiments are shared by other steelworkers, one of whom shared his story in the book, Steelworker Alley:
The fist time I worked there I think I lasted three hours. Man, it was hot down there. The fumes, the heat, and everything else were terrible…I left work that day and said I didn’t care if I didn’t get paid. Lots of summer help came to work in the coke plant. They always had a big turnover there. (22)
Luckily, Sam and Mitch did not feel the need to quit because they both found a network of support in their coworkers that helped make millwork bearable.
Imagine spending eight, ten, even twelve hours a day in a loud, hot, dirty mill that reeks of chemical fumes. What would get you through the day? In many places, a specific “shop floor culture” emerges that enables men to cope with the daily monotony of work in a steel mill. Paul Willis explores this notion of a “shop floor culture,” and feels that it develops out of the worker’s attempts to regain control over the labor power and ultimately their lives. One of the first ways in which workers gain control in the work place while at the same time making time pass more quickly is by conversing throughout the day. Mitch said that conversations in the mill are very important, and that their topics change as the years go by. He also said that due to the shifts he worked, his conversations led to many friendships that he maintains even today:
The rest of the world is working, and you are off. So, anything you did, any interests you had, which were many, hunting, fishing, things of that nature, you did with the guys at work. And that’s a lot of fun. That really builds those bonds, those life-long bonds. They’re my best friends I ever made; we’ve worked together. (23)
Sam echoed Mitch’s sentiments about the importance of conversation and adds that sometimes, the conversations took another turn:
Lots of shop talk, which is what they call it in the mill. Uh, I learned a lot of dirty limericks and things like that so, that probably goes on in a lot of mills. But, we talked about different things, sports, we talked about, uh, talked about our families…you heard about each other’s families, that’s what we talked about. You were in there eight, ten, twelve hours a day talking…” (24)
According to Willis, the inclusion of “dirty limericks” in everyday shoptalk is common in other places of work. In fact, Willis argues that another key element of “shop floor culture” is “the distinctive form of language use and a highly developed form of intimidatory humour. Many verbal exchanges on the shop floor are not serious or about work activities. They are jokes…Associated with this concrete and expressive humour is a well-developed physical humour: essentially the practical joke.” (25) The narratives of Mitch and Sam reflect Willis’ ideas and demonstrate that both men are aware of and take part in the reproduction of this culture. Mitch recalls being teased since his very first day in the mill, when his coworkers dubbed him “Tiny,” an ironic nickname making fun of Mitch’s six foot seven, near gigantic frame. Sam too recounted the joking, intimidation, and what he calls “horseplay” that takes place during the course of a workday. One man in particular stood out in his mind:
I had a friend, Pete Rheiner that worked down there that was a piece of work. Very few people in the mill liked him because he was a real buster. For some reason…he liked me and took me under his wing, taught me how to run the machines. Actually if he didn’t like you, he actually was know to do sabotage on your machine so you didn’t get as much done as him. He had a real reputation as a, he actually ran people our of that department just through pure agitation…our department throughout the mill was know as “Zimmerman’s Zoo.” They used to do all kinds of crazy things down there, you had guys that would come up and punch you in the arm while you were working for no reason just to, that was the way they told you they liked you…” (26)
For the most part, this kind of fooling around was harmless and did serve as a way to have fun with one’s work as well as show respect for people. Neither Mitch nor Sam expressed any feelings of hostility towards these other men, but rather a sense of loyalty and respect for them. When remembering the first group of men that in a sense, initiated him into the mill, Mitch says:
They were great guys. I will never forget a lot of them. Most of them are gone now, that’s the thing. But I guess you could imagine, the level of respect you have for someone who had been there so much longer than you and really just seemed to have it all together. Men who were successful, what we perceived as successful with their life, and their families, the whole nine yards. And they were good men in the mill, they were hard working, they were hard men, they put their life on the line all of the time. (27)
As is evident in his personal testimony, and the fact that he became somewhat emotional when remembering these men, Mitch’s experience with “shop floor culture” in the mill serves as a positive part of his work experience and one that he holds dear.
