Averting a Strike – Calumet “K”, Chapter 13
It was the night of the tenth of December. Three of the four stories of the cupola were building, and the upright posts were reaching toward the fourth. It still appeared to be a confused network of timbers, with only the beginnings of walls, but as the cupola walls are nothing but a shell of light boards to withstand the wind, the work was further along than might have been supposed. Down on the working story the machinery was nearly all in, and up here in the cupola the scales and garners were going into place as rapidly as the completing of the supporting framework permitted. The cupola floors were not all laid. If you had stood on the distributing floor, over the tops of the bins, you might have looked not only down through a score of openings between plank areas and piles of timbers, into black pits, sixteen feet square by seventy deep, but upward through a grill of girders and joists to the clear sky. Everywhere men swarmed over the work, and the buzz of the electric lights and the sounds of hundreds of hammers blended into a confused hum.
If you had walked to the east end of the building, here and there balancing along a plank or dodging through gangs of laborers and around moving timbers, you would have seen stretching from off a point not halfway through to the ground, the annex bins, rising so steadily that it was a matter only of a few weeks before they would be ready to receive grain. Now another walk, this time across the building to the north side, would show you the river house, out there on the wharf, and the marine tower rising up through the middle with a single arc lamp on the topmost girder throwing a mottled, checkered shadow on the wharf and the water below.
At a little after eight o’clock, Peterson, who had been looking at the stairway, now nearly completed, came out on the distributing floor. He was in good spirits, for everything was going well, and Bannon had frankly credited him, of late, with the improvement in the work of the night shifts. He stood looking up through the upper floors of the cupola, and he did not see Max until the timekeeper stood beside him.
“Hello, Max,” he said. “We’ll have the roof on here in another ten days.”
Max followed Peterson’s glance upward.
“I guess that’s right. It begins to look as if things was coming ’round all right. I just come up from the office. Mr. Bannon’s there. He’ll be up before long, he says. I was a-wondering if maybe I hadn’t ought to go back and tell him about Grady. He’s around, you know.”
“Yes. Him and another fellow was standing down by one of the cribbin’ piles. I was around there on the way up.”
“What was they doing?”
“Nothing. Just looking on.”
Peterson turned to shout at some laborers, then he pushed back his hat and scratched his head.
“I don’t know but what you’d ought to ‘a’ told Charlie right off. That man Grady don’t mean us no good.”
“I know it, but I wasn’t just sure.”
“Well, I’ll tell you——”
Before Peterson could finish, Max broke in:—
“That fellow over there, walking along slow. He’s the one that was with Grady.”
“I’d like to know what he thinks he’s doing here.” Peterson started forward, adding, “I guess I know what to say to him.”
“Hold on, Pete,” said Max, catching his arm. “Maybe we’d better speak to Mr. Bannon. I’ll go down and tell him, and you keep an eye on this fellow.”
Peterson reluctantly assented, and Max walked slowly away, now and then pausing to look around at the men. But when he had nearly reached the stairway, where he could slip behind the scaffolding about the only scale hopper that had reached a man’s height above the floor, he moved more rapidly. He met Bannon on the stairway, and told him what he had seen. Bannon leaned against the wall of the stairway bin, and looked thoughtful.
“So he’s come, has he?” was his only comment. “You might speak to Pete, Max, and bring him here. I’ll wait.”
Max and Peterson found him looking over the work of the carpenters.
“I may not be around much to-night,” he said, with a wink, “but I’d like to see both of you to-morrow afternoon some time. Can you get around about four o’clock, Pete?”
“Sure,” the night boss replied.
“We’ve got some thinking to do about the work, if we’re going to put it through. I’ll look for you at four o’clock then, in the office.” He started down the stairs. “I’m going home now.”
“Why,” said Peterson, “you only just come.”
Bannon paused and looked back over his shoulder. The light came from directly overhead, and the upper part of his face was in the shadow of his hat brim, but Max, looking closely at him, thought that he winked again.
“I wanted to tell you,” the foreman went on; “Grady’s come around, you know—and another fellow——”
“Yes, Max told me. I guess they won’t hurt you. Good night.”
As he went on down he passed a group of laborers who were bringing stairway material to the carpenters.
“I don’t know but what you was talking pretty loud,” said Max to Peterson, in a low voice. “Here’s some of ’em now.”
