A Brief Council of War – Calumet “K”, Chapter 11
The organization of labor unions is generally democratic. The local lodge is self-governing; it elects its delegate, who attends a council of fellow-delegates, and this council may send representatives to a still more powerful body. But however high their titles, or their salaries, these dignitaries have power only to suggest action, except in a very limited variety of cases. There must always be a reference back to the rank and file. The real decision lies with them.
That is the theory. The laborers on Calumet K, with some others at work in the neighborhood, had organized into a lodge and had affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Grady, who had appeared out of nowhere, who had urged upon them the need of combining against the forces of oppression, and had induced them to organize, had been, without dissent, elected delegate. He was nothing more in theory than this: simply their concentrated voice. And this theory had the fond support of the laborers. “He’s not our boss; he’s our servant,” was a sentiment they never tired of uttering when the delegate was out of earshot.
They met every Friday night, debated, passed portentous resolutions, and listened to Grady’s oratory. After the meeting was over they liked to hear their delegate, their servant, talk mysteriously of the doings of the council, and so well did Grady manage this air of mystery that each man thought it assumed because of the presence of others, but that he himself was of the inner circle. They would not have dreamed of questioning his acts in meeting or after, as they stood about the dingy, reeking hall over Barry’s saloon. It was only as they went to their lodgings in groups of two and three that they told how much better they could manage things themselves.
Bannon enjoyed his last conversation with Grady, though it left him a good deal to think out afterward. He had acted quite deliberately, had said nothing that afterward he wished unsaid; but as yet he had not decided what to do next. After he heard the door slam behind the little delegate, he walked back into his room, paced the length of it two or three times, then put on his ulster and went out. He started off aimlessly, paying no attention to whither he was going, and consequently he walked straight to the elevator. He picked his way across the C. & S. C. tracks, out to the wharf, and seated himself upon an empty nail keg not far from the end of the spouting house.
He sat there for a long while, heedless of all that was doing about him, turning the situation over and over in his mind. Like a good strategist, he was planning Grady’s campaign as carefully as his own. Finally he was recalled to his material surroundings by a rough voice which commanded, “Get off that keg and clear out. We don’t allow no loafers around here.”
Turning, Bannon recognized one of the under-foremen. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “Are you making a regular patrol, or did you just happen to see me?”
“I didn’t know it was you. No, I’m tending to some work here in the spouting house.”
“Do you know where Mr. Peterson is?”
“He was right up here a bit ago. Do you want to see him?”
“Yes, if he isn’t busy. I’m not the only loafer here, it seems,” added Bannon, nodding toward where the indistinct figures of a man and a woman could be seen coming slowly toward them along the narrow strip of wharf between the building and the water. “Never mind,” he added, as the foreman made a step in their direction, “I’ll look after them myself.”
The moment after he had called the foreman’s attention to them he had recognized them as Hilda and Max. He walked over to meet them. “We can’t get enough of it in the daytime, can we.”
“It’s a great place for a girl, isn’t it, Mr. Bannon,” said Max. “I was coming over here and Hilda made me bring her along. She said she thought it must look pretty at night.”
“Doesn’t it?” she asked. “Don’t you think it does, Mr. Bannon?”
He had been staring at it for half an hour. Now for the first time he looked at it. For ninety feet up into the air the large mass was one unrelieved, unbroken shadow, barely distinguishable from the night sky that enveloped it. Above was the skeleton of the cupola, made brilliant, fairly dazzling, in contrast, by scores of arc lamps. At that distance and in that confused tangle of light and shadow the great timbers of the frame looked spidery. The effect was that of a luminous crown upon a gigantic, sphinx-like head.
“I guess you are right,” he said slowly. “But I never thought of it that way before. And I’ve done more or less night work, too.”
A moment later Peterson came up. “Having a tea party out here?” he asked; then turning to Bannon: “Was there something special you wanted, Charlie? I’ve got to go over to the main house pretty soon.”
“It’s our friend Grady. He’s come down to business at last. He wants money.”
Hilda was quietly signalling Max to come away, and Bannon, observing it, broke off to speak to them. “Don’t go,” he said. “We’ll have a brief council of war right here.” So Hilda was seated on the nail keg, while Bannon, resting his elbows on the top of a spile which projected waist high through the floor of the wharf, expounded the situation.
“You understand his proposition,” he said, addressing Hilda, rather than either of the men. “It’s just plain blackmail. He says, ‘If you don’t want your laborers to strike, you’ll have to pay my price.'”