It is quite clear that what begin as small pranks and casual conversations often lead to lifelong friendships in the mill. Both Mitch and Sam, in sharing their fondest memories of work in the steel mill, recounted certain special relationships they had with older men who served as their mentors. These are the men who, as Mitch says, “seemed to have it all together” and who taught him much about not only his job, but also life in general. Sam remembers one man in particular to whom he will be forever indebted:
I met guys like Russ Gotshall who ended up teaching me the vast majority of what I’ve learned about my union activity. He was almost a father figure to me… him and his wife had a nice place up the road and he was very involved in the union, he was on the grievance committee, he was on the negotiating committee, he was very outspoken and he was a very intelligent man. He taught me quite a bit…Russ Gotshall really kept me on the straight and narrow, didn’t want me to get too tied up with the horseplay. He thought there was a time and a place for that and he thought it was time I should stop thinking about immature things and start getting involved in making change in the mill. (28)
These older men in the mill represented wisdom, strength, and a life for which younger men like Mitch and Sam would strive to achieve with their own families. Daniel J. Levinson, a psychologist and author of The Season’s of a Man’s Life, discusses the importance of a mentor in a young man’s life. Levinson describes what is meant by the term “mentor” and the relationship he has with the young man saying:
The mentor is ordinarily several years older, a person of greater experience and seniority in the world the young man in entering…The mentoring relationship is often situated in a work setting, and the mentoring functions are taken by a teacher, boss, editor, or senior colleague. It may also evolve informally, when the mentor is a friend, neighbor or relative. (29)
Whether a man is a blue or white-collar worker makes no difference, the mentor is still key to his survival in his new work environment. For the young man who is often unsure of himself and his direction in life, the mentor provides not only the practical skills he needs to “get by,” but also the emotional encouragement, guidance, and support that helps make the young man a more confident, secure individual. In the case of Sam and Mitch, these men gave them something to hope for and to look forward to, as well as taught them how to act. In both narratives, there is a sense that “when I was a child I spoke as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things;” (30) that it was the influence of their mentors that enabled these two to journey on the path to manhood.
What exactly is manhood? What does this mean in the context of the workplace? For many men, manhood or masculinity in the workplace is tied to the amount of physical labor in which one participates. In his research on British working class children and working class jobs, Paul Willis observes “manual labour is suffused with masculine qualities and given certain sensual overtones for ‘the lads.’ The toughness and awkwardness of physical work and effort…takes on masculine lights and depths and assumes a significance beyond itself.” (31) This notion of masculinity being tied to physical work comes through in Sam’s description of an area of the mill where the “tough guys” worked:
There was also an area of the tube reducer mill where uh, only the toughest of the tough went down there and there was like a machismo that went on down there. Those guys, they were the toughs of the mill and uh, nobody went down there unless you could handle it down there and there was a real right of passage down there. They’d stick you in trashcans and stuff like that, it was a pretty rough bunch of guys that worked down there. I never really did go down there, that wasn’t my scene… (32)
However, as is evident in Sam’s words, masculinity is not always associated with physical labor. Sam did not feel any less of a man because he did not work in the “toughest” area of the mill. Similarly, Mitch did not feel he had to prove his worth by partaking in a high degree of manual labor. These two men both seek an alternative definition of masculinity, and rather than seek their manhood in arduous tasks of the body, they seek to challenge their brains instead.
In another work, Willis explores the effects of what he deems “mindless jobs” whose primary effect is “a numbing sense of boredom and meaninglessness: sheer unhappiness if you like.” (33) For Mitch and Sam, these kinds of jobs symbolize a loss of manhood, a lack of mental prowess. Mitch takes pride in his ability to perform a job that entailed “a lot of adjustments and a lot of coordination…I enjoyed the challenge of it. Because one miscalculation, although we had a logic system controlling it, I mean, it was totally controlled by the person operating it. You know, a little mistake and you’d have red hot steel all over the place.” (34) Not only is his job a mental challenge, but he is responsible for the safety of others as well, placing him in a “protector” role, another fact that asserts his manhood in the plant. Sam also takes pride in the mental acumen required for his position and reveals that he would not care to do any other jobs. He describes the contrast
between the first positions he held in the mill with the one he currently holds:
The first job I ever bid was called “reamer,” and all you did, eight hours a night, was ream tubing, which is a de-burring process…that job was so mindless and boring that I withdrew from it shortly after I went on to it…it basically made your brains turn to mashed potato, it was really, it was a mindless job…I now oversee the operation of the machines in my area. I work hand in hand with the supervisor and the level three to put procedures together and it’s the only job in the mill that I know of that I think would challenge me so I’ve kinda stayed there ever since…I think if they ever stopped doing that there, I might even have to consider working at a different plant because I did some of the other jobs and there is no other job that challenges me like the non-destructive testing area did. (35)
His current job provides him with a sense of satisfaction not only because it provides a challenge, but also because it places him in a position where he has power over others. For these two men then, masculinity in the workplace is not wholly a matter of physical or mental strength, but of the ability to be in control of one’s situation. Masculinity is tied to challenge, responsibility, and the ability to make decisions for oneself.