“They didn’t hear nothing,” Peterson replied, and the two went back to the distributing floor. They stood in a shadow, by the scale hopper, waiting for the reappearance of Grady’s companion. He had evidently gone on to the upper floors, where he could not be distinguished from the many other moving figures; but in a few minutes he came back, walking deliberately toward the stairs. He looked at Peterson and Max, but passed by without a second glance, and descended. Peterson stood looking after him.
“Now, I’d like to know what Charlie meant by going home,” he said.
Max had been thinking hard. Finally he said:—
“Say, Pete, we’re blind.”
“Did you think he was going home?”
Peterson looked at him, but did not reply.
“Because he ain’t.”
“Well, you heard what he said.”
“What does that go for? He was winking when he said it. He wasn’t going to stand there and tell the laborers all about it, like we was trying to do. I’ll bet he ain’t very far off.”
“I ain’t got a word to say,” said Peterson. “If he wants to leave Grady to me, I guess I can take care of him.”
Max had come to the elevator for a short visit—he liked to watch the work at night—but now he settled down to stay, keeping about the hopper where he could see Grady if his head should appear at the top of the stairs. Something told him that Bannon saw deeper into Grady’s man[oe]uvres than either Peterson or himself, and while he could not understand, yet he was beginning to think that Grady would appear before long, and that Bannon knew it.
Sure enough, only a few minutes had gone when Max turned back from a glance at the marine tower and saw the little delegate standing on the top step, looking about the distributing floor and up through the girders overhead, with quick, keen eyes. Then Max understood what it all meant: Grady had chosen a time when Bannon was least likely to be on the job; and had sent the other man ahead to reconnoitre. It meant mischief—Max could see that; and he felt a boy’s nervousness at the prospect of excitement. He stepped farther back into the shadow.
Grady was looking about for Peterson; when he saw his burly figure outlined against a light at the farther end of the building, he walked directly toward him, not pausing this time to talk to the laborers or to look at them. Max, moving off a little to one side, followed, and reached Peterson’s side just as Grady, his hat pushed back on his head and his feet apart, was beginning to talk.
“I had a little conversation with you the other day, Mr. Peterson. I called to see you in the interests of the men, the men that are working for you—working like galley slaves they are, every man of them. It’s shameful to a man that’s seen how they’ve been treated by the nigger drivers that stands over them day and night.” He was speaking in a loud voice, with the fluency of a man who is carefully prepared. There was none of the bitterness or the ugliness in his manner that had slipped out in his last talk with Bannon, for he knew that a score of laborers were within hearing, and that his words would travel, as if by wire, from mouth to mouth about the building and the grounds below. “I stand here, Mr. Peterson, the man chosen by these slaves of yours, to look after their rights. I do not ask you to treat them with kindness, I do not ask that you treat them as gentlemen. What do I ask? I demand what’s accorded to them by the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, that says even a nigger has more rights than you’ve given to these men, the men that are putting money into your pocket, and Mr. Bannon’s pocket, and the corporation’s pocket, by the sweat of their brows. Look at them; will you look at them?” He waved his arm toward the nearest group, who had stopped working and were listening; and then, placing a cigar in his mouth and tilting it upward, he struck a match and sheltered it in his hands, looking over it for a moment at Peterson.
The night boss saw by this time that Grady meant business, that his speech was preliminary to something more emphatic, and he knew that he ought to stop it before the laborers should be demoralized.
“You can’t do that here, Mister,” said Max, over Peterson’s shoulder, indicating the cigar.
Grady still held the match, and looked impudently across the tip of his cigar. Peterson took it up at once.
“You’ll have to drop that,” he said. “There’s no smoking on this job.”
The match had gone out, and Grady lighted another.
“So that’s one of your rules, too?” he said, in the same loud voice. “It’s a wonder you let a man eat.”
Peterson was growing angry. His voice rose as he talked.
“I ain’t got time to talk to you,” he said. “The insurance company says there can’t be no smoking here. If you want to know why, you’d better ask them.”
Grady blew out the match and returned the cigar to his pocket, with an air of satisfaction that Peterson could not make out.