“Not much,” Pete broke in. “I’d let the elevator rot before I’d pay a cent of blackmail.”
“Page wouldn’t,” said Bannon, shortly, “or MacBride, neither. They’d be glad to pay five thousand or so for protection. But they’d want protection that would protect. Grady’s trying to sell us a gold brick. He hated us to begin with, and when he’d struck us for about all he thought we’d stand, he’d call the men off just the same, and leave us to waltz the timbers around all by ourselves.”
“How much did he want?”
“All he could get. I think he’d have been satisfied with a thousand, but he’d come ’round next week for a thousand more.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him that a five-cent cigar was a bigger investment than I cared to make on him and that when we paid blackmail it would be to some fellow who’d deliver the goods. I said he could begin to make trouble just as soon as he pleased.”
“Seems to me you might have asked for a few days’ time to decide. Then we could have got something ready to come at him with. He’s liable to call our men out to-night, ain’t he?”
“I don’t think so. I thought of trying to stave him off for a few days, but then I thought, ‘Why, he’ll see through that game and he’ll go on with his scheme for sewing us up just the same.’ You see, there’s no good saying we’re afraid. So I told him that we didn’t mind him a bit; said he could go out and have all the fun he liked with us. If he thinks we’ve got something up our sleeve he may be a little cautious. Anyway, he knows that our biggest rush is coming a little later, and he’s likely to wait for it.”
Then Hilda spoke for the first time. “Has he so much power as that? Will they strike just because he orders them to?”
“Why, not exactly,” said Bannon. “They decide that for themselves, or at least they think they do. They vote on it.”
“Well, then,” she asked hesitatingly, “why can’t you just tell the men what Mr. Grady wants you to do and show them that he’s dishonest? They know they’ve been treated all right, don’t they?”
Bannon shook his head. “No use,” he said. “You see, these fellows don’t know much. They aren’t like skilled laborers who need some sense in their business. They’re just common roustabouts, and most of ’em have gunpowder in place of brains. They don’t want facts or reason either; what they like is Grady’s oratory. They think that’s the finest thing they ever heard. They might all be perfectly satisfied and anxious to work, but if Grady was to sing out to know if they wanted to be slaves, they’d all strike like a freight train rolling down grade.
“No,” he went on, “there’s nothing to be done with the men. Do you know what would happen if I was to go up to their lodge and tell right out that Grady was a blackmailer? Why, after they’d got through with me, personally, they’d pass a resolution vindicating Grady. They’d resolve that I was a thief and a liar and a murderer and an oppressor of the poor and a traitor, and if they could think of anything more than that, they’d put it in, too. And after vindicating Grady to their satisfaction, they’d take his word for law and the gospel more than ever. In this sort of a scrape you want to hit as high as you can, strike the biggest man who will let you in his office. It’s the small fry that make the trouble. I guess that’s true ‘most everywhere. I know the general manager of a railroad is always an easier chap to get on with than the division superintendent.”
“Well,” said Pete, after waiting a moment to see if Bannon had any definite suggestion to make as to the best way to deal with Grady, “I’m glad you don’t think he’ll try to tie us up to-night. Maybe we’ll think of something to-morrow. I’ve got to get back on the job.”
“I’ll go up with you,” said Max, promptly. Then, in answer to Hilda’s gesture of protest, “You don’t want to climb away up there to-night. I’ll be back in ten minutes,” and he was gone before she could reply. “I guess I can take care of you till he comes back,” said Bannon. Hilda made no answer. She seemed to think that silence would conceal her annoyance better than anything she could say. So, after waiting a moment, Bannon went on talking.
“I suppose that’s the reason why I get ugly sometimes and call names; because I ain’t a big enough man not to. If I was getting twenty-five thousand a year maybe I’d be as smooth as anybody. I’d like to be a general manager for a while, just to see how it would work.”
“I don’t see how anybody could ever know enough to run a railroad.” Hilda was looking up at the C. & S. C. right of way, where red and white semaphore lights were winking.
“I was offered that job once myself, though, and turned it down,” said Bannon. “I was superintendent of the electric light plant at Yawger. Yawger’s quite a place, on a branch of the G. T. There was another road ran through the town, called the Bemis, Yawger and Pacific. It went from Bemis to Stiles Corners, a place about six miles west of Yawger. It didn’t get any nearer the Pacific than that. Nobody in Yawger ever went to Bemis or Stiles, and there wasn’t anybody in Bemis and Stiles to come to Yawger, or if they did come they never went back, so the road didn’t do a great deal of business. They assessed the stock every year to pay the officers’ salaries—and they had a full line of officers, too—but the rest of the road had to scrub along the best it could.
