Reg Theriault died last month. San Francisco workers – workers everywhere – lost someone who wrote about them with knowledge, affection, and honesty. I met Reg in about 1991. I had read his Longshoring on the San Francisco Waterfront, a book bound plainly in yellow heavy stock and small enough for a shirt pocket. Then I found myself welding a moment frame in a street-level shop in the hotel across from the Longshoremen’s hall near Fisherman’s Wharf, and decided at break to go over and see if anyone knew this other Theriault.
Two men stood talking just inside the hall. One was white, the other African-American. The white guy turned out to be Reg. As we talked and retraced the closer respective branches of our family tree, we couldn’t figure out just if and how we were related. Meanwhile his companion looked back and forth between Reg, short, gray, and clean-shaven, and myself, tall, dark, and bearded.
“You know,” he said, “you two really do look alike.”
Later I learned – and told Reg – that every Theriault on the continent came from one Jehan Terriau – Jean Thériault, in modern spelling – who landed from the French province Poitou about 1635 in Acadie, now Nova Scotia. In 1755 the British destroyed the colony, burning villages, scattering families, and killing livestock and resisters. From that dérangement his forebears over generations became fruit tramps on the west coast, and mine potato farmers and lumberjacks in eastern Québec, New Brunswick, and northern Maine.
In 1995 Reg and W.W. Norton and Company published another book, How to Tell When You’re Tired. I assume Reg chose the dust jacket cover photo. It testifies immediately to the understanding in the pages within for those who do physical work. A man of at least middle years sits before a truck wheel. His forearms are thick; the droop of his body says that this thickness comes not from exercise for health or looks, but from work, and that he’s beat. He is coated in oil. Those of us who have had shoulders into work will know that, as this man, when we return home caked in the dusts and cruds of our trades there is no embracing spouses, no touching children until we have shed our clothes and washed head-to-toe.
Reg writes that there is little in history or literature that describes the actual experience of work. The book recounts many of his own working experiences, not just for the telling, but to illuminate a philosophy of work. He explains this philosophy in clear prose punctuated with profanity and working idioms.
For Reg, workers and managers need to share an understanding of just how much production must be achieved, production must have limits, and then workers must be given substantial freedom in achieving production to those limits. “Most workers would rather do good work and do it efficiently rather than otherwise. But if this only results in more work for the one doing it, he has become a self-made fool.” He favors an “on-off” approach to work – go hard awhile, then sit, and not just fifteen minutes at break and a half-hour lunch.
While fervent in supporting unions, Reg is skeptical of union officials:
“The gospel according to ... industrialists ... has its own scripture ... The first commandment is that all salvation, for both [employers and workers], lies in increased production, since not only profits come out of production but also wages. Right? Trade union leaders, even those who feel uneasy with this line of reasoning, seem unable to come up with an argument to oppose it, or at least any counterdoctrine that has so far met with success.”
I share in the guilt of the leaders Reg accuses. I preach and will continue to preach the gospel of productivity; one of the ways we in Trades unions sustain our wages and benefits against daily competition from non-union workers who get little of the former and none of the latter is through our much greater productivity.
But I know that at another level this gospel masks a profound flaw in our system, and Reg is right. Worker by worker, using ever more sophisticated tools and processes, we produce more efficiently than at any time in human history. If we accept a certain simplicity in our lives, and all things being equal, we should be able to live on fewer hours or years of work than ever.
All things are not equal. A few in our system benefit disproportionately from our productivity, while others work longer and harder for diminishing returns.
Reg writes, “Revolution has been subscribed to and attempted by groups of workers and others over the years and has always resulted in the replacement of one repressive state by another. What must be done is to turn over the production processes to the workers themselves because it is in the self-interest of everyone, not just the workers but everyone, to do so.” Ah, but Reg, you have gone away now without telling us how, how we get there.