“That’s all right, Mr. Peterson. I didn’t come here to make trouble. I come here as a representative of these men”—he waved again toward the laborers—”and I say right here, that if you’d treated them right in the first place, I wouldn’t be here at all. I’ve wanted you to have a fair show. I’ve put up with your mean tricks and threats and insults ever since you begun—and why? Because I wouldn’t delay you and hurt the work. It’s the industries of to-day, the elevators and railroads, and the work of strong men like these that’s the bulwark of America’s greatness. But what do I get in return, Mister Peterson? I come up here as a gentleman and talk to you. I treat you as a gentleman. I overlook what you’ve showed yourself to be. And how do you return it? By talking like the blackguard you are—you knock an innocent cigar——”
“Your time’s up!” said Pete, drawing a step nearer. “Come to business, or clear out. That’s all I’ve got to say to you.”
“All right, Mister Peterson—all right. I’ll put up with your insults. I can afford to forget myself when I look about me at the heavier burdens these men have to bear, day and night. Look at that—look at it, and then try to talk to me.”
He pointed back toward the stairs where a gang of eight laborers were carrying a heavy timber across the shadowy floor.
“Well, what about it?” said Pete, with half-controlled rage.
“What about it! But never mind. I’m a busy man myself. I’ve got no more time to waste on the likes of you. Take a good look at that, and then listen to me. That’s the last stick of timber that goes across this floor until you put a runway from the hoist to the end of the building. And every stick that leaves the runway has got to go on a dolly. Mark my words now—I’m talking plain. My men don’t lift another pound of timber on this house—everything goes on rollers. I’ve tried to be a patient man, but you’ve run against the limit. You’ve broke the last back you’ll have a chance at.” He put his hand to his mouth as if to shout at the gang, but dropped it and faced around. “No, I won’t stop them. I’ll be fair to the last.” He pulled out his watch. “I’ll give you one hour from now. At ten o’clock, if your runway and the dollies ain’t working, the men go out. And the next time I see you, I won’t be so easy.”
He turned away, waved to the laborers, with an, “All right, boys; go ahead,” and walked grandly toward the stairway.
“I’d like to know where Charlie is,” said Peterson.
“He ain’t far. I’ll find him;” and Max hurried away.
Bannon was sitting in the office chair with his feet on the draughting-table, figuring on the back of a blotter. The light from the wall lamp was indistinct, and Bannon had to bend his head forward to see the figures. He did not look up when the door opened and Max came to the railing gate.
“Grady’s been up on the distributing floor,” said Max, breathlessly, for he had been running.
“What did he want?”
“He’s going to call the men off at ten o’clock if we don’t put in a runway and dollies on the distributing floor.”
Bannon looked at his watch.
“Is that all he wants?”
Max, in his excitement, did not catch the sarcasm in the question.
“That’s all he said, but it’s enough. We can’t do it”
Bannon closed his watch with a snap.
“No,” he said, “and we won’t throw away any good time trying. You’d better round up the committee that’s supposed to run this lodge and send them here. That young Murphy’s one of them—he can put you straight. Bring Pete back with you, and the new man, James.”
Max lingered, with a look of awe and admiration.
“Are you going to stand out, Mr. Bannon?” he asked.
Bannon dropped his feet to the floor, and turned toward the table.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re going to stand out.”
Since Bannon’s talk with President Carver a little drama had been going on in the local lodge, a drama that neither Bannon, Max, nor Peterson knew about. James had been selected by Carver for this work because of proved ability and shrewdness. He had no sooner attached himself to the lodge, and made himself known as an active member, than his personality, without any noticeable effort on his part, began to make itself felt. Up to this time Grady had had full swing, for there had been no one among the laborers with force enough to oppose him.
The first collision took place at an early meeting after Grady’s last talk with Bannon. The delegate, in the course of the meeting, bitterly attacked Bannon, accusing him, at the climax of his oration, of an attempt to buy off the honest representative of the working classes for five thousand dollars. This had a tremendous effect on the excitable minds before him. He finished his speech with an impassioned tirade against the corrupt influences of the money power, and was mopping his flushed face, listening with elation to the hum of anger that resulted, confident that he had made his point, when James arose. The new man was as familiar with the tone of the meetings of laborers as Grady himself. At the beginning he had no wish further than to get at the truth. Grady had not stated his case well. It had convinced the laborers, but to James it had weak points. He asked Grady a few pointed questions, that, had the delegate felt the truth behind him, should not have been hard to answer. But Grady was still under the spell of his own oratory, and in attempting to get his feet back on the ground, he bungled. James did not carry the discussion beyond the point where Grady, in the bewilderment of recognizing this new element in the lodge, lost his temper, but when he sat down, the sentiment of the meeting had changed. Few of those men could have explained their feelings; it was simply that the new man was stronger than they were, perhaps as strong as Grady, and they were influenced accordingly.
