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On "Report to the Stockholders"


John Marsh

The first of eight sections to John Beecher’s "Report to the Stockholders" (1925) points up the threat posed by industrial conditions to worker bodies:

he fell of his crane
and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
he lived a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
and then he died
and the safety clerk made out a report saying
it was carelessness
and the craneman should have known better
from twenty years experience
than not to watch his step
and slip in some grease on top of his crane
and then the safety clerk told the superintendent
he’d ought to fix that guardrail

The first four lines of "Stockholders" purport to describe the industrial accident and death that befalls a particular worker. Despite the banal reportage that quickly dispatches the worker and the metaphors of fragility that demonstrate his vulnerability, the poem constructs this vulnerability with repeated use of active verbs and possessive pronouns. "He fell off his crane...and then he died." In the safety clerk’s report ("It was carelessness") the poem employs its only passive verb, after which it returns to subject-verb-object syntax ("...the craneman should have known better...than not to watch his step...and slip in some grease....") This reliance on a subject and active verbs for the worker might seem odd for a poem attempting to poeticize the vulnerability of workers. It is far easier, and probably, after all, more accurate, to say "the grease caused the craneman to slip." Except that even at the level of language, Beecher’s "Report to the Stockholders" participates in the workplace politics of the first three decades of the twentieth century, a politics that disputed responsibility for industrial accidents and conditions. Indeed, much of the debate turned on the seemingly neutral distinction between words like "accident" and "conditions"—and, ultimately, who owned the rights to workers’ broken bodies.

In the 19th Century, steadily deteriorating and increasingly dangerous working conditions accompanied (and perhaps even made possible) America’s rise to its place as the leading industrial producer in the world (Rosner xi). And prior to the 20th Century, workers benefited from little (if any) legislation to protect them from these conditions (xii). Progressive Era reformers, however, informed and pressured by labor leaders, the growth of the Socialist Party, and fear of radical response to the growing excesses of industrial capitalism, succeeded in passing industrial regulatory and compensatory acts. Just as importantly, though, they established worker health and working conditions as the responsibility of society-at-large (xii-xiv). Worker’s health and safety was a social question, not just an industrial one: a problem to be addressed by business and industry, but also a problem superseded by a sense of the public good and thus within the purview of the public realm. Fearful of the wider censure and regulation such a sense of the public good and the public realm might enact, business and industry began, in the second decade of the 20th century, to assume its own responsibility for working conditions. These new business-led efforts sought to narrow the rhetoric from one of worker "health" to worker "safety"; moved discussions of safety and health away from the public realm and towards professional safety experts in the employ of business; and, finally, shifted responsibility for the prevention of accidents away from industries and onto workers themselves (xiv-xv). "Whereas the progressives," David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz write, "held that industry was responsible for most accidents because of its failure to provide safeguards from dangerous machinery, the ‘safety first’ movement...claimed that few accidents were due to faulty machinery or inadequate safeguards and that most were the fault of workers themselves" (xv).

"One of the principle sources of accidents," Fred G. Lange wrote in 1921 for an article in the trade journal Industrial Management, "is the worker himself. Carelessness, thoughtlessness and lack of knowledge all conspire to cause him injury" (xv). "It was carelessness," the safety clerk in Beecher’s report informs stockholders. In this first section of the poem, carelessness and lack of knowledge ("he should have known better) and not faulty machinery or inadequate safeguards ("some grease on top of his crane" and a broken guardrail)—are ultimately responsible for the worker’s "brains bubbling out" and his death shortly thereafter. Beecher’s "Stockholders" poeticizes the shift in responsibility from industry to worker, from conditions to carelessness. The safety clerk’s instructions to the superintendent, though—"he’d ought to fix that guardrail"—expose the "safety" rhetoric in the rest of the poem as a shabby and hypocritical abrogation of responsibility.

While the safety clerk’s admission at the end of the first section of "Report to the Stockholders" subtly challenges the industry led attempts to appropriate the rhetoric of workplace conditions, section three of the poem confronts this rhetoric of safety and responsibility even more straightforwardly:

A ladle burned through
And he got a shoeful of steel
So they took up a collection through the mill
And some gave two bits
And some gave four
Because there’s no telling when

In III, the poem fingers industrial conditions—the faulty cast-iron, enormous ladle—and not the worker who receives a shoeful of steel as responsible for this "accident." The safety clerk’s report, keeping with the logic of section I, would have read something like "should have known better than to stand under ladle." The final line—"Because there’s no telling when"—suggests that the other mill workers’ collection for the injured man is motivated as much by a sense of charity or solidarity as a recognition that all are equally vulnerable to workplace conditions, injury and death. The worker’s shoeful of steel, if a result of workplace conditions and not worker carelessness, means that workers have no control over their health and safety—thus there truly is no telling when the same couldn’t happen to any of them. In contrast, if the accident were a matter of carelessness, then all would not be equally vulnerable since, if properly careful, no such accident would ever befall them. Workers—according to how more or less careless they were—would simply get what they deserved. Beecher’s poem, in its move from the first section to the third, exposes this absurdity—and points up, as well, the free market ideology beneath individualism and individual responsibility that characterizes business and "safety first" discourses over against a more materialist, social understanding.