Part of the responsibility that Mitch and Sam possess that enables them to demonstrate their manhood deals with safety in the mill. In a sense, taking part in furthering safety in the workplace is a way of protecting oneself and others, as well as asserting control over one’s environment. In both interviews, safety on the job became an important topic of conversation, one that both men clearly cared about. For Mitch especially, safety is now the primary concern of his position at Bethlehem Steel:
I am Chairman of the Safety Committee in the union and I am also Co-Chair of the Joint Plant Safety Committee, which is two different things. The Joint Plant Safety Committee consists of myself and my counterpart, the Superintendent of Safety Committee from the company and we have a committee that we actually do the business of running the safety program, which is joint, which is another great benefit of collective bargaining. We have a truly joint effort in trying to keep people safe… (36)
Having company support for safety programs has multiple benefits. Besides the obvious improvement in working conditions for those in the mill, strict safety measures also lower insurance costs for the company, making more money available for other things, such as workers’ salaries and healthcare. This position has specific benefits for Mitch, who feels as Chairman of the Safety Committee, he has increased camaraderie with his co-workers. He also says:
It’s very rewarding. I like to work with people. I like to interact with people, that’s really all this job is, it’s just people skills, more, and better, trying to increase my people skills. Part negotiation, part charm, part heavy when you have to be, you know, it’s the whole gamut. I find it to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done and the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. (37)
Mitch is lucky to work for a company that cares about safety. Sam, who discussed in more detail some of the injuries that have occurred in his mill, works for a company that does not support the union’s efforts to make the plant a more worker-friendly place. He feels:
That we’re very lucky in that mill, that we haven’t had some worse accidents. The company meets with the union because we have it in our union contract that they must meet with us. I think if that wasn’t in there they wouldn’t care about it whatsoever. They try to put on the guise that they do care about it but when we try to recommend things like the state certification program which would reduce their insurance costs, they totally put it off, they don’t even want to talk about it. So…I think they talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk on safety. (38)
It is clearly very frustrating for Sam to feel like he does not have power over the safety in his mill. Again, this lack of control is, in a sense, a loss of manhood.
This sentiment is common among men who work in unsafe, industrial settings. John P. Hoerr, who studied safety policies at U.S. Steel, reports that this company’s safety practices insulted many people and “convinced rank-and-file steelworkers, as well as many supervisors, that upper management persisted in treating them like children.” (39) This kind of treatment is demeaning and causes one to lose a sense of one’s masculinity. In another study of steelworkers, Robert Bruno listens as retired steelworker Anthony Delisio recounts an accident in the mill and its emotional repercussions:
One of the ugliest was when this guy walked over the catwalk, over the straightening rolls, and he got drilled by a pipe through the right kidney. It went in about a foot. It was a four and a half inch pipe, but because it was so hot it Cauterized. He stayed like this for two hours with his insides partially hanging out. Guys spent a lot of time talking about it. It made you realize how vulnerable you were in the mill. (40)
Men are not only threatened physically in the dangerous environment, but emotionally as well. One of their most basic rights, their own lives, is threatened daily and their vulnerability to pain causes scars that are seen and unseen. How does a man in constant danger regain control and protect himself? This task is difficult enough, but is complicated even more when a man is made more vulnerable by having a family. Mitch and Sam bravely faced this question when they unexpectedly became fathers. Now, they not only had to protect themselves from harm, but had the added responsibilities of protecting a wife and children as well. Faced with yet another obstacle, both men found themselves wondering what to do. Mitch remembers:
I met this girl, we started going out, and a few months later, she was pregnant… The first thing we did was move into an apartment. Right before we moved in there, I was laying in bed with her after I got home from work. I had a tablet and a pencil and I’m trying to figure out this budget and I put it all together and no matter how I plugged the numbers in, you know, I didn’t make enough money for us to exist. And, I cried. I really did. But you find a way to get through all that. It’s easy to accomplish, but is was very daunting at first and I could have been a lot better served not being so selfish when I was younger and getting prepared for the rest of my life. (41)
Sam, who faced fatherhood at the age of 22, was reluctant to discuss his feelings at the onset of his new responsibility, but did discuss the effects of the hardships he has faced since then:
