by William Trent Pancoast
[an excerpt from the novel Wildcat]
Milt Jeffers and the gang roamed through the shop hitting E-stops, shouting, and motioning for the men to leave the factory. There was no persuasion needed, although some of the die makers in the tool room always stood around for awhile before finally locking their tool boxes in disgust and following the rabble out the doors. They were slower than usual today, these recent wildcats coming just after the sixty-seven day national shutdown, which had cost them big money.
The foreman’s kick to Steve Brown’s rump while he was peering through the smoky haze of the battlefield brought him to his feet like the wiry animal Nam had made him. He sprang up and slashed with his knife all in one motion, cutting the foreman in the chest, and then turned and dove into the tree line. Steve Brown landed in the midst of the automatic welders. There were no sparks the next welder cycle, just his head compressing in the weld fixture. The war was over for Steve Brown.
The millwrights were on the conveyor belt cutting Dana loose. “My dick’s cut off…my dick’s cut off,” Dana, delirious now, kept yelling, as he had since they had gotten there. One of them slapped him with a greasy leather glove finally and said, “Shut the fuck up, you moron. Your leg’s cut. You still got your dick.”
The lieutenant saw the wildcat strike unfolding and left the plant quickly. He was opening his car door when a fellow WWII vet came by. The two knew each other from the American Legion. “Hey, Lieutenant. Stopping by for a beer?”
The lieutenant turned slowly to face him. His arm and neck were still hurting, and when he turned, the pain sharpened. He had been thinking again of the events with his son Tommy from the day before. But he shook off these painful thoughts. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll be stopping by.” Suddenly the lieutenant slumped to the ground.
Rudolph muttered to himself as he swept his area before leaving. Another strike. Fools, he thought. “Come on, Rudolph. Put the fucking broom down. Let’s go.” He looked up sharply to the speaker, a young machinist who was one of the few to stop and talk to Rudolph now and then. Rudolph leaned the push broom against the bench and fell into line. He had never liked that word and wondered why Americans were so fond of it. “Fuck,” he muttered to himself. What a meaningless word. As they neared the exit, Rudolph reached into his left pocket to finger his gold coin, but couldn’t find it right away. Frantically, he felt every corner of the pocket. It was gone! His one ounce gold coin was gone! He turned to go back into the factory to look for it. Everyone and everything was flowing toward the exits. The forklift driver never saw Rudolph as the old man came running around the blind corner in search of his gold.
Hank Schmidt was locking his bench tool box when he saw the motion off to his right. He watched the steel plate spinning through the air and across the aisle, watched it hit the longhair squarely in the neck, and then it seemed like everything was in slow motion as the young fellow slipped to his knees and then pitched onto the first step of the spotting press. Ernie turned and walked up the tool room aisle, joining the wildcatters in shutting down the place. Hank saw that others were tending to the longhair apprentice and turned and joined his friend. “Fuck it,” he thought. “Just fuck it.”
Milt Jeffers and Crazy Jack walked in the middle of a small group of their comrades. “Bring ‘em to their fucking knees,” shouted Jimmy to the group. “Shut the fucking place down,” shouted El Stinko. Milt gave a faint grin. He was shutting the fucking place down all right, but he was worried. He was fired. The number one right the company always placed first, both in local and national negotiations, was the right to hire and fire. Management did the hiring and they did the firing. It was that simple. By the time the union group got to the executive garage, there was a small army of cops—local police, sheriff’s deputies, and state patrolmen clearing the way for the ambulances.
Big Bill and the guards, joined now by Big John and a dozen other guards who had been called in, were organizing to take control of the sprawling facility before more damage could be done to it. There was always some vandalism during every wildcat strike—bolts in dies, jammed conveyors, busted windows and trash strewn around the aisles.
Sheriff Thomas Greene stood at the top of the ramp, and warily turned to look at the union hall across the busy highway. There were two dead that he knew of in the plant, and a deputy assigned to monitor the radio had just reported a possible third to him. Below on the plant grounds he watched as three thousand men tried to extricate themselves from the parking lot. The air was filled with black smoke from the junkers the guys drove to work. There was honking and yelling and tires squealing. The parking lot looked like a battlefield.
There were already two ambulances in the plant; all the aisles were wide enough to drive down, so the paramedics could get wherever they needed to go. Greene had called in a total of eight ambulances from the surrounding communities, and they sat idling along the highway, their lights slashing through the November gloom. Now word came of a man down in the parking lot, and he ordered another ambulance to go and get the lieutenant.
Tom Finnegan, a notebook at the ready, a photographer shadowing him, spoke to Thomas Greene. “Hell of a mess.”
Greene nodded and waved his arm over the valley before him. “What the fuck is the matter with this place?”
“Can I quote you on that?” They both laughed. They had a handshake agreement that there would be a free flow of information between the
two, sometimes confidential, that would help each do his job better.
Down below, all of a sudden, a fight broke out. The flow of men out of the plant stopped, and the little sphere of activity grew in size, then became an abnormal shape. Several men ran from the struggling group toward the parking lot. Police officers who had been standing around the front of the plant ran toward the group with their nightsticks drawn.
“Ah, shit,” Thomas Greene spat between clenched teeth and ran for his car. Never before had he mixed his men with the strikers. Today had been different, though, because of the deaths in the plant. “Let’s go,” he shouted into his radio mike. “All available men to the ramp on Route 20.” He put his siren and lights on and started down the hill, but by the time he got there, Milt Jeffers and the boys had pulled their guys out of the melee, and the cops, thoroughly pissed off as one of their number was down, reluctantly pulled off to the side.
Then the first ambulance made its way out of the plant and up the ramp to the gate. And everyone involved sensed the gravity of what was happening. They all knew by now that people had been killed in some way or another during the last hour in the plant. Nothing like that had ever happened before during a wildcat. It had just been fuck the place up a little bit, go home for a couple of days, and then come on back for more days and weeks and years of boring shit, whatever it took to keep the fender factory spitting metal out the doors and down the railroad tracks.
Before he went home that night, the sheriff knew that five men were dead. An apprentice had sustained a broken neck from a hurled four inch by six inch steel wear plate during the plant exodus, probably horseplay. A young production worker had bled to death from a sliced femoral artery. And the only one he knew, his old friend the lieutenant, had died of a heart attack in the parking lot. An old German guy had been run over by a forklift. And a young fellow had had his head crushed in a welder.
William Trent Pancoast is now retired from the auto industry (after 30 years as a die maker). Since retirement he has taught creative writing and essay writing at the Ohio State University/North Central State College campus in Mansfield, Ohio, and served as first mate on a Lake Erie charter fishing boat. When he’s not writing, he can be found on a vintage motorcycle or fishing on Lake Erie. Born in Galion, Ohio, in 1949, Pancoast now lives in Ontario/Mansfield, Ohio.