To read Beecher’s "Report to the Stockholders" by the light of workplace conditions is to suggest that the first thing we should know about poetry that deals with violence enacted against workers’ bodies by industrial capital is that it must first reclaim those bodies for its own politics and its own purposes. Beecher’s "Report," and other poetry that names violence against workers’ bodies, must compete with discourses of "safety" sponsored by business and industry. Discourses, moreover, that attempt to make political capital out of injured male bodies—their carelessness, lack of knowledge, and ultimate "responsibility" for their own injuries and deaths—to avoid responsibility and regulation. How much of a claim this industry-sponsored rhetoric of safety had on the public or workers themselves remains uncertain. It is difficult to imagine that workers ever or completely swallowed such an obviously misleading and inaccurate account of their own situation and conditions. Difficult but not impossible, though, since, as Irving Bernstein points out in his still useful The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker 1920-1933 (1960), the public’s largely worshipful attitude towards business and innovation in the 1920s promoted a climate that impeded radical critique of industrial conditions or unionization. "The business of America," Calvin Coolidge famously pronounced, "is business." Such a climate, Bernstein argues, "sold the idea that collective bargaining was worse than bad, it was un-American. The mood of the times stressed individualism; one got ahead by himself and not by collective action. This notion permeated the outlook of the working class" (88). Further, that such safety rhetoric drew on the virulently nativist and racist attitudes in the 1920s towards immigrants, African Americans, and the poor suggests the likelihood that discourses of worker carelessness and responsibility intensely influenced the popular (and worker’s) imagination of labor and labor conditions. Industrial poetry of the 1920s, then, draws some of its import from the need to resist this rhetoric, to reclaim worker’s bodies for workers—and to advance the more radical critiques of industrial conditions such a re-appropriation would allow.

This politics of representation frames the fifth section of Beecher’s "Report":

A hot metal car ran over the Negro switchman’s leg
and nobody expected to see him around here again
except maybe on the street with a tin cup
but the superintendent saw what an ad
the Negro would make with his peg leg
so he hung a sandwich on him
with safety slogans
and he told the Negro just to keep walking
all day up and down the plant
and be an example

Besides drawing attention to the already vexed relations between races that characterized American labor, the poem, midway through, performs a jarring and ideologically loaded bait-and-switch. When "the superintendent [sees] what an ad/ the Negro would make with his peg leg," the suspicion (at least for this reader) is that the superintendent fears what such a grisly advertisement—an amputated worker on the street with a tin cup—would make to the public outside the mill. Not to mention, to the workers within. In other words, such a pathetic sight might prompt observers to ask what conditions produced it in the first place and whether and how they ought to be ameliorated. Accordingly, the superintendent would be wise to cover up the accident and keep the Negro out of sight. In the ideologically backwards world of 1920s business and industry, though, the reverse is true: the amputated Negro becomes "an example" and a warning to other workers about carelessness and the dangers that come from failing to follow safety slogans. As for the cranemen in Section I, The Negro becomes an advertisement (he stumps, as it were) for industry—and not for workers. Moreover, his "accident" belongs to business and industry, which they employ to intimidate workers and construct a version of the world that limits radical critique, both by labor and the public.

Beecher’s "Report to the Stockholders" only gestures, through satire and irony, towards a re-appropriation of workers bodies and a program of resistance that might ground its politics in such workplace conditions. In other words, while it satirizes relations between labor and industry over issues of safety, health, and responsibility, it only indirectly offers any political solutions or programs based on the satirical work it accomplishes. Instead, it can only imagine, like Joseph Kalar’s "Papermill," a final vulnerability: the only possibility worse than the horrors described in the previous seven sections is "the plant [shutting] down..." (78). Such a gloomy lack of alternatives probably realistically reflects labor conditions and possibilities during the low moment for workers of the 1920s. In this respect, it resembles Edwin Rolfe’s "Asbestos," a poem that, despite its equally if not more brutal depiction of violence done to an average worker’s bodies, makes the absence of such ideological and political alternatives its poetic motive....

Copyright 2001 by John Marsh


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