When I was young, I didn’t even work overtime. It’s voluntary at my plant and we’re trying to keep it that way. I used to turn it down all the time and when I started to have kids, we tried to do it the ‘old fashioned American way’ where mom would be home with the kids and dad would go out and provide. We did it until my youngest daughter was 5, so till about 1990 and we realized we couldn’t make ends meet. Um…and I started working a lot of overtime then to try to make ends meet, worked second jobs off and on my whole adult life so uh, it wasn’t uncommon for me to work ten hours at one job and then go work three hours at another job to try to provide for my family… (42)
The theme that is most apparent in these men’s stories is the challenge of being the family “breadwinner.” This role is one of the key elements of mature manhood, so failure to perform this function means failure as a man. Barbara Ehrenreich explores the breadwinner role in her book, The Hearts of Men, and finds that this ideology of masculinity became dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, when Mitch and Sam were growing up. She shows the strong connection between being a “breadwinner” and being mature by quoting a scholar of the time who says:
…a man is immature if he regards the support of a family as a kind of trap in which he, an unsuspecting male, has somehow been caught. Again, the person who cannot settle down, who remains a vocational drifter, or the person who wants the prestige of a certain type of work but resents the routines that go with it, are immature in their sense of function. (43)
Furthermore, Ehrenreich finds that marriage is also linked to manhood, and in turn, the breadwinner role, so “if adult masculinity was indistinguishable from the breadwinner role, then it followed that the man who failed to achieve this role was either not fully adult or not fully masculine.” (44) According to this ideology, Mitch and Sam would not fully be men if they were unable to provide for their families. This school of thought is extremely problematic because in reality, it is very difficult for working class (and many middle class) men to be the only breadwinner in the family. In fact, by 1990 three fourths of married women with children between the ages of 6 and 17 were working to supplement their husband’s income, because one income was no longer enough. (45) Regardless of this fact, the idea that the mother should be at home with her children and the father should be the breadwinner is still very much imbedded in our culture, and because this situation is highly unlikely for most people, it often causes unnecessary guilt and frustration for those who fail to meet the “standard,” as is evident in the testimonies included here. As their family size increased in the late 1980s, for Mitch and Sam, the pressure was building.
Burnt out, frustrated, vulnerable, and confused, Mitch and Sam searched for a better way, and found their answer in the United Steelworkers of America. Sam feels that having a family was the driving force behind his union involvement:
I realized, when I got involved, the ways the company took advantage of people that were submissive, that were non-confrontational. They seemed to really go after those people. I didn’t want to see anybody that I loved and cared about to ever have to go through that, so I became very involved and very active (in the union) when I started to realize some of the things I was exposed to in the mill…I became a shop steward when I was twenty two, which was also the year I got married. (46)
Both Mitch and Sam have served the union in a variety of capacities over the years, from the entry level shop steward position to the position of president. The union provides both men with a greater sense of control in the mill, a sense of security, and other benefits described in the interviews:
I became more and more actively involved in it. It’s a beautiful organization. I just love the concept of a union and people working together being united by a common cause. Those things we ask for are, I think, are not really extravagance, but just, you’re not doing any more than a high-level management job when they sign a contract and delineate what type of salary demands they might have and all the rest of the things that go with being able to support your family and yourself in life. (47)
Sam shares similar views about the function and necessity of the union for working people everywhere when he says, “They’re absolutely necessary, particularly…and I shouldn’t just tie it to the blue-collar area because the United Steelworkers of America have office and technical workers, uh, that. It’s a VOICE!” (48) Additionally, Sam discussed some of the other benefits he receives as a result of his union membership and involvement, such as meeting “important” people like the Secretary of Labor, the governor of Pennsylvania, and several congressmen, as well as the opportunity to take college courses for credit. The educational aspect of the union has been especially empowering for Sam, who describes the experience saying “It was invigorating! I felt like I had something to prove to myself…” (49) Sam did prove to himself that he was more than just a factory worker; he excelled in his college courses and as a result, formed a new idea of his self worth. For Mitch and Sam, the union becomes a positive and challenging way to assert their masculinity, and serves as a bright spot in their lives as working class men.
