(Charles H. Kerr, 2021)
Among the many diaries and memoirs written by blue-collar workers, some of the more impressive ones come from militants and revolutionaries on the left. Noel Ignatiev’s just-published Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World belongs to this category and can captivate readers with its unrelenting attention to social relations unfolding around blast furnaces.2 The author quotes a passage from Apocrypha in his epigraph to the book: “For gold is tried in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity.”3
Noel Ignatiev (1940–2019) was born in a communist family in Philadelphia, joined the Communist Party USA in 1958, and quit it to organize a group of former communists. His political career took a decisive turn in 1961–62, when he dropped out of college on the threshold of graduation, and went to work as a militant in factories for some 20 years (1963–83). He joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and served as one of its officers in 1969, before its collapse. He was one of the founders of the Sojourner Truth Organization—or STO (1969–86)—a group of revolutionaries who were committed to political action and particularly to fighting against racist discrimination and for working class solidarity.
He spent eight years (1972–80) at work in the blast furnace division of the US Steel Gary Works, in Gary, Indiana; his memoir is about life at one of the most hazardous divisions in that plant. The posthumous publication of the book in 2021 also throws new light on some crucial aspects of STO’s collective struggle against racism. As some of Ignatiev’s friends recall, he took notes for this memoir in the 1970s, wrote the bulk of it in the 1980s, and revised it shortly before dying. As David Ranney notes in his preface to the book:
Noel found meaning in his experience as a worker at US Steel Gary Works. That meaning reflected his developing politics as a committed revolutionary who saw the possibilities of a new society in the everyday activities of his fellow workers. And he saw the very real threat to realizing the meaning of these activities at the hands of white supremacy. 4
At the Gary Works Ignatiev survived in a tough workplace and was successful in attracting the sympathies of some people at the furnace division, regardless of the color of their skin; first, because he made himself accepted as a regular guy among them; second, because he did not try to indoctrinate them; third and most importantly, because he stood up for solidarity with his non-white co-workers. In short, he demonstrated his uncompromising antiracism. Ignatiev did not belong to one of the leftist groups that “infest the mill but fail to champion the Black workers’ complaint,” as he writes.5 Instead, he set an example of dignity and solidarity.
By the early 1970s, when the story of Acceptable Men begins, the international political climate was changing as the vast attack against the wage earners in North America and western Europe was marching in lockstep with a new series of international offensives against workers and peasants, particularly in Latin America and in southern Africa. Ignatiev’s text does not allude to those offensives. Nevertheless, foreign policy did intrude into the Gary Works through the new Japanese efficiency in steel production. At a meeting of some 100 maintenance workers—three quarters white and a quarter black—a manager from the Pittsburgh headquarters presented a request to the men for more labor discipline and mobilization, implying that maintenance workers were supposed to behave if they still valued their jobs.