“When they elected me alderman from the first ward up at Yawger, I found out that the B. Y. & P. owed the city four hundred and thirty dollars, so I tried to find out why they wasn’t made to pay. It seemed that the city had had a judgment against them for years, but they couldn’t get hold of anything that was worth seizing. They all laughed at me when I said I meant to get that money out of ’em.
“The railroad had one train; there was an engine and three box cars and a couple of flats and a combination—that’s baggage and passenger. It made the round trip from Bemis every day, fifty-two miles over all, and considering the roadbed and the engine, that was a good day’s work.
“Well, that train was worth four hundred and thirty dollars all right enough, if they could have got their hands on it, but the engineer was such a peppery chap that nobody ever wanted to bother him. But I just bided my time, and one hot day after watering up the engine him and the conductor went off to get a drink. I had a few lengths of log chain handy, and some laborers with picks and shovels, and we made a neat, clean little job of it. Then I climbed up into the cab. When the engineer came back and wanted to know what I was doing there, I told him we’d attached his train. ‘Don’t you try to serve no papers on me,’ he sung out, ‘or I’ll split your head.’ ‘There’s no papers about this job,’ said I. ‘We’ve attached it to the track,’ At that he dropped the fire shovel and pulled open the throttle. The drivers spun around all right, but the train never moved an inch.
“He calmed right down after that and said he hadn’t four hundred and thirty dollars with him, but if I’d let the train go, he’d pay me in a week. I couldn’t quite do that, so him and the conductor had to walk ‘way to Bemis, where the general offices was. They was pretty mad. We had that train chained up there for ‘most a month, and at last they paid the claim.”
“Was that the railroad that offered to make you general manager?” Hilda asked.
“Yes, provided I’d let the train go. I’m glad I didn’t take it up, though. You see, the farmers along the road who held the stock in it made up their minds that the train had quit running for good, so they took up the rails where it ran across their farms, and used the ties for firewood. That’s all they ever got out of their investment.”
A few moments later Max came back and Bannon straightened up to go. “I wish you’d tell Pete when you see him to-morrow,” he said to the boy, “that I won’t be on the job till noon.”
“Going to take a holiday?”
“Yes. Tell him I’m taking the rest cure up at a sanitarium.”
At half-past eight next morning Bannon entered the outer office of R. S. Carver, president of the Central District of the American Federation of Labor, and seated himself on one of the long row of wood-bottomed chairs that stood against the wall. Most of them were already occupied by poorly dressed men who seemed also to be waiting for the president. One man, in dilapidated, dirty finery, was leaning over the stenographer’s desk, talking about the last big strike and guessing at the chance of there being any fun ahead in the immediate future. But the rest of them waited in stolid, silent patience, sitting quite still in unbroken rank along the wall, their overcoats, if they had them, buttoned tight around their chins, though the office was stifling hot. The dirty man who was talking to the stenographer filled a pipe with some very bad tobacco and ostentatiously began smoking it, but not a man followed his example.
Bannon sat in that silent company for more than an hour before the great man came. Even then there was no movement among those who sat along the wall, save as they followed him almost furtively with their eyes. The president never so much as glanced at one of them; for all he seemed to see the rank of chairs might have been empty. He marched across to his private office, and, leaving the door open behind him, sat down before his desk. Bannon sat still a moment, waiting for those who had come before him to make the first move, but not a man of them stirred, so, somewhat out of patience with this mysteriously solemn way of doing business, he arose and walked into the president’s office with as much assurance as though it had been his own. He shut the door after him. The president did not look up, but went on cutting open his mail.
“I’m from MacBride & Company, of Minneapolis,” said Bannon.
“Guess I don’t know the parties.”
“Yes, you do. We’re building a grain elevator at Calumet.”
The president looked up quickly. “Sit down,” he said. “Are you superintending the work?”
“Yes. My name’s Bannon—Charles Bannon.”
“Didn’t you have some sort of an accident out there? An overloaded hoist? And you hurt a man, I believe.”
“And I think one of your foremen drew a revolver on a man.”
“I did, myself.”
The president let a significant pause intervene before his next question. “What do you want with me?”
“I want you to help me out. It looks as though we might get into trouble with our laborers.”
“You’ve come to the wrong man. Mr. Grady is the man for you to talk with. He’s their representative.”
