by Roger Cranse
In June, 1963, I landed a job working the 4:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. shift at National Can Corporation in Edison, New Jersey. The factory was enormous. When all the beer and soda lines were working the sound on the floor was deafening. You had to shout in a person’s ear to be heard. I started out on the loading dock stacking cases of cans on skids; later I moved into the oven. After a month’s probation I became a member of the United Steel Workers of America. As I recall, I earned $2.52 an hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that’s the equivalent in buying power today of $19.61.
In August, I asked the shift boss, also a union man, for two nights off to march for civil rights in Washington, D.C. He said, “sure.” In fact, the union supported the March on Washington and would pay my travel. Word got out on the floor and I started getting threats from other white workers, things like, “You watch out on that parking lot tonight, you f-ing n-lover.”
In the end, I went on the March and nothing came of the threats. In mid-century New Jersey that kind of casual derogatory language was common.
Looking back on this experience a couple things occur to me. First, what money! My starting pay was the equivalent of 20 bucks an hour today and included benefits. The Teamsters who hauled the cans from our factory to the breweries and then to the stores and supermarkets also got union wages, as did the workers at the breweries and in the supermarkets. And yet a six-pack of Schaefer or Carling Black Label was easily affordable. What happened to that system where everyone seemed to benefit?
Second, I figured there had to be something behind the pervasive racism of the time. Something more than just skin color. While the threats of the white workers were directed at me, the perceived threat of the blacks, who’d flooded north during the Great Migration, was to white jobs. It wasn’t skin color but money. Skin color, like ethnicity then and previously (“No Irish need apply”), and also gender, provided a handy identifier to keep large numbers of people out of the marketplace for good jobs.
In the years since, the economic threat of blacks and minorities has escalated from the factory floor to the political arena in the fundamental struggle between capital and labor. Capital has used the black and minority threat to win elections and pauperize labor. President Ronald Reagan’s brilliant use of “welfare queen” sums it up quite perfectly. What image is conjured here? A fat black woman sitting on the stoop smoking a cigarette with a passel of raggedy kids running around her. Since the 1960s, with the right leaders elected, capital has won again and again and again.
Both President-elect Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders talk about the plight of the white working class. Both have had the insight to link this plight not only to globalization, but also to race and ethnicity. Sanders sees minorities equally as victims; Trump portrays them as perpetrators. With Trump now the president-elect of the United States, and Sanders out of the running, the question is, where would Secretary Hillary Clinton have come down on the continuing struggle of capital versus labor?
Roger Cranse teaches at the Community College of Vermont. This letter came in before election results.