Although Ignatiev does not address the issue of international rivalries among the steel giants, readers may recall that the Japanese steel industry had invested heavily in brand-new steel plants since the 1960s, while US Steel was trailing behind. There was little that the maintenance workers could do to overtake Japanese competition. Later, US Steel management saw to it. Slowly, in the 1970s and at a brisk pace in the 1980s, the company overhauled the entire Gary Works, and reduced the workforce there from more than 30,000 employees in 1970, to 25,000 in 1976 and to 6,000 in 1990. The Gary Works could boast that labor productivity per ton of steel per hour increased sixfold between 1980 and 1996.6
When Ignatiev was hired in 1972, jobs at the Gary Works seemed to be stable, although they had to fit into a predominantly racist structure:
US Steel Gary Works ran seven miles long and two miles deep along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Moving from east to west, the divisions ran from crude (the coke plant) to finish (the rolling mills), from dirty to comparatively clean, and from black to white. Pay scales ranged widely within each division. For some years there had been grumblings among Black workers about racial discrimination, and some had filed lawsuits.7
By the end of 1973 the so-called oil crisis began eroding real wages internationally. Less than six years later, in the summer of 1979, the credit crunch under Carter and the consequent wave of layoffs on both sides of the Atlantic were further blows to real wages, paving the way to so-called Reaganomics. In the following decade a counterattack against the working-class gains accumulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s got into full swing. As Noel Ignatiev used to inform us in Europe in the mid-1980s, many steel workers whom he had known at the Gary Works and elsewhere were increasingly unable to put their children through college, if not high school. Ignatiev’s longtime mentor Jackson, a Black man in the maintenance department, summed up the new situation at the Gary Works in the 1980s, after Ignatiev had quit: “They can’t make us old guys work, but they sure are whipping the asses of the young people.”8
It is in its account of the shaky relations between workers and industrial capital during the 1970s that we can read Acceptable Men as a dramatic (if subdued) document of stagnant working conditions presaging additional hardships for blue-collar workers. Ignatiev was assigned to the maintenance crew, and soon learned that his job was to make emergency on–the-spot repairs of anything electrical on six blast furnaces. Acceptable Men mentions briefly Ignatiev’s political engagement in STO and other activities while he was working at the Gary Works. But readers should not minimize his manifold interests in that period of his life. No matter how demanding his job at US Steel was, his best energies were still devoted to political engagement.
In a short time, he became one of the STO leaders and organizers and remained politically active throughout his eight years at the Gary Works, and beyond. In 1972, the year when he started working at US Steel, he wrote and delivered a groundbreaking speech (known as his “Portland speech”). Inspired by the writings of C.L.R. James, Ignatiev took the position of organizing political activity from the grassroots by sustaining “seeds of revolution” in communities and in US society in general, and by preferring autonomy and self-determination to a rigid Leninist approach to party-building.
In his path-breaking book Truth and Revolution9 historian Michael Staudenmaier has written:
On … the seeds of socialism idea, [Ignatiev]’s Portland speech holds up four decades later. A significant part of what made STO unique politically within its milieu was precisely the rejection of traditional understandings of the What is to Be Done strategy.10
The Jamesian strain that Ignatiev first took into STO only gained ground among members and sympathizers of the group in the 16 years of STO’s political activity. That strain was also one of Ignatiev’s inner sources of inspiration in his action at the Gary Works. Early in his job he had to respond to the racist complaint about
[Black workers’] laziness that came from some white workers at the plant. For instance, when a white foreman led his crew in an urgent repair operation, the Black laborers stood around leaning on their shovels, looking bored. I ask one of the maintenance crew why the foreman is working so hard. “These niggers up here don’t want to work,” replies the man. I reply: “I’m with them.” And I sit down to observe.”11
Ignatiev’s early days at the Gary Works were a rough, intensive course in his apprenticeship in the art of treason to the white race that was the focus of his later work with the journal Race Traitor.
The issue of the distribution of workloads weighed heavily on workers in some divisions of the steel mill. Everybody at the plant knew that workers in the night shifts at the blast furnaces took naps, and that nobody endured the graveyard shift there without pausing for some sleep before dawn. In other words, living labor was exchanged for a wage, but living labor was hard to extract, particularly before dawn. Ignatiev learned a quick lesson in human inertia: “As a result of all the shift changes, I have adopted the ‘steel mill slouch’—a shuffle, shoulders bent and head down as if looking for lost coins, universal among non-supervisory employees within the gates of the mill.”12
While Ignatiev worked at the blast furnaces, three men lost their lives at once during a cleaning job after a cast, the most tragic accidents he saw in a long series of injuries.13 The rationality of capitalist production was further tested when “one of a couple of dozen women” (out of 3,000 employees at the blast furnace) told him:
I’ve been in prison, I’ve been in a mental hospital, and I’ve worked in the mill, and as far as I am concerned this place is the weirdest of all. At least in those other places people knew something was wrong, around here people think what they do is normal.14
She was also a sharp observer who impressed him with her judgment of comparative paces of work. As a Black woman in the labor gang who had gone through a mental crisis, she honestly remarked that an unreal truce prevailed between managers and workers at the blast furnace.