There was no decision for a strike at that meeting. Grady, cunning at the business, immediately dropped open discussion, and, smarting under the sense of lost prestige, set about regaining his position by well-planned talk with individual laborers. This went on, largely without James’ knowledge, until Grady felt sure that a majority of the men were back in his control. This time he was determined to carry through the strike without the preliminary vote of the men. It was a bold stroke, but boldness was needed to defeat Charlie Bannon; and nobody knew better than Grady that a dashing show of authority would be hard for James or any one else to resist.
And so he had come on the job this evening, at a time when he supposed Bannon safe in bed, and delivered his ultimatum. Not that he had any hope of carrying the strike through without some sort of a collision with the boss, but he well knew that an encounter after the strike had gathered momentum would be easier than one before. Bannon might be able to outwit an individual, even Grady himself, but he would find it hard to make headway against an angry mob. And now Grady was pacing stiffly about the Belt Line yards, while the minute hand of his watch crept around toward ten o’clock. Even if Bannon should be called within the hour, a few fiery words to those sweating gangs on the distributing floor should carry the day. But Grady did not think that this would be necessary. He was still in the mistake of supposing that Peterson and the boss were at outs, and he had arrived, by a sort of reasoning that seemed the keenest strategy, at the conclusion that Peterson would take the opportunity to settle the matter himself. In fact, Grady had evolved a neat little campaign, and he was proud of himself.
Bannon did not have to wait long. Soon there was a sound of feet outside the door, and after a little hesitation, six laborers entered, five of them awkwardly and timidly, wondering what was to come. Peterson followed, with Max, and closed the door. The members of the committee stood in a straggling row at the railing, looking at each other and at the floor and ceiling—anywhere but at the boss, who was sitting on the table, sternly taking them in. James stepped to one side.
“Is this all the committee?” Bannon presently said.
The men hesitated, and Murphy, who was in the centre, answered, “Yes, sir.”
“You are the governing members of your lodge?”
There was an air of cool authority about Bannon that disturbed the men. They had been led to believe that his power reached only the work on the elevator, and that an attempt on his part to interfere in any way with their organization would be an act of high-handed tyranny, “to be resisted to the death” (Grady’s words). But these men standing before their boss, in his own office, were not the same men that thrilled with righteous wrath under Grady’s eloquence in the meetings over Barry’s saloon. So they looked at the floor and ceiling again, until Murphy at last answered:—
Bannon waited again, knowing that every added moment of silence gave him the firmer control.
“I have nothing to say about the government of your organization,” he said, speaking slowly and coldly. “I have brought you here to ask you this question, Have you voted to strike?”
The silence was deep. Peterson, leaning against the closed door, held his breath; Max, sitting on the railing with his elbow thrown over the desk, leaned slightly forward. The eyes of the laborers wandered restlessly about the room. They were disturbed, taken off their guard; they needed Grady. But the thought of Grady was followed by the consciousness of the silent figure of the new man, James, standing behind them. Murphy’s first impulse was to lie. Perhaps, if James had not been there, he would have lied. As it was, he glanced up two or three times, and his lips as many times framed themselves about words that did not come. Finally he said, mumbling the words:—
“No, we ain’t voted for no strike.”
“There has been no such decision made by your organization?”
“No, I guess not.”
Bannon turned to Peterson.
“Mr. Peterson, will you please find Mr. Grady and bring him here.”
Max and Peterson hurried out together. Bannon drew up the chair, and turned his back on the committee, going on with his figuring. Not a word was said; the men hardly moved; and the minutes went slowly by. Then there was a stir outside, and the sound of low voices. The door flew open, admitting Grady, who stalked to the railing, choking with anger. Max, who immediately followed, was grinning, his eyes resting on a round spot of dust on Grady’s shoulder, and on his torn collar and disarranged tie. Peterson came in last, and carefully closed the door—his eyes were blazing, and one sleeve was rolled up over his bare forearm. Neither of them spoke. If anything in the nature of an assault had seemed necessary in dragging the delegate to the office, there had been no witnesses. And he had entered the room of his own accord.
