Work Forces Workshop

    Photo of the author, looking at archival materials at Senator John Heinz History Center
     

    Woodworking in the Steel City: the History of Carpentry and Carpenters

    Author: Paula Kane,

    Professor and Marous Chair, Religious Studies Department and Work Forces workshop participant

    Pittsburgh justly is famous for being the Steel City. But the very city and campus that we inhabit would not exist except for another trade, namely, carpentry. I once harbored the naïve notion that carpenters mainly made furniture and decorative wooden objects, and practiced fine woodworking in stately mansions and office buildings. In other words, I thought that carpentry was less about industry and more about craft. In fact, however, carpentry involves a host of trades including floor coverers, lathers, millworkers and cabinetmakers, millrights, pile drivers, and all-around carpenters who do residential construction. Today, due to a set of forces that include changes in building design generally, it seems that carpentry more often involves heavy-duty construction and hard-hats: rebar and cement dominate over wooden materials; forms, framing and excavation have taken the place of furniture, mantelpieces and stairways.  For the workshop, “Work Forces,” I am beginning a project about the history of carpenters in the Pittsburgh region over the last century. More precisely, it examines carpenters as a “work force,” and changes in carpentry practices over time.

    American carpenters first organized a union in Chicago in 1881, named the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Pittsburgh joined soon after. National UBC membership reached 200,000 by 1910, when it was said that “the craftsman without a [union] card is a man without a trade.” Today there are over 9000 carpenters in western Pennsylvania, who are members of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Local institutions like the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC keep them employed in maintaining, renovating and repairing existing buildings, as well as in erecting new ones. In the United States there are 19 regional and district councils of the IBCJ. In 2016 the western Pennsylvania region merged with several others, including carpenter unions in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. This enormous Keystone+Mountain+Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters now has membership totals above 40,000.

    Union membership, though apparently thriving, continues to be mostly white and male, and it is worth asking why there is little racial and gender diversity. Furthermore, how do carpenters’ wages and health care compare with the other building trades, such as electricians and plumbers? These questions lead me to others, such as how the recruiting process works, how apprenticeships are mentored, and how the union will sustain itself in an era when organized labor is constantly under attack and when fewer young Americans are drawn into the construction trades. Since carpenters are only paid when they are employed, health care costs and pension contributions, which must be paid out-of-pocket during periods of unemployment, remain sources of concern and financial stress for individual carpenters. 

    Thus, I am interested in asking questions about the history of the carpentry union as caretaker of workers, as well as charting the changes in the practice of carpentry through the last century.  Carpentry may be nearly unique among the skilled trades in that it relies upon human labor that cannot be replaced by automation. Carpentry continues to require skills in mathematics, precision measurement, reading blueprints, understanding materials and the use of human hands and hand-held tools. If so, what effect does this necessity for human labor have on the job security of carpenters? And for those portions of the construction process that can be automated, such as machines to help lift heavy loads of sheet rock or lumber, has this innovation prevented physical strain and injury and increased efficiency?  

    The early twentieth century saw carpenters, like most trades, fighting battles against open shop employers. When employers used non-union labor, this action led to worsened work conditions, weakened safety rules, and deliberate attempts by businesses and corporations to weaken or destroy labor unions. This struggle is ongoing, to which are added the new challenges cause by the globalization of labor and the increasing power of multinational corporations over work processes.

    What will be the impact of the globalization of the economy on carpenters and carpentry? If you watched the new documentary, “American Factory,” the first project of Barack and Michelle Obama through their Higher Ground production company, you witnessed one example of the impact of globalization in nearby Dayton, Ohio. There, a corporation owned by a Chinese billionaire who produces glass for automotive windshields, moved into the closed and vacant General Motors plant in 2014. This experiment in global cooperation did not go smoothly: the transplanted Chinese workers were used to laboring seven days a week, and working overtime whenever asked, and regarded the American workers as lazy and indulged. For their part, the Americans were outraged that their union protections were being violated and overrun, and that their workplace protections and ultimately, their jobs were being cut and automated to save money, even though they had already taken pay cuts to work for Fuyao Glass. When the American workers begin a unionization drive, the Chinese hired consultants to oppose a union and undermine the drive. What is the fate of unionized labor in this kind of world, where one nation’s workers expect different conditions and standards?  How can American workers be educated to understand the processes affecting their lives in order to protect their trades? Are carpenters also concerned about these issues, and who is responsible for educating them about legislative and union concerns?

