“When hunger grows and your meals are rare”
Half of my face is swollen and itchy. It is the late shift and I’m sitting in the block storage of the rolling train. Steel ingots as far as the eye can reach. Which is not that far because the blocks are piled high and the light is dim even on late summer afternoons when the angle of the sun still allows her to send some rays through the high, dust-smeared windows to illuminate sinter fragments flickering through air and into lungs.
Our part of the steel mill is close to the river, just separated by a few stretches of tracks for cargo trains. The damp verge of weeds and bushes down on the waterfront must be the place the horsefly came from which bit my cheek. That’s not quite what I thought I’d come back for. I was living in Ireland until recently, studying for a postgrad degree – the first of the family to attend university. To even attend one abroad! I lived in Clonee, a longish bus ride from Belfield, in a house that looked nice on the outside but was really just up for demolition. When the roof got a hole because of the rent hike rocketing through it, I decided to move back to Germany and finish my thesis from there. I would have loved to stay in Ireland, but it’s an expensive country if you are just getting by on your savings and whatever little the university pays for tutoring undergrads in moral philosophy. The job market looks better there for people specializing in medical ethics, but at home I can make a slightly better living in my own language and work as a student employee at the local steel plant. “When hunger grows as the meals are rare”, as Flann O’Brien had it, and a pint of plain is nowhere near the jingle in your pocket, you have to reassess your priorities. So, labour it is for me, and research happens when I come home. Mind you, it’s pretty good for your social life … not.
One month into welding steel and we are hit by a durn pandemic. It is the holiday season, so the company needs me to fill in for the colleagues on vacation, but once they come back, I will be struggling again. Talk of reduced working hours is in the air and if that happens, the first ones to go are agency workers and students. Then they will have a go at people near retirement age. Sending them home ahead of their time is better than firing anybody; that would only make for bad publicity nobody wants in a company with traditions and deep roots in this clime. I have worked here before and have a pretty solid record, so I might be among the last ones to go but go I will eventually. No doubt on that. Several summers have seen me toil in different parts of the rolling train as well as in several hardening and tempering facilities here, but loyalty is no currency in times of economic difficulties.
A few years back, there was a colleague we used to call Fizzy Rudy. He was known for drinking sparkling water only. Last week I heard of his passing; didn’t even make it three years into his retirement. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he is no isolated incident; the montane industry is not particularly known for its healthy work conditions: hard physical labour, alternating shifts and black lungs used to be more common back in the day, but even in our time lots of men winning their bread in the sector are in for a terminal closing of eyes ahead of mean age. And it’s still predominantly men; women are not seen around here that much or drop out early, sometimes due to childbirth, sometimes because they experience sexism at the workplace, or they do not even get an apprentice position, which is the usual start here for regular workers. In that regard, my county is still much more conservative than it should be, not least because conservative thinking t thwarts social and job developments. Which is bad for people like me, who, eventually, seek jobs that come without prior apprenticeship. You see, shift work isn’t the greatest thing on earth for a thinker. Yet, I’d still go on working here if I could. But with skilled labourers starting to work short time and on the brink of a lay-off, what use is there for companies in unskilled workers? Then again: what practical thing is a philosopher ever skilled for?
My trade is the labour of the mind. Like artistic efforts, thoughts and arguments seem not to count for many people here; they fail to see an immediate use in them. What I can do, aside from pushing buttons, throwing levers, checking monitoring screens, or sweeping the tiles in front of the gaffer’s office, is to give an account of what it is like being an industry worker, one who hardly blinks when white-burning fire-snakes hiss out of the darkness of the annealing furnace into the half-gloom of the rolling mill where dark fumes from heavy machinery hang under a concrete ceiling. Smell of sinter, steel dust and sweat evaporate and even the aircon of the control booths cannot clean the air completely. I can tell how we toil on slow shifts – early, two-to-ten and night –, speak trivia all day and wait for the changeover; of how grey water runs towards the drain in the shower room. The older workers have been hardened by drink and smoke, and when they talk, it is harsh, with a coarse humour about those who went through the factory gate. Those on whom the umbrage of the hillsides fell. Their hardship is penned in heat and shadow and half-light; some barely live to see their pension and on their deathbed remember the line from the poet Francis Harvey someone engraved on a dirty girder: “Only the dead or out of their element.”
