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Breaking the Casts: Remembering Noel Ignatiev

Weak, invisible, individualistic and selfish, but collaborative and egalitarian too, and stamped above all by the segregations of American life. When Noel Ignatiev worked in the largest steel mill in the world, what form did workers' power take?

Jasper Bernes 9 November 2021

Breaking the Casts: Remembering Noel Ignatiev

Noel Ignatiev was a giant of the American left: a New Left militant, an autodidact steelworker, and a historian best known for his groundbreaking theories of whiteness and class struggle in the U.S.A. Next spring, Verso is proud to publish a major collection of his writings. Today, on the second anniversary of his death, we publish a review of posthumously assembled memoir on 'Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World' from Jasper Bernes. 

After 1968 groups of student radicals in the US, France, Italy, and elsewhere, turned from the university to industry, embedding themselves in factories and key workplaces, with the hope that they might better shape the coming revolution. The Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) was unique among these industrial groups, however, for its antipathy to trade unions and the emphasis it placed on working-class self-organization. The STO was formed from the remnants of the Students for a Democratic Society, after the better-known Weatherman faction turned to armed struggle. Noel Ignatiev, who died in 2019, contributed significantly to the development of STO’s theory and practice through a novel reading of Marx alongside W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. Drawing from his experiences in factories, Ignatiev aimed to show that white supremacy was not so much an effect of prejudice as of privilege, what Ignatiev would call “the white-skin privilege system.” Capitalism had made racism rational for white workers through a system of benefits gained directly and transparently at the expense of black workers.

For Ignatiev this meant that struggles against the endurance of the color line on the shop floor were not peripheral skirmishes but central battles, and should therefore be the focus of militants, lest the reimposition of a racial division of labor scuttle any organizational gains. STO was inspired by events in revolutionary Detroit, and particularly the rank-and-file organizing done by The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, struggle organizations that contested the racial division of labor in the auto industry directly. As a rank-and file strike wave spread across the country in the early 70s, Ignatiev took a job at the Gary, Indiana plant of US Steel, then the largest in the world, and the main industry of raw material for the sprawling industrial nexus of the Midwest.

Ignatiev was not a university student, like many others in STO, nor was this his first time working in a factory. In the book that he has written about this experience, Acceptable Men, just published by the newly revitalized Charles H. Kerr, we learn only a little about the young Noel, whose parents were communists and whose youth was spent inside the party. Ignatiev wrote the book as a novel, for reasons of faulty memory, but also because the book is more interested in its cast of characters than it is in the life of its narrator. Noel’s position at US Steel in the blast furnace department is “motor inspector,” or at first, when he is in training, “motor inspector helper.” Noel and his trainer Jackson work for the maintenance crew in the blast furnace department at the Gary plant, then the largest in the world. His position is exceptionally plastic and sends him wandering around the plant, confined neither in space nor in time, providing an excellent vantage for the protagonist of a memoir of industrial entryism: members of the maintenance crew work shifts that alternate weekly, encountering the plant at all hours of the day. They range about the steelworks, responding to the most pressing tasks of maintenance, and engaging different classes of workers.

The Gary plant operated on the principle of continuous-flow production, where one of the main determinants of profitability was capacity utilization, and a break in certain processes, such as the rail conveyors for iron ore and coke, could become enormously costly. Fixed capital is constantly depreciating, which means the more you use it the less money you lose. “Cut the prices; scoop the market. Run the mills full.” That was Andrew Carnegie’s motto in the nineteenth century when he ran the largest steel plant in the US and it remained the strategy of the largest producers one hundred years later. The job of the maintenance crew and the motor inspectors was to maximize capacity use and conserve capital by keeping the motors running continuously.

Ignatiev’s job as a narrator of this curious and moving story, and as an STO militant, is rather different; in fact, it’s something like the converse to the motor inspector. He attends to the places where the motors of capitalist accumulation break down, but only to learn how to further degrade them. The breaks in the flow of work, the breaks in the workday, allow workers to congregate and collaborate—to nap, play cards, cook food, discuss their lives. Following the example of the proletarian research, or “workers’ inquiry,” conducted by the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT), in texts such as The American Worker, written both by and about factory workers, Ignatiev is insistent that everyday activity on and off the job teems with self-organized resistance and tacit power, typically invisible to the conductors of the labor movement. In the book, Ignatiev recalls a meeting with a well-known Chicago radical, president of the union local at another mill, who complains to him about the absence of a steelworkers’ movement. When Ignatiev points out that workers in the labor radical’s own mill restrict their output so they only have to work half shifts, spending the rest of their time at the nearby tavern, he is told bluntly such actions don’t constitute a movement. The thesis of the STO and the motivating principle behind this memoir is that such actions do, in fact, constitute a subterranean movement, a form of soft power over production that might extrude into open war with the owners of capital. The motor inspector is the perfect perch from which to test this thesis, since he goes from department to department, arriving wherever production is interrupted, wherever costs are soaring and profits falling.