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    Workshop session at the University Art Gallery with selected works from the Gimbel collection
     

    Work Forces and Devising an Archive Theatre

    Author: Emma Squire 

    PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and Work Forces workshop participant

    On October 25th, 1915 a fire at the Union Paper Box Company in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood killed thirteen and left an estimated fifteen injured. Twelve of these fatalities were women under the age of twenty-four. Archives and Special Collections at The University of Pittsburgh holds the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office records of the inquest into the fire at 207-209 Sandusky Street. This collection of press reports, proof of identity forms, and verdicts from the coroner’s jury provide a narrative of a city reckoning with its lack of enforced fire codes and underfunded firefighting infrastructures. Additionally, these institutional documents contain glimpses of the individual traumas experienced by the community in the aftermath of the tragedy. These papers contain precisely the sort of information that would be necessary for an attempt to create a devised theatre piece around the Union Paper Box Company fire.

    As a PhD student in the Theatre Arts department, I co-founded the Archive Theatre Project in partnership with Archives and Special Collections at Pitt. Our mission is to devise and stage performances, free to the public, constructed from content found within local archival collections. In February 2019 we produced SALK: The Man Behind the Vaccine a staged-reading created from the Max A. Lauffer Papers housed at Pitt. After SALK, University Archivist Zach Brodt suggested that Archive Theatre Project might look into the fire at the Union Paper Box Company as a possible subject. I had hoped that participating in Work Forces would allow me to research the local tragedy from a variety of different institutional perspectives and archival mediums. While I was able to collect information like the coroner’s office records, what I left the workshop with was a heightened sense of the atmospheric conditions in which the event itself occurred. A painting of slag running down a local hill, a conservator explaining the continuous cleaning-up of industrial grim in early twentieth-century Pittsburgh, photography showing the massive construction sites of buildings still standing downtown; these understandings have brought me closer to the sensory experiences of 1915 Pittsburgh. It becomes easier to imagine the smells, sounds, and sights of daily life for the workers of the Union Paper Box Company. It became clear to me throughout the workshop that accumulating specific information regarding the tragedy of October 25th, 1915 was only one part of the story. In order to create a more nuanced devised theatre piece, an understanding of the atmospheric elements of Pittsburgh’s environmental and labor histories would be necessary.

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Maria Lis and other workshop participants at the University Library System, Archives Service Center, during the Work Forces workshop

     

    Work Forces Workshop: The City of Pittsburgh as Pedagogical Tool

    Author: María Lis Baiocchi

    PhD student in Anthropology and Work Forces workshop participant

    The history of Pittsburgh as a center of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, its relevance to the history of the labor movement in this country, and its identity as a distinctly working-class city are some of the most interesting things that any non-Pittsburgh native gets to learn about this city when deciding to move here. At least that was the case for me when I decided to move here to do my PhD in Pitt’s Department of Anthropology. At the time, my work did not involve addressing issues of labor at all. It has been fortuitus that my research trajectory changed to put labor, and specifically household labor, at the center of my doctoral project while doing my PhD in a city where labor has historically taken center-stage.

    The Work Forces Workshop was an in-depth exploration of Pittsburgh’s rich labor history and culture through the prism of archival collections and art exhibitions. It is not an understatement to say that taking part in it transformed my view of the city. Work Forces underscored the potential of Pittsburgh for labor-related research projects through a range of onsite experiences. For instance, we looked into the Left Ephemera Collection in the Frick Fine Arts Library. Visiting the archive in the Bost Building of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, we examined (among other notable materials) notebooks documenting the accidents of workers in one of Pittsburgh’s steel mills which revealed the laboring conditions in this city at the height of its industrial age. I was struck by an interview with a household worker who used to work at Fallingwater kept in the Heinz History Center. 

    Perhaps most interestingly, Work Forces showed the ways in which the city itself and its surroundings can serve as pedagogical tools for teachers addressing the topic of labor broadly conceived in their classroom. An instructor teaching an introductory social theory course covering foundational Marxist concepts could benefit from taking students on a field trip to the Carrie Furnace or the Tour-Ed Mine to drive home abstract ideas about labor conditions imparted in the classroom. Anyone teaching on the anthropology of labor could very successfully draw from the University Art Gallery collection to discuss material covered inside the classroom. In sum, labor scholars and labor teachers of any background, including and especially anthropologists, stand to benefit from engaging with Pittsburgh’s rich material culture not just in research but also in teaching. Work Forces served as a fantastic invitation to do just that.      

