‘Working 500 Feet Above Ground’ by Thomas O’Connell from International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 3. September, 1911.
I WAS talking to Tim Saunders during his noon hour while the men at work putting up the great framework for one of the largest Chicago skyscrapers, sat about eating their lunches.
“Of course the job of an iron worker is no cinch,” he said, “but where can a man find one nowadays that is? My father was killed in the steel mills and my brother was lost in the Cherry Mine disaster. You’re up against it everywhere.
Every day as I passed the growing skeleton of the new building I heard men talking about the rapidity with which the work progressed. Story after story leaped skyward over night and arm after arm of ponderous steel was daily flung forward. The whole gigantic structure seemed springing into life before our eyes.
It was the tiny specks of men as they crept over the huge frame knitting together enormous girders with the raucous riveting machines, that interested me most.
The life of one structural iron worker EVERY WEEK during the process of construction was the toll paid. During the hot days in July, Dan Wheeler, an old, experienced hand crumpled up over a twelfth story section and lurched over to the basement. Two other men were so overcome by the heat that they had to quit for the day.
Often I passed Madison street at about the time the men working on the Gardner building came down in the morning, and I always stopped, at the risk of being late, and “docked” myself, to see the men hoisted to their respective jobs over the steel chain pulley or the great hoists. They would slip their hands through the links and brace their feet around the chain and go whirling and swaying through space three or four, or even five, hundred feet above ground.
Dan Wheeler told me of one day when he and three of his comrades doubled up in order to finish a specified number of floors at a given time. “We had to do our own work and avoid jars from the steel beams from theirs,” he said.
“It was a windy day and the small manila brace ropes flapped in our faces and beat about our feet. We had all been ‘called down’ that morning by the boss and told to finish up that floor if we were any good at all, before night.
“But the wind was so strong that we worked with extra precaution.” At such times the structural iron worker becomes a taut bundle of nerves. He must keep every sense alert for the slightest mischance may mean his finish.
One of the boys pushed back his soft hat and mopped his forehead, we always sweat a good deal on such jobs because of the tension and the hard work and it was hot that day, too. The wind caught up the flap of his hat and as he snatched to catch it, his foot slipped and Bill got his last time.
“When you first start on a job of this kind, you are so careful that you are almost likely to stumble over your own feet. But by and by you get used to it, like a man gets used to everything in this world. Then you get careless. I used to be proud of my own nimbleness. People would talk about the way I leaped great gaps and flung myself about. And I was so light on my feet and so strong and young that I laughed at the thought of any accident coming my way, in those days.
“But I learned a whole lot. And I was one of the lucky ones that learned before I fell. When a spike slipped and I saved myself from plunging into space by throwing my arms around the riveting machine, a fellow workman reached me inside a half a minute and pulled the riveter over to the girder and I found my feet again.
“At another time I stepped on an untied shoe-lace, but threw myself backward in time to clutch the bars and save myself from going under. Every iron worker carries his life in his FEET every day. We could all tell you of our many close shaves
“Now they have a new aerial ambulance for structural iron workers. But that don’t come into use until we’ve been hurt. It’s nearly always good bye to the worker before the ambulance gets him. Sometimes our remains are scooped up and lowered to the ground and carted away to our bereaved families and sometimes men are gathered up still living. They may be an improvement on nothing at all, but they never prevent accidents.”
The steel trust is now after the structural iron workers. It has crushed out the unions in many parts of the Pittsburg district where unionism is fast becoming a negligible quantity. And it has set its face against the organization of the iron workers.
Intelligent men and women recognize the McNamara conspiracy as a gigantic movement on the part of Morgan’s gang to wipe out the gallant little band of air men in their last stand for their craft organization.
The union may win this particular fight, but they cannot win finally with their old weapons. Capital is more and more concentrating into a few hands. It is armed with all the powers of government to use in its own way. Only a united working class can cope with the trusts. A small band of workers, be they ever so courageous and self-sacrificing, must go down before the better organized and better equipped capitalist class.
The day of craft organization is nearly done because the trust is become well-nigh invulnerable. It commands Supreme courts and the old-time gods of the ermine bend the submissive knee. It demands of Roosevelt, the boaster, that he become its servant and its tool and Teddy, the terrible, forthwith lays down his arms and dons the menial’s attire.
It threatens to throw the nation into a panic, to close down factories and mines and to shut the mills. Unless Theodore. the terrible, became a public vassal to the steel trust, the steel trust threatened to involve the country in a panic. Then would all men know who was the king. So Teddy got down on his knees. He did not expect that the facts would be made public and that later on he (Roosevelt) would be called before a congressional investigation body where his subserviency would be proven.
Kings, princes, presidents, are all in the service of the trusts these days. A fighting craft union is like a small boy trying to stem the tide of progress when it goes up against the Steel Trust. A fighting, revolutionary industrial union, ONE BIG UNION of the working class can by its own united strength and solidarity, ride with that tide to the complete supremacy of the workers.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v12n03-sep-1911-ISR-gog-Corn.pdf