Much of this subterranean control is exerted by workers on the graveyard shift, under the cover of night. The plant can’t be shut down, but neither can productivity be maintained. The workers sleep, play cards, stand around. Things break, and if the result is not dangerous no one runs to fix them. At the center of operations in the blast furnace department is the casthouse floor, where molten steel is poured into casts and let cool before getting sent to the rolling department. This is the most dangerous place in the whole plant, combining powerful, deadly machines with brute labor, where a breakdown might lead to flows of molten steel killing workers. When a call comes in from the blast furnaces, the motor inspectors run, because maintenance there is a matter of life and death and not just profit.

It is here, on the deadly casthouse floor, that “acceptable men” are forged. The division of labor can be read on the bodies of the men who work, and principally in the fact that they are all men—the millwrights, unlike the motor inspectors, are incredibly physically strong, as Ignatiev observes early. So too on the casthouse floor, as we learn in a passage from a technical manual interspersed throughout the memoir:

The work of many people in mines, coke ovens, and ore preparation plants culminates in the work of about six men on the casthouse floor…It is at this point that lost time can never be made up…It is the area where, in case of trouble, there is less dependence on mechanical aids and progress depends on brute strength and stamina, where hammer, bar, and shovel are the principal tools in use. The wheel barrow will never be entirely displaced in the casthouse.

So much depends on a red wheelbarrow, maneuvered manually along the floor. Noel’s signal recognition is that this lost time is a source of workers’ power. Here is how he describes the process:

An operator in a glass-enclosed booth moves levers that control an eight-foot long drill, maneuvering it into a tap hole, and starts the screw turning. When the hole opens, sparks fly across the casthouse floor and the red-hot iron flows into troughs banked with sand. From time to time workers close a gate in one trough and open another, redirecting the iron into ladle cars that are open at the top. They then wait below to carry the iron to the next step in the process of making steel. When the iron has been tapped, and the cinder (slag waste floating on the iron) has been run off, the clayman stops the hole with clay. Normally there were two or three casts per shift. Between the casts, the furnace crew, working cooperatively, readies the troughs for the next cast and refills the mudgun. When this is done, they rest. The company considers it slack time but the rhythm of steel making is largely determined by the men on the casthouse floor.

The workers are cast in particular roles but they also determine these casts through their restraint, their inertia. Workers’ resistance sculpts the pace of work, the flow of material, and this is only one of many examples of rate-setting and sabotage that Ignatiev documents. Though his organizing efforts at the plant entirely fail, his one moment of undisputed success comes when, assigned to work on his own as a motor inspector in a remote part of the plant, he primes a switch to break down while he is off on other maintenance work. Management then assigns him a helper, impeding efforts to reduce staffing and increase workrate.

The fires of adversity which drive the plant are racial, by and large. One night shift when Ignatiev shows up to a call on the casthouse floor, he finds the foreman hard at work changing one of the fittings while everyone else is standing around. Ignatiev asks one of the other maintenance men why the foreman is working while the crew stands around and is given a racist explanation, as the foreman is white and his crew largely black. “I’m with them,” Ignatiev tells the other maintenance worker, and sits down.

This is one of many moments in the text that exemplify Ignatiev’s notion of the “white-skin privilege system” as it was constituted at the plant, and the ability of white and black workers to resist it, through overt acts of “race treason,” as Ignatiev would later describe them.  Told where to shower by a white worker, he disregards the tacit racial coding of the shower room, and washes in the facility closest to his locker room, even though most of the white workers use the other. The fires of adversity, the book implies, can be transformed into solidarity through such actions. Assigned to work for Jackson, a motor inspector who had integrated the maintenance crew by force of will, Noel accepts lightheartedly Jackson’s promise to exact revenge for “the years of bad treatment” he experienced as a trainee. Noel doesn’t mind taking instruction from a black man, and even a bit of hazing, but as it turns out Jackson isn’t vindictive at all, and mostly takes the time to patiently explain how the plant works and keep Noel from killing himself.

The white supremacist harassment and resistance Jackson encountered as a motor inspector helper demonstrates that workers’ tacit control over production can also be used to keep occupational roles segregated. The motor inspectors are the plant electricians, and the position requires night school and on-the-job training. It pays better and commands respect. Jackson takes pride in his essential role at the plant, something Ignatiev shares. One moment is particularly illuminating: called to the blast furnace by an emergency problem with the mudgun, which stops the molten steel from flowing, Jackson and Noel free the stuck switch so that the mudgun can be brought into alignment. Failure here is deadly as the steel can overflow the casthouse floor and kill workers. Walking back to the lockers to punch out after repairing the problem, Noel asks Jackson, “Don’t you get a good feeling walking the highline on a nice morning when you’ve done some real work that has to be done to keep the place going?” Jackson responds, “I think everyone feels that,” and this moment of shared pride in their work prompts Noel to ask Jackson to recount his personal history at the plant.

Is this shared feeling, itself permitting the sharing of history and shared history, a communist feeling? The book does not say, for its strength as well as its weakness derives from its refusal of exposition, psychology, and commentary. Ignatiev originally imagined the book as a novel, and readers will see in it the outline of a brilliant proletarian novel in the mold of Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything or Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. To fill out this mold, however, Noel the narrator would have to reflect on his actions and their meaning, and this he is unable or unwilling to do. The choice is understandable, since de-psychologizing the Noel character places emphasis, correctly, on race treason as action in the face of structure rather than virtue ethics. Nonetheless where the book lands is on a feeling, rather than a plan of action or the diagram of a structure, and if it doesn’t succeed in coming together as a novel neither does it feel whole as memoir either. His organizing efforts, particularly his efforts on behalf of the women at the plant, run aground. His relationship with Dorothy, a black woman who works as a laborer, fails for reasons that seem as if they would be illuminating, but about which he says little. In response to a misguided union reform campaign, the system of soft power over production is swept away almost overnight, and turns out to be, in part, something management indulges in exchange for compliance on union contracts. Managers speak ominously about the superior plants in Japan, their inability to control costs. Output must be increased, staffing must be reduced, says the law of value. But there is little reflection on this rapid political turn, which will in only a few short years give way to a rapid deindustrialization of the entire Midwest. Instead, at the book’s end we find ourselves Rip Van Winkled off to Harvard, where Noel Ignatiev would begin work on How the Irish Became White, a book that developed from his experience in Gary and with STO a study of US history which did much to popularize the idea of race as a social construct, a cast, forged through the capitalist division of labor. The book ends on a comic note what was really, from the perspective of the revolutionary optimism of the era, a vast tragedy, but I don’t fault Ignatiev the joke at his own expense. One could hardly survive such cataclysms without a sense of humor.

The book lacks an ending, yes, but then so too does the project of breaking the casts of the “white-skin-privilege system” at the heart of class society’s blast furnaces. One senses that the book’s incompleteness, the incompleteness of its central character, results not only from the intolerable endurance of the color-line but from its wavering between a perspective true to Noel the character, in the early 70s, and one true to Noel the narrator, writing years after the fact. Of course, a related set contradictions must have been apparent then, and it would be interesting to know something of how Ignatiev processed it all. Noel the character’s self-effacement, on the one hand, and his futile actions as a vanguard of one, on the other, speak to the contradictions within the approach the STO took, still attached to the voluntarist militancy of 60s Marxism-Leninism but also powerfully insistent on self-organization and self-activity as the essential element for proletarian revolution.

This was a mixture that elsewhere, in Italy, had inspired a strikingly congruent approach, riven by the same contradictions. In Italy after the student movement of the late 1960s, university militants likewise turned to the factories, inspired by a wave of wildcat strikes and the emergence of rank-and-file struggle groups. These “Unitary Base Committees” were composed of workers, student-workers, and non-working students and intellectuals. At the center of their strategy and theory was a notion of “autoreduction” (autoriduzione) which referred to the power of workers to control the pace of output and work, just as Ignatiev observed. Autoreduction was expression of a vast structure of feeling, described by the phrase “refusal of labor” that could be observed in numerous acts of sabotage and obstruction, again just as Ignatiev observed. These workers likewise placed great emphasis on the intolerable division of labor in the plant, between unskilled (and racialized) migrant workers from the south and skilled workers from the north, between white-collar, college-educated technicians and laborers, and between women and men. Although eventually, however, these efforts were outmaneuvered by reformist elements in the union, and the structure of labor-capital bargaining in Italy, the power of the concept of autoreduction, and refusal of labor, is that it could be used for any moment where proletarians set their own rate and prices; and so the struggle groups formed around this concept often turned to autoreduction of rent, electricity, subway fares, struggling as consumers as well as producers.

Refusal of labor can also mean refusal of labor as the terrain of struggle. Though Noel decides, after consulting with Jackson, not to invite their foreman, Szathmary, to his home for a party, the three of them do decide to go fishing together one weekend along with a few others from the maintenance crew. Noel mentions he has a broken outboard motor, and Szathmary helps them sneak it into the machine shop for a few repairs. It’s a beautiful moment of what the French, likewise attuned to this era of labor refusal, have called travail en perruque, pilfering time and tools for personal needs. One might imagine these kinds of bonds as the basis for an insurgent proletarian struggle, but as it happens they don’t catch anything.

“Refusal of labor” is powerful because it is invisible. But it is also weak because it is invisible. It can be individualistic or selfish, worker against worker. Because it tends to posit non-work as the point of life, it can reinforce the division between private and public living. The forms of concrete workers' control over production might be the basis for revolutionary proletarian self-organization, but they might also be about fishing. In the end, we learn that these forms of workers’ power are tolerated by management only because the union is willing to go soft during negotiations. There is a trade-off, and when a union reform campaign begins, one that Noel knows is doomed, management uses this as an attempt to rationalize the plant, eliminate workers’ power, and reclassify everyone. This not really an avoidable outcome, since the Gary plant, as the largest producer on the planet, is vulnerable to competition from newer, more productive plants, in Japan and elsewhere, something exacerbated by the end of the gold standard in ‘73. The Sojourner Truth Organizations gives up on the turn to industry, as the strike wave of the 70s declines, and a massive assault on organized labor begins during the downturn at the end of the 70s.

The forms of “refusal of labor” in the plant would have to be organized and de-individualized, if such efforts were to be resisted. But one gets the sense that the atomization of workers has as much to do with their lives outside of the plant as much as their lives inside. Jackson and Noel bond largely because they play bridge together after work, a game that marks Jackson as part of the black middle-class. Card playing is central to the novel, and to the bonds the workers build with each other, mostly because it offers good opportunities for talking shit. The main game they play is called “Dirty Hearts,” a version of Hearts in which “each person plays for himself alone” but “if one player gets too far ahead of the rest, the other three will gang up to bring him down.” They collaborate in order to enforce an individualistic egalitarianism: “The players freely discuss the cards they hold, and give generously of their opinions of the skills and individual moves of their opponents.” This seems an apt metaphor for the form of workers’ power observed at the plant—collaborative, egalitarian, but also individualistic, dependent on a form of private life revealed in the incessant jokes the workers make about fucking each others’ wives.

The post-pandemic economic landscape in the United States, in which once burgeoning sectors of the service economy struggle to find willing workers, demands a renewed inquiry into “refusal of labor,” now as then the adversarial fire that heats proletarian struggle. But it also requires a recognition of the ways in which labor refusal can perpetuate atomization even as it wins gains for proletarians. Pandemic social programs, which have lowered the rate of exploitation in the US for the first time since the 1990s, have also changed the rate of labor refusal, and made it so that workers once willing to accept minimum wage positions are waiting for a better opportunity or until they are forced back to work. The popular press speaks of a “great resignation” among workers unwilling to return to the office or classroom after a year of online work, valuing flexibility (in other words, the ability to refuse some labor) above all else. But where, then, are the opportunities for collective refusal, for organized refusal? And do these forms of refusal undermine or reinforce the racialized division of labor Ignatiev places at the heart of American society?

Ignatiev’s most famous slogan—“Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity”—remains as powerful and as true after the multiracial uprising of summer 2020 as it did after the fires last time of the 60s.  Should we think of the white youth who participated in the uprising last summer as race traitors? Are their actions, looting stores, burning police stations, fighting the police, similar to the kinds of antiracist moves Ignatiev makes on the shop floor, or is something else happening? In the 1990s and 2000s, groups at the intersection of anarchism and Maoism developed Ignatiev’s analysis into explicit, multiracial organizing projects. But one problem with the concept of race treason as it has developed is that it can unwittingly center the actions of white people; it can be substitutionist and heroizing, such as when one hears that white militants should place themselves in front of black ones, defending them from the violence of the police. The motives of today’s race traitors—if we should even call them that–may be less well-thought-out than Ignatiev’s, based on a feeling rather than an analysis, full of contradictions and impasses, but no less important for all that. Where these motives are invisible, where solidarity against the police and the racial order they enforce seems impossible, whiteness appears as all-devouring operation: the white participants become provocateurs, undercover cops, infiltrating fascists, joy-riding adventurists, anything but people who hate the cops and hate their racism.