The Factory

The Factory
by M.J. Carden Baltimore, 2004, 291 pages, ISBN 1-4137-0733-5

This novel is set in a small machine factory in England in the early 1970s. It begins with a young man, terribly disaffected after years of rote, mind-numbing schooling, getting a job from the local employment office and showing up to work with a cautious enthusiasm about his new adulthood. It takes a very short time before he is introduced to the insanity and brutality that rules the roost in this particular factory, a perverted dehumanization that we readers soon understand as the norm in factory life more generally.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author, and even staying at his house in Liverpool for a few days back in 1999. Carden was one of the main organizers of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to protect the unionized dockworkers of Liverpool. In that capacity he had plenty of chances to see up close and personally the ways traditional union structures” and the people who rise to lead them” become obstacles to workers asserting their own power.

In this story, the daily brutality directed by the shop steward and his loyal followers against a worker who didn’t fit in (but was one of the most skilled and productive), leads that worker ultimately to a gory suicide in the factory. The young man, the “apprentice,” speaks out and sparks a conflict, enflaming the consciences of the rest of the workforce who can no longer tolerate the pigheaded meanness of the factory’s “leaders.” Against the violence of their own shop steward and his men, and the weight of the owners, managers and union leaders, the workers go on strike. Thanks to the calm, experienced leadership of an old hand, who had long ago been a union leader but had withdrawn from union politics in disgust previously, and the rock solid participation of all the women on the shopfloor, the workers organize themselves to take direct action, ultimately seizing the factory and occupying it.

The wildcat occupation immediately transforms the workplace. Petty feuds and routine sexism give way to camaraderie and mutual respect sprinkled with occasional flirtation. Work is reassessed and reorganized to accommodate the needs of the workers for a human pacing and reasonable productivity demands. Within a couple of days, they are producing better quality and taking much greater pleasure in their work, AND their workmates. Long overdue maintenance is done, the exhaust system is repaired, and everything is cleaned more thoroughly than it has been in years.

But the men who remain loyal to the shop steward, a corrupt lout named McCabe, depart the factory and occupation. McCabe’s power is nullified by the newly animated shopfloor democracy and he and “his men” opt to join the exiled managers outside. Later, when the factory is retaken by the police, the shop steward and his men scab on the wildcat strike that continues outside in the winter cold. The union’s local leader shows up to try to repair the relationship between himself and the bosses, his union and their company. But as the workers discovered while they held the plant, the union has already been privy to company plans to close the factory and ship off the machinery to India. The local president’s power” and with it, his aspirations to climb the social hierarchy” has been destroyed as surely as has the leverage of the workforce.

An interesting subplot follows the “apprentice” as he is seduced by a local Trotskyist political party while simultaneously beginning a romance with one of his young female coworkers. It doesn’t take long before the political hacks flatter him so much that he is fully “captured” by them. We see his transformation into ideological robot through the eyes of his new” and quickly former” girlfriend.

Carden’s real-life experience with workers’ direct democracy in the heat of a wildcat strike brings his story to life. After a somewhat ponderous and overwritten beginning, the narrative begins to crackle. For a dissection of the real dynamics between workers, owners, managers and unions, you could hardly do better than this novel. Additionally, by having the workers engage in a factory occupation, a crucial and largely forgotten tactic in the workers’ arsenal is reintroduced to a new generation. Carden does not refrain from occasional political analysis hiding as fictional prose. He ruminates:

“The system would never tolerate strikes or any other acts of defiance but they positively encouraged wage-militancy. Occupation was a rebellion that faced up the power of capital by capturing one of its pawns, and as such it could never be tolerated. Occupation was never about money, it was about challenging the very essence of the capitalist’s power. To challenge capitalism over money was to play their game. It was perfectly acceptable, tolerated and often welcomed as a vindication of capital’s all-enveloping greed. Everyone, in this context, could be seen as a capitalist. To want money and want more money was a genuflection to capital and its ways. Occupation was bad. But these men and women knew what they were involved in. Above all they were practical people. They could build canals in the desert.”

By the time the story reaches its climax, which is far from heroic or satisfying for fans of workers’ revolt, Carden finally discloses his deeper analysis of trade unionism:

“Trade unionism was in its most influential phase, so some said, and yet the seeds of future treachery [which Carden and his mates had to face in the late 1990s] had been sown from their inception. A constant struggle ensued between the leadership and the led. The former strove to improve their own condition beyond the class they claimed to represent whilst the latter sought to move beyond the denominator of wage slavery. And all the time the official union basked in the glory of heroic struggles that had, more often than not, been fought without their union’s support. More often than not they had opposed all opposition. Caught in the mid-stream of betrayal, the union leadership moved lightly amidst both worlds, and, having two paymasters, ever mindful of past and present deceptions, ever fearful of exposing their true intent. Some battled for their class and their class only, finding themselves increasingly excluded from the gravy train of influence and power as they confirmed their willingness to occupy the past and future glories of revolutionary labour. This betrayal had begun before the birth of general unionism in 1889 and their representatives invaded the movement with their class betrayal of pseudo modernism in which, forever uncomfortable with conflict, they forged pacts with capital. Explained away with a confused intellectualism that appeared to offer the spoils of revolution without the struggle, these intermediary bosses spread division and defeatism with every act they pursued. With the passage of time they openly assumed the rigours of serving capital as if this was the true struggle to fight, ever so softly and meekly, whilst always allowing the sovereignty of capital to prevail. Each decade brought their movement closer to their maker as they assumed the collar and tie, the suit, the houses, the fine tastes and mannerisms of the boss class. This imagery of betrayal would soon be celebrated openly in the victory of style over content as it evolved in the official unions under the aegis of a “˜new unionism.’ The age of conflict was over, they declared. And for many it had never really begun.
“The workers would maintain the principle of their movement for all time yet and they would fight more heroic battles in which they great battalions of the vanguard would challenge capital directly. But always they would have to fight the betrayers within their own movement.”

The strike eventually ends badly, the apprentice has betrayed his mates and his girl. By the end of the book, reminiscent of the awesome Paul Schrader movie “Blue Collar,” the possibilities of revolt seem diminished, the individuals who revolted this time are vanquished. By the end of the story, the plan to “offshore” the machinery has been derailed, but there is no more factory either. The apprentice, who has been a cipher throughout the story, representing types and behaviors, is finally in the last line of the book given his name”¦ as he awaits assignment at the employment office, the same place where we met him with so much potential at the start of the novel.

Hints of our post-Fordist world appear, but this story feels rooted in a past that has almost vanished. The factory and community it describes have been uprooted and “deindustrialized,” and the way most people experience work has evolved with the advent of global production lines. Or has it?

That may be Carden’s most important point. Things cycle, specific individuals and conditions change, but the deeper logic is still as iron-clad as it was in the period his novel describes. And the way out is still as difficult and contradictory and conflicted and often defeated as his book so ably illustrates. But there is a way out. And we do learn. And books like this are important contributions to that process, best known as history.

reviewed by Chris Carlsson
Director of Shaping San Francisco , a multimedia excavation of the lost history of San Francisco, with a dedicated chapter on the ILWU, and another on the 1934 strike. Short video clips of the ’34 strike, as well as interviews with Herb Mills of Local 10 and Peter Mendelsohn of the Tenants and Owners Opposed to Redevelopment can be found in the Shaping San Francisco movie collection at The Internet Archive.

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