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    fig 1. Continuous Miner Paintings at CMOA (photo by Ana Rodríguez)

     

    ‘Work Forces’ Workshop: automation and the transformation of labour

    Author: Mark Paterson

    Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and Work Forces workshop participant

    The ‘Continuous Miner’. A phrase that has a rhythm, and sounds almost poetic. Like Handel’s famous suite from 1720, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. Or so I thought when I first heard the phrase. Whereas one of these titles is a delightful set of baroque pieces of music played on a harpsicord in the music rooms, salons, and concert halls of polite society, the other is possibly the farthest away in terms of space and culture that you could get. For the Continuous Miner is actually a huge hunk of thick metal and articulated conveyer belt, a noisy room-sized machine which works incessantly in the sulphurous underground amongst dark seams in the sooty coalface. With its hardened, pointed, rotating claws at the front of the conveyor, it digs into the darkness like a monotonous machinic dinosaur. Yet how it becomes a subject of artistic production, as opposed to an object of art, will seem unlikely at first.

    It has a certain brutal aesthetic, based as it is so purely on function over form. The ‘aesthetic’ aspect is not superficial, as our introduction to the machine within the Work Forces workshop was as a series of paintings presented to us in the Carnegie Museum of Art (fig. 1), commissioned by the manufacturer. The Jewish-Romanian emigrée Hedda Sterne, instrumental in the avant-garde art scene of New York in the 1940s and 1950s, was one of those commissioned artists, and her oil on canvas painting ‘The Continuous Miner’ of 1954 (fig. 2) differs from the others because the framing is circular, giving an almost fish-eye impression of the machine in its dark environment to the viewer. Costas Karakatsanis, Fine Arts Curatorial Researcher at the CMOA, talked about the background to the paintings, explained that those machines had been invented as far back as 1948 by the Pittsburgh-based Joy Manufacturing Corporation and cost $50,000 at the time (fig. 3; an online inflation calculator tells me this is equivalent to $532,304 in 2019). A variant of this machine is still being made by the Japanese Komatsu Corporation, which bought Joy in 2016, but enshrines the prior company in the model number: the Joy 12CM12 (fig. 4).

    Studs Terkel’s rather wonderful oral history of workers in America, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, includes the account of Joe who graduated from high school in 1930 and went straight to work in the mines, getting up around 3.30-4am to start work at 6. 

     

    My hearin’… It coulda been affected with so much noise. I was tampin’ up, shootin’ the coal down, just behind the machine. I worked that continuous miner. That made lotsa noise. This hearin’ aid cost me $395. (Joe, in Terkel 1997:16).

     

    The overview and discussion of the paintings was on Wednesday May 8, and the following day we had the opportunity to see one of these machines ‘in the wild’, as it were, with a visit to the Tour-Ed Mine and Museum in Tarentum, PA, which had a number of demonstrations of mining equipment, starting from the old carts on rails and the use of human loaders with pick axes, and then as visitor progress through the mine you encounter more advanced machines that automated the process. The final machine was a working Continuous Miner manufactured by the Joy Corporation, the exact same machines as in the paintings. We got a sense of the scale of the machine and the noise it created first-hand, and one of the tour guides described working with the machine in his previous job. 

    For me, the fascination with the Continuous Miner is part of a wider developing interest in the history of automation. Based on my current work on the history of the measurement of bodily sensation from 1833-1945, pain and fatigue feature in factories and workplaces (Movement, Measurement, Sensation: How We Became Sensori-Motor, forthcoming with University of Minnesota Press). But my next project will benefit very directly from the Work Forces workshop, as I look at the history of automata and automation, and increasingly how work and the future of work are being transformed (Animal Automata and Living Machines: Robots, Replicants, and Companion Species, contracted with Routledge). Prior to the HAA Work Forces workshop, my emphasis was beginning to change because of the rich history of labor and work around Pittsburgh, and colleagues for example had introduced me to the Pittsburgh Survey and scholars such as Edward Slavishak’s Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh (2008). But the visits to archives, museums, and the intense conversations with fellow workshop attendees has certainly advanced this intersection between the history of labor, automation, and the transformation of the workplace.

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh