“You’re fired!” the foreman shouted at someone. “Be here on Saturday for work! On Sunday, too!” he yelled at another worker, taking his daily walk through the long rows of bench lathes and stopping in front of each one of you. You cannot take your eyes off him as you realize that all you’ve ever known are bosses like him, weak at managing production but good at lying and fraud, with all-pervading distrust surrounding their little ugly heads like a halo that you could touch if you only reached out; little ugly heads, knowing only how to steal from the hot shots above and from the workers below them, making the first turn on the latter, turning suspicion into the only steady rule at One-Two, your rusty mechanics shop at the big car-plant on the Dnepr banks.
Day after day you’re becoming more and more like them, forgetting your working class pride – the last time you were alive was 18 years ago, in a past life, on another planet – you become more like them every day, a coward, weak, distrustful, cracking the same old jokes to hide your unease. And in their world it is people like you that they need most: silent, never speaking up, never going to vote down the passive union, ready to indulge in the long history of humiliation that has been your life at shop One-Two. You saw how they broke your section’s engineer: almost daily telling him that he’s fired, but never really throwing him out, so that he became grateful for every extra day he could stay at the plant; and kept his eyes closed and lips sealed about the stealing. You and your comrades counted the times they fired the engineer for one full year, and drew 121 lines on a wall with a piece of chalk; and smiled: here’s another one who learned life’s great and bitter lesson of personal humiliation at shop One-Two.
In the evening you get home at six p.m., your wife is waiting for you in your small apartment, somewhere in the outskirts of the big city on the Dnepr. Close, very close to your grey housing block you can see the chimneys and furnaces of the two steel works to the city’s North, spewing out their red smoke in the clear summer sky, and you reach for the evening’s first cigarette after another workday at the car plant in Zaporozhe.
“How’s it going, man?” – says your neighbor and laughs, You know that under that candid smile of his he hides the triumph of no longer working in the same place as you. He’s doing twelve or fourteen hours of work every day as a cab driver, waiting all night long for customers in front of the railway station, and yet he is happy not to breathe the air of your shop anymore, not to feel the distrust eating away at him.
For you today was a day like any other day. You got up at six a.m. to take the bus to the big plant sprawled on 130 hectares in the city’s center. You got there at around 7:30, not later, despite the official workday starting at 8: they force you to come earlier; you don’t want them to cut those ten percent of your paycheck again. And there he stood as always, waiting for you – for each one of you – at the company gates, bending over the metal detector’s screen to smell your breath, curious, so curious to know whether you came to work with a hangover. Or, who knows, it could have been his lucky day and you showed up drunk for work: yeah, drunk, after emptying a bottle in the bus or in front of the plant with your chums, that bottle that’s often your only escape from dark thoughts.
The foreman stood there waiting to smell your breath – alcohol is his best ally for recruiting young workers into his vast system of ties and bonds. “You get away without a sanction today!” he told one worker, and took a long look at him – you all know what that look means: “you owe me one”. On Saturday he will be here for work, another member in the further expanding fraud scheme at the plant. “Side orders”, they call it when the foreman forces workers to do extra work, not for the plant’s benefit, but for him and his friends’. You can’t remember when all this started; you just hear that he has bought himself one apartment, two, three, a car – and you? What you get is part of your wage cut if you are “late” for work.
“Workers lack discipline!” says your shop’s trade union steward when taking the floor in front of management. Somehow you remember that a trade union should not be about enforcing work discipline to meet production quotas at the plant, like the union at shop One-Two. A union should be about protecting workers, like they were showing yesterday on Russian TV: the union at Ford’s plant in Petersburg went on strike for higher wages and got that raise, despite management lay-off threats and riot police bullying. Once you thought that there can be nothing like that over here, but today you met up with your comrades in shop One-Two, you dropped work and gathered together, you revealed to them everything you have learned about the world of “side-orders”, you urged them to take action against managers and old union stewards. Many of your comrades turned their backs on you, scared by the countless threats, but at the end of the day twenty of you were still left to go to court and register a new union, your union.
And tomorrow, when you’ll come to work to find your bench lathe turned off and management’s order to fire you hanging on the wall behind, you will understand that you learned life’s great lesson about personal humiliation a bit more thoroughly than just 121 times.