“We haven’t got on very well with Mr. Grady. The first time he came on the job he didn’t know our rule that visitors must apply at the office, and we weren’t very polite to him. He’s been down on us ever since. We can’t make any satisfactory agreement with him.”
Carver turned away impatiently. “You’ll have to,” he said, “if you want to avoid trouble with your men. It’s no business of mine. He’s acting on their instructions.”
“No, he isn’t,” said Bannon, sharply. “What they want, I guess, is to be treated square and paid a fair price. What he wants is blackmail.”
“I’ve heard that kind of talk before. It’s the same howl that an employer always makes when he’s tried to bribe an agent who’s active in the interest of the men, and got left at it. What have you got to show for it? Anything but just your say so?”
Bannon drew out Grady’s letter of warning and handed it to him. Carver read it through, then tossed it on his desk. “You certainly don’t offer that as proof that he wants blackmail, Mr. Bannon.”
“There’s never any proof of blackmail. When a man can see me alone, he isn’t going to talk before witnesses, and he won’t commit himself in writing. Grady told me that unless we paid his price he’d tie us up. No one else was around when he said it.”
“Then you haven’t anything but your say so. But I know him, and I don’t know you. Do you think I’d take your word against his?”
“That letter doesn’t prove blackmail,” said Bannon, “but it smells of it. And there’s the same smell about everything Grady has done. When he came to my office a day or two after that hoist accident, I tried to find out what he wanted, and he gave me nothing but oratory. I tried to pin him down to something definite, but my stenographer was there and Grady didn’t have a suggestion to make. Then by straining his neck and asking questions, he found out we were in a hurry, that the elevator was no good unless it was done by January first, and that we had all the money we needed.
“Two days after he sent me that letter. Look at it again. Why does he want to take both of us to Chicago on Sunday morning, when he can see me any time at my office on the job?” Bannon spread the letter open before Carver’s face. “Why doesn’t he say right here what it is he wants, if it’s anything he dares to put in black and white? I didn’t pay any attention to that letter; it didn’t deserve any. And then will you tell me why he came to my room at night to see me instead of to my office in the daytime? I can prove that he did. Does all that look as if I tried to bribe him? Forget that we’re talking about Grady, and tell me what you think it looks like.”
Carver was silent for a moment. “That wouldn’t do any good,” he said at last. “If you had proof that I could act on, I might be able to help you. I haven’t any jurisdiction in the internal affairs of that lodge; but if you could offer proof that he is what you say he is, I could tell them that if they continued to support him, the federation withdraws its support. But I don’t see that I can help you as it is. I don’t see any reason why I should.”
“I’ll tell you why you should. Because if there’s any chance that what I’ve said is true, it will be a lot better for your credit to have the thing settled quietly. And it won’t be settled quietly if we have to fight. It isn’t very much you have to do; just satisfy yourself as to how things are going down there. See whether we’re square, or Grady is. Then when the scrap comes on you’ll know how to act. That’s all. Do your investigating in advance.”
“That’s just what I haven’t any right to do. I can’t mix up in the business till it comes before me in the regular way.”
“Well,” said Bannon, with a smile, “if you can’t do it yourself, maybe some man you have confidence in would do it for you.”
Carver drummed thoughtfully on his desk for a few minutes. Then he carefully folded Grady’s letter and put it in his pocket. “I’m glad to have met you, Mr. Bannon,” he said, holding out his hand. “Good morning.”
Next morning while Bannon was opening his mail, a man came to the timekeeper’s window and asked for a job as a laborer. “Guess we’ve got men enough,” said Max. “Haven’t we, Mr. Bannon?”
The man put his head in the window. “A fellow down in Chicago told me if I’d come out here to Calumet K and ask Mr. Bannon for a job, he’d give me one.”
“Are you good up high?” Bannon asked.
The man smiled ruefully, and said he was afraid not.
“Well, then,” returned Bannon, “we’ll have to let you in on the ground floor. What’s your name?”
“Go over to the tool house and get a broom. Give him a check, Max.”
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17
LIVE TALK: Calumet “K”: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel by Shoshana Milgram Ph.D.
“This talk offers an introduction to the background, spirit and craft of the novel Ayn Rand called her favorite. Calumet ‘K,’ she wrote, features a ‘portrait of an efficacious man’; it reflects the sense of life of ‘a time when people were capable of admiring productive achievement.’ Dr. Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializes in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Ayn Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Ayn Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Ayn Rand’s life (to 1957).
Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster
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