I asked her about a factory nearby that made railway cars and was famous for its unauthorized, or “wildcat” strikes. I also ask her why similar things don’t happen at the mill. Her answer: “It is because the people here are always on strike.”15
In an absurd show of renovation, management reassigned the few Black women from the labor gang to work on the furnace floor, with a big pay hike, although the job was hotter, dirtier, and more dangerous. At the same time, the white women at the furnaces were reassigned to work in the offices. Only one white woman, a Southerner, betrayed the management’s racism: “I’m staying with my friends.” The Black women called her “Proud Mary.”16
As the blast furnaces had to produce non-stop, managers had to pay their toll to the men in the night shifts in the form of a quiet compromise about naps, breaks, and other dead-time costs. Were these costs resulting in systemic inefficiencies? Ignatiev apparently leaves this question open but he seems to conclude that in the real world human exhaustion is supreme, no matter how imminently a catastrophe looms ahead. On his tour of a nuclear power plant years later he observed:
One of the things I observe there is a ten-foot long platform made of wooden planks which some ingenious soul has stretched over two railings. “That is where the maintenance workers on the midnight shift sleep,” I am thinking. And visions of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl came to my mind.17
He learned also that customary procedures for debate in comfortable assemblies do not work among oppressed and exploited people. In the context of action against the reassignment of all the Black women to work on the furnace floor, Ignatiev was taught a lesson about group dynamics:
According to the ideal of American society, any of the several workers I approached with the idea of doing something about the company’s latest outrage toward the Black women might have promised to talk to others, or, even invite me to a meeting where I would present my ideas. Instead, they all, without exception, advised me to “See Floyd [a Black millwright and sophisticated leader].” … What was going on? After considerable reflection, I conclude that for the Black workers … some things are more important than formal democracy—in a word, cohesion. Their experience has taught them it is more important to stand together than for each to have his day.18
In an interview by Michael Staudenmaier in 2005, Ignatiev defined STO as “an organization of revolutionaries that tried to think.”19 As Ignatiev had been loyal to his workmates in his years at the Gary Works, he had been training himself also to be a race traitor—both in practice and in theory—setting an example for all those who knew him. Acceptable Men is a narrative of a daring period of his life that is now part of his enduring legacy.
In 1977 STO made an official pronouncement on the topic of white supremacy by adopting 15 “Theses on White Supremacy and the National Question.” The years that Ignatiev spent at the Gary Works and other factories had been crucial to moving the STO group to a stand of uncompromising anti-racism as the crucial issue in US society, and to the rejection of forging and steeling a Leninist party.20
At an often heavy personal price, STO militants were able to draw an antiracist line at workplaces where the group was active. We can agree with John Garvey, a close friend of STO, who said: “STO remains the single most remarkable political organization of its era.”21 Noel Ignatiev’s Acceptable Men reveals a significant source of radicalization in the history of the group: the process of his becoming a consistent traitor to the white race.
I am grateful to Beth Henson for her indispensable help while I was writing this review, and to David Ranney and Kingsley Clarke for their information on Noel Ignatiev’s time span of his job at the Gary Works.
Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, Ill., 2021.
The Apocrypha, Book 7, chapter 2, verse 8.
Noel Ignatiev, Acceptable Men. p. IV.
Acceptable Men, p. 103.
David Young, “Gary Works Made of Steel,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 26, 1996.
Acceptable Men., p. 98.
Ibid., p. 110.
Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution. A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986, AK Press, Oakland, Ca, 2012.
Ibid., p. 109.
Acceptable Men, p. 20
Ibid., p. 16.
Ibid., p. 99.
Ibid.., p. 90.
Ibid., p. 90-91.
Ibid., pp. 57-58.
Ibid., pp. 92-93.
Michael Staudenmaier, cit., p. 332.
Ibid., pp. 158-161.
Ibid., p. 332.