I saw Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage, on Broadway last year. It is a good, old-fashioned drama that, perhaps because of its tavern setting, reminded me of The Iceman Cometh. The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2000 and 2008. The characters are lower middle class whose social center is the bar, but their lives really revolve around a factory that has given them and the town an identity. Tensions arise, friendships are frayed when the company shifts the factory jobs to Mexico.
Sweat is well-written, and the production I saw was well-acted, but on one level the evening bothered me. This was Broadway, and plays there are breathtakingly expensive. I had a discount ticket and still paid $43. Full price was probably $100 or more. That we in the audience had the wherewithal to be there meant that we were separated from the lives being depicted. If we were moved by the characters’ plight, we may have had empathy for these lives, but perhaps there was also an element of condescension in our reaction.
On the other hand, the play treated these factory employees as hard-working people who took pride in what they and their company accomplished. The drama made clear that laborers can be devastated when their work is taken away. Perhaps this depiction of the working class comes as a surprise to many (who has not made some complaint or witticism when they see workers on the side of the road seemingly just standing around), but I tend to think it a prejudice when someone thinks those in the working class don’t work hard. Many of us tend to look down on those below us on the economic scale. Having started life on the lower rungs of that ladder, I have seen Nottage’s truths in Sweat time and again.
I was raised in a working-class family. My father was a janitor. He worked hard and took pride in doing a good job. In my college summers, I had menial and factory jobs, and I worked alongside full-time employees. I was young and fit, but the labor they did day after day and during the nine-and-a-half shifts one summer made me doubt my fitness. And always they made sure the work was done correctly. And then there was my grandfather.
My parents, sister, brother, and I lived on the ground floor of a two-story house. My father’s parents lived upstairs. While I talked with my grandmother some, I spent almost no time with my grandfather, who just seemed silent with us most of the time. I have no idea how he ended up in Wisconsin. He was born in Pennsylvania to an immigrant family, most of whom migrated back to Germany. I felt like I knew only two things about him. He played skat, a card game, at a local tavern on some weekends and evenings, and he worked at the Kohler Company, the firm that makes toilets and sinks and bathtubs. Other than that he was some sort of laborer in the factory, I don’t know what he did.
I do know that he started at Kohler in 1917. I am confident of this fact because I now have my grandfather’s Hamilton pocket watch, which was awarded him by his employer on his twenty-fifth anniversary of working for the company. His initials are inscribed on the back. A cover opens revealing his name and further inscriptions: “1917 SERVICE 1942” and “KOHLER OF KOHLER”. A gold chain is attached to the watch and to a medallion, which is inscribed on the back with my grandfather’s name and on the obverse has a relief of a factory worker, “Kohler” boldly written across the medallion, with a slogan on one side: “He Who Toils Here Hath Set His Mark.” (When I used to wear three-piece suits to court, I would often carry this watch and medallion in my vest pockets. The watch still works beautifully.)
My grandfather continued working at Kohler for another dozen years, but then a strike came. Kohler was by far the largest employer in the area, and the walkout, with my grandfather joining the strikers, had a huge effect on the town. As the strike went on and union benefits lessened, families faced tough times. Some strikers sought other work, but there was not much to be had. A few decided to return to work. Loyalties were tested. In a town with a tavern culture, some regulars found they were no longer welcome at their favorite bar. Sporadic acts of violence occurred. I was only eight or nine when it began, and the kids seldom mentioned it. Child friendships did not follow the fault lines fissuring from the strike, but at home I learned the epithet “Scab” and the words to Solidarity Forever.
And I saw the effect on my grandfather. He was now home at times I had never seen before. And he looked lost, bewildered. Part of his life, his identity, had been stripped. I have no idea what kind of economic strain was weighing on my grandparents, and from the sanctuary of childhood, I never thought about it, or I never thought about it until a few years after the strike started. I was with some friends, and we wandered into a park behind our school’s playground. And there was my grandfather raking leaves. Until then, I was not aware that he worked for the city’s Parks Department. He saw me; I saw him. We made no signs of recognition. He looked embarrassed. Raking leaves was the kind of demeaning make-work projects of the depression. It was akin to a handout. It was not the real work of making something like was done at the Kohler Company. Or perhaps, my grandfather was fine, and only I was embarrassed for what he now had to do. I know that I did not want my friends to know that the lonely-looking figure under the trees was my grandfather. Perhaps my grandfather was truly embarrassed or perhaps he recognized that I was or perhaps both, but we exchanged no greetings.
The strike lasted six years, then, and I still think today, the longest strike in the country’s history. The National Labor Relations Board eventually found that Kohler had not bargained with the union in good faith, and that set off another round of contentiousness about what back pay was owed the strikers. The year the strike ended, my grandfather died.
My sister recently told me something I did not know: that my grandfather waited by his upstairs window watching for me to come home from school. He knew that I was studying German, a language that he considered his native tongue (he also spoke English, of course, and Lithuanian), and he was proud of my German studies. Although I would try to exchange a few words of German with my grandmother, I never said a word of German to him. I am sorry for that, and I am sorry that I did not go up to him in that park. We did not hug much in my family, but I wish that I had given him one. He may no longer have had the job that had been part of his identity for forty years, but work was still important to him, and the many others like him. I try to remember that, especially on Labor Day.