Unfortunately, like most aspects of Mitch and Sam’s lives, even their union is challenged in today’s society. It is no secret that unions in general have been in a state of decline in the past few decades. However, of those unions affected by downsizing, deindustrialization, and increasing global markets, “the hardest hit is the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO. From its 1973 peak of nearly 1.1 million members in the United States, in ten years the union had lost more than 50 percent of its membership.” (50) These losses did not go unnoticed, especially by men like Mitch and Sam for whom the union is key to their livelihood. Both men expressed a sincere concern for the current state of the steel industry and the union specifically, and Sam discussed what he saw as some of the turning points responsible for the downward trends in union membership:
When I got involved first, it was in the late 70s, they [unions] were still strong, and…then a critical mistake was made in the labor movement, with Ronald Reagan with the air traffic controllers where uh, through some political strife within, and that’s usually how you fall when you have in-fighting. The air traffic controllers didn’t take the advice of the AFL-CIO, they went out on their strike, Reagan replaced em, scabbed em, what you will…That was a dark day in labor and we’ve been recovering ever since. When we got struck with NAFTA in ’92… labor got beat up sufficiently… (51)
It is easy to name events that sabotaged the labor movement, but what exactly makes these events so significant? To begin with, Ronald Reagan’s stance against unions caused a hostile national attitude against unions in the United States, beginning in the 1980s. Labor scholar A.H. Raskin agrees and states:
The precedent set by Ronald Reagan in his first year in the White House, when he ordered 11,500 striking federal air traffic controllers fired and put their AFL-CIO union out of business, has encouraged many companies in private industry to take on striking unions and even to provoke strikes in hopes of getting rid of unions altogether. (52)
With a nation against them, how could unions win? Secondly, in 1992 NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, opened borders between the United States and Mexico for trade, allowing for the flight of American companies to a cheaper labor market. This agreement, along with increased global trade in general, results in the loss of American jobs, the exploitation of workers around the world, and a threat to the way of life of both groups of people. One of the most threatened ways of life is that of unionized people, which Mitch sees happening everywhere:
Unions have been looked at from the right wing of our country for a long time as a socialist type of thing, leaning very far to the left and definitely from their beginnings, there was a lot of left wing involvement but you can understand that. Back before the days of income tax when guys like the Rockefellers and Carnegie and the real barons of industry operating with impunity and really treated people like cattle, you know, just like they are treated in this day and age if you go down to Mexico or South America or China. (53)
Sam agrees with Mitch’s observations of the treatment of workers around the world, but adds that Americans should also pay attention to what is happening in their own society. He feels that:
Corporate greed is getting way out of hand. There’s a push in our country to get rid of the middle class. The unions were responsible for the building of the middle class and that comes straight form FDR forward. The, there’s actually an agenda, I believe, in this country to evaporate the middle class and go back to a two class system of the rich and the poor and I think the middle class in general will get pushed down into the poor. I think the union is the last voice to try to reverse that trend. (54)
For both men, the union serves as their last bastion of hope in the fight for control, survival, and most basically, their masculinity.
Although many aspects of Mitch and Sam’s lives, like those of many working class men, are constantly contested, neither has given up in the fight for the things they desire and deserve. Despite the decline in union membership, Mitch and Sam remained active in their local unions and currently work with their brothers and sisters in solidarity to fight back against the forces that seek to destroy them. One of the most important ways that unions have begun to rebuild is through becoming more politically active. Sam sees this method as an effective way to gain back lost power, and feels that it is already working:
Rapid Response is a grass roots way of getting unions politically active. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in…We got people to hand write letters on different political subjects. We got a system of fax machines that were faxed out form the international to our local union halls where we could get the word out quickly, that ‘s why it’s called Rapid Response. Our high water mark on NAFTA, at the time we had 373 members, we had 526 hand written letters to different congressmen opposing NAFTA. WE, through Rapid Response, got the ergonomics bill through, which George W. recently reversed on us. His first act in office was to go after labor. So, the union has changed, it’s gone through many changes. I, when I joined it it was at a high, it went through a low with all the plant shutdowns in the 80s. We had twelve years of Republican rule which really took it’s toll on labors, labor unions, but Rapid Response was a wake up call. Since then, different labor unions have picked up the torch. I know the Auto Workers do a, they call it man to man or one on one, something like that, that’s their form of Rapid Response and uh, the Steelworkers led the way in that, and now it’s interesting, when I watch West Wing that one time they were talking about different things and they mentioned Rapid Response on a television show so I realized Rapid Response did get woven into the fabric of our society. We did effect change! (55)
Sam is clearly proud to be a part of the United Steelworkers of America, once hit hardest by changing societal forces, now itself becoming an agent of change in the United States. His work with the union, like Mitch’s, gives him a new sense of purpose, hope for the future, and a renewed perception of himself as a man who does have a voice in society.