Grady was at a disadvantage, and he knew it. Breathing hard, his face red, his little eyes darting about the room, he took it all in—the members of the committee; the boss, figuring at the table, with an air of exasperating coolness about his lean back; and last of all, James, standing in the shadow. It was the sight of the new man that checked the storm of words that was pressing on Grady’s tongue. But he finally gathered himself and stepped forward, pushing aside one of the committee.
Then Bannon turned. He faced about in his chair and began to talk straight at the committee, ignoring the delegate. Grady began to talk at the same time, but though his voice was the louder, no one seemed to hear him. The men were looking at Bannon. Grady hesitated, started again, and then, bound by his own rage and his sense of defeat, let his words die away, and stood casting about for an opening.
“—This man Grady threatened a good while ago that I would have a strike on my hands. He finally came to me and offered to protect me if I would pay him five thousand dollars.”
“That’s a lie!” shouted the delegate. “He come to me——”
Bannon had hardly paused. He drew a typewritten copy of Grady’s letter from his pocket, and read it aloud, then handed it over to Murphy. “That’s the way he came at me. I want you to read it.”
The man took it awkwardly, glanced at it, and passed it on.
“To-night he’s ordered a strike. He calls himself your representative, but he has acted on his own responsibility. Now, I am going to talk plain to you. I came here to build this elevator, and I’m going to do it. I propose to treat you men fair and square. If you think you ain’t treated right, you send an honest man to this office, and I’ll talk with him. But I’m through with Grady. I won’t have him here at all. If you send him around again, I’ll throw him off the job.”
The men were a little startled. They looked at one another, and the man on Murphy’s left whispered something. Bannon sat still, watching them.
Then Grady came to himself. He wheeled around to face the committee, and threw out one arm in a wide gesture.
“I demand to know what this means! I demand to know if there is a law in this land! Is an honest man, the representative of the hand of labor, to be attacked by hired ruffians? Is he to be slandered by the tyrant who drives you at the point of the pistol? And you not men enough to defend your rights—the rights held by every American—the rights granted by the Constitution! But it ain’t for myself I would talk. It ain’t my own injuries that I suffer for. Your liberty hangs in the balance. This man has dared to interfere in the integrity of your lodge. Have you no words——”
Bannon arose, caught Grady’s arm, and whirled him around.
“Grady,” he said, “shut up.”
The delegate tried to jerk away, but he could not shake off that grip. He looked toward the committeemen, but they were silent. He looked everywhere but up into the eyes that were blazing down at him. And finally Bannon felt the muscles within his grip relax.
“I’ll tell you what I want you to do,” said Bannon to the committeemen. “I want you to elect a new delegate. Don’t talk about interference—I don’t care how you elect him, or who he is, if he comes to me squarely.”
Grady was wriggling again.
“This means a strike!” he shouted. “This means the biggest strike the West has ever seen! You won’t get men for love or money——”
Bannon gave the arm a wrench, and broke in:—
“I’m sick of this. I laid this matter before President Carver. I have his word that if you hang on to this man after he’s been proved a blackmailer, your lodge can be dropped from the Federation. If you try to strike, you won’t hurt anybody but yourselves. That’s all. You can go.”
“Wait——” Grady began, but they filed out without looking at him. James, as he followed them, nodded, and said, “Good night, Mr. Bannon.”
Then for the last time Bannon led Grady away. Peterson started forward, but the boss shook his head, and went out, marching the delegate between the lumber piles to the point where the path crossed the Belt Line tracks.
“Now, Mr. Grady,” he said, “this is where our ground stops. The other sides are the road there, and the river, and the last piles of cribbing at the other end. I’m telling you so you will know where you don’t belong. Now, get out!”
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
Latest posts by Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster (see all)
- Christmas Dinner – Calumet “K”, Chapter 17 - May 27, 2017
- The Last Hundred Yards – Calumet “K”, Chapter 16 - May 27, 2017
- The Company and The Clique – Calumet “K”, Chapter 15 - May 27, 2017