First-hand experience and stories abound. My neighbour, who once worked in the same place, told me that when he was my age, the older steel workers would usually have a drink for breakfast, at least those who could do their jobs sitting at monitoring desks operating the roll stands; one bottle of corn schnapps between their feet and two half-litre beer cans to the left and the right – that was “a drink”. Their work often ended one hour ahead of schedule when everyone met by the vending machine selling beer too. Those were the days when two manned beam cranes where operating under the roof of the mill. It is a bloody miracle nobody died there inebriated.
Today, the drinking has stopped, at least officially. Some colleagues I happened to meet do have their secret stash, of course, but most actually stick to the rules. If they gather for a pint, it’s usually after the last nightshift on Saturday mornings and in one of the pubs outside the factory gate. Should anyone be caught drunk at work, they are sent to what is called the fizz farm. Sometimes you almost get the impression, companies have learned to care for their employees.
The sober work we do here is dangerous enough without alcohol flooding one’s veins. During my first stint in a tempering facility, I broke three fingers when two heavy bars fell on my hand. The pain of 260 kilos of steel dropping down can go a long way, right up into the shoulder, and although it was only my fingertips in that batch of bars, it felt like my whole hand was squashed. On another occasion, two colleagues had a good laugh when we hoisted up a batch with a remote-controlled crane and one of the bars started to break loose. I made a run for it thinking my helmet would never save me if the bar would fall out. They found that funny but turned pale once the bar shot out aiming for their heads. It stopped just a wee stretch away from their faces because it got caught somewhere inside the batch. One of them did not wear a helmet at the time but has been wearing one ever since. And that’s just the circumstances when one is lucky. I have heard of others who died in work accidents.
Workplace safety is a high good, but what’s it worth if there is no workplace security for us? Most try to go about their tasks not thinking too much about the potential of redundancy letters appearing in the foreman’s hand. It is never the gaffer or the plant manager who gives you the word; they will always send the foreman to do that. Some have worked here for 30-odd years or more, since they were young apprentices. They have survived the Saar Steel Recession of the early 90s, when the unemployment office paid their wages because the company could no longer afford the expenses.
They have sacrificed a lot for their jobs, not least their health. After the closing of the last coal mine a few years ago, steel is the only big industry we have left – and its size has been shrinking for as long as I can remember. The people of this county will find a way to make do with the circumstances; we always have. Yet, when the going gets rough and the letters start coming, some will ask questions of fairness, of how just it is that they have worked their hands to the bones all their lives to be left with nothing but the dole. As one who has studied Moral Philosophy thoroughly, I could tell them it is not a matter of fairness and justice. That would entail some powerful entity with the capacity to think and the ability to form a will. Forget the idea of an almighty god towering over our fate, what entity is there left that could will people to lose their jobs? To punish them morally and what for? The simple truth is, there is no such entity, neither in religion nor in politics or in the economy. And bad things that happen are thus not a punishment, they are just random bad things that happen. This is what I could tell them, but it is no use. It’s another hard lesson we all will have to come to terms with.
Still, it is going to be harder on some than it will be on others. The older workers will be offered early retirement. It might be good for them after all the hard labour, particularly for those who have paid back their loan and have adult children who have long since moved out. Those colleagues can go on long holidays or do some work around the house fixing this or that. It will be difficult for the younger ones, those who have just bought or built a house, started a family. Losing their jobs will be a hard blow.
Me? No idea if I will have it easy or not. Three degrees from three universities in three different countries is not half bad one would assume, but jobs for medical ethics specialists with experience in the academic sector as well as in heavy industry are rare in a place that is aware of tradition and afraid of new developments, focuses on coal and steel, and generally advises people coming from the Humanities to become a cabby or a ticket taker – as if cinemas were in high demand these days. So, I have plenty to think about for myself and, if anything, thinking is what I have been trained in quite well. Also, tonight is my turn to feed the stray cats our shift has adopted. They are all still tiny; nobody knows where they came from, but one day the crane driver saw them from above sneaking around the block storage. They hid under wattlings in which we place ingots ready for the furnace. They were shy at first but have warmed to us as we have to them. I should check the fridge in the break room for canned food; in the heat of this place, we need to be careful not to leave any food outside for too long. And I’d better do something about that itch in my face before the break is over.