While Mitch and Sam do dedicate much of their time to their work and to the union, their efforts to preserve a way of life do not stop there. Both men also strive for success through their children, with whom they will leave the values and legacy of a working class man. Sam shared:
Something is lost in our country today, the work ethic. I’ve tried to instill that in all of my children. Uh, that, a term I’ve said since they were little, that hard work brings good results. I firmly believe that…So I try to instill that in my children, I want them to be honest and hardworking and that, you know, all the old adages: good things take time, anything worth having is worth fighting for, ah, to learn to speak up for themselves, to be assertive, I’ve wanted all my children to be assertive and to learn that you can affect change. (56)
One of the ways that both men feel they can make this possible is by ensuring that their children have the opportunities they did not, especially in the area of education. In discussing his hopes for his daughter, Mitch says, “My hopes for her are to be able to get a good education because she’s real sharp and she has many, many talents. She has a very vibrant personality, you know, like any other young kid, she’s great to be around.” (57) Like Mitch, Sam also made education a priority for his children:
I stressed education to my children so that they would never get into a situation where they were, had limited options like I had and ended up in a place where you were exposed to, as I called it, huffing chemical fumes…I even took my children into the plant on different occasions and observed their reactions to the terrible fumes in there and let them know that I didn’t smell anything, to let them know that this is what it’s like and that you don’t, I used to tell them that’s where you go if you don’t do your homework, to the mill. (58)
As is evident in the interviews, both men take extreme pride in the accomplishments of their children and look forward to their bright futures. Perhaps more importantly though, the interviews with Mitch and Sam gave me a sense that these men feel they have attained manhood and maturity on their own terms, despite the constant challenges they face. Both shared a strong bond with their family, and saw this as their largest area of personal growth and success. Mitch began, “I found the best part of life is sharing it with your family…I live another life now than I used to when I was that young selfish boy. I gotta be a Dad!” (59) Sam echoed this sentiment stating that his best memories are:
My family. My three children, the great relationship I’ve had with my wife, our ups and our downs. How we’ve grown together. Where I went from, from being a young scared kid with no self confidence to a very confident, maturing adult who will, and it’s a saying I used to say and I better watch I don’t get stricken down for saying it but, I’ll argue with God almighty if I think I’m right about something, I don’t get intimidated by anybody. So I think I’ve fully grown, through my family, through my faith in God, through my union involvement, into somebody who can affect change, that doesn’t fear anybody, and I don’t mean that in a physical way per say uh, I’ll argue anybody if I think I’m right about something. I will go to the mat for somebody and fight for people’s rights and I’ll probably continue to do that, I think that’s, it’s who I am now. (60)
He clearly feels he has come full circle and is now the man he has strived to be.
In conclusion, my interviews with Mitch Ivanoff and Sam Heller were more rewarding than I can express. The lives and daily struggles of these men have helped me to gain insight into the dominant ideology of masculinity in the United States, and have led me to question this way of thinking. Even today, as is evident from the interviews with Mitch and Sam, a large part of being a man is tied to one’s ability to provide for one’s family and to achieve the “American Dream.” This ideology is extremely problematic, especially for working class men who often experience difficulty in doing so by no fault of their own. For these men, who often begin life in poverty, end up in difficult and sometimes demeaning jobs because of a lack of opportunity, marry young, and stay in these jobs out of a sense of duty, the achievement of manhood and the “American Dream” seems impossible…but is it? While a dominant, American ideology of manhood and success still does exist, many men have developed some alternative definitions of both masculinity and the “American Dream” that make both more attainable. Both Mitch and Sam have formed their own opinions on these topics, and although still a challenge, masculinity and the “American Dream” are now within their grasp. As Sam says:
I think the American Dream is possible. I keep hearing the news saying that it’s almost like they want our generation to be ashamed of ourselves, that our children will be the fist generation that doesn’t do as well as their parents. I don’t believe that. I believe that if you work and keep your priorities straight and keep God as a center part of your life, that you can accomplish the ‘American Dream.” And the ‘American Dream,’ you have to consider what is it? It’s not anything material, that’s where people got off the track. The ‘American Dream’ is a level of comfort that you have where you can look yourself in the mirror everyday and know that what you’re doing is right and good. I think that’s what the ‘American Dream’ is, now maybe it’s different for somebody else, but I do believe the ‘American Dream’ is still possible and I don’t buy into all the criticism of our generation. (61)
If this definition becomes the working class ideology of masculinity and success, than I would say that Mitch and Sam have already achieved more than most.