Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World
By Noel Ignatiev
Charles H. Kerr Publishing
In the 1960s and ’70s, class struggle surged in U.S. industrial cities. Many leftists joined these struggles by going to work in the nation’s factories; among them was Noel Ignatiev. He labored in different factories during this period, and this memoir came from his experiences as an electrician in the blast furnace division of U.S. Steel Gary Works. His first-hand account reveals the day-to-day workings of white supremacy, patriarchy, and the exploitation of labor. More so, though, we see the seeds of a new society sown in the workers’ on-the-job resistance. The stories Noel tells are gripping and humorous—and at times will bring you to tears.
“Ignatiev’s signature insistence on the need to disrupt the commitment to whiteness that unites some workers with their bosses is fully made concrete in this lively and marvelous book. Here he leaves us a vivid memoir of the life of a factory and of a revolutionary within it.”—David Roediger, author of The Wages of Whiteness
“Our comrade Noel lgnatiev died in 2019. He left with us this remarkable 110-page memoir. In it he describes his experience after being hired at the U.S. Steel Gary Works, ‘the largest works of the largest steel company in the world.’ At first glance the story is one of hilarious work evasion by fellow workers. In contrast to work on an assembly line, Noel and his family at work spent much of their time playing cards, shooting the breeze over coffee, and catching up on sleep. Two underlying facts pierce this surface impression. The first is the almost total irrelevance of the local union of the United Steelworkers of America to which all hourly employees belonged. As Noel explains, ‘I have always been skeptical of union reform. In my view the union, at best, is a defensive organization, but something more is needed to free the working class from its subordination to capital.’ The second fact is the overwhelming importance of contesting the employer’s racial discrimination as the necessary first step in nurturing ‘our vision of mass organization independent of the unions.’ Indeed, Noel’s growing relationship with a particular black worker, Jackson, is the glue which holds together the entire fabric of work emergencies and off-duty friendship. The memoir ends abruptly and sadly. ‘One of my comrades in STO [Sojourner Truth Organization], after years in factories, returned to the university…. He urges me to join him …. I take him up on the suggestion…. I manage for a few years to stay in touch with Jackson.’ Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, Noel and his friend Jackson are smiling at us, in inter-racial solidarity.”—Staughton Lynd, author of Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below
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