Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sundial:Columbia SDS Memories:Chap.2: At UM & M, 1965

Chapter 2: At UM & M, 1965 (i)

My first corporate job was at United Merchants & Manufacturers [UM & M], at Broadway and 39th St., in a skyscraper a few blocks south of Times Square. The job was as a clerk.

My father was a clerical worker at Homestead Draperies, which was a subsidiary of the UM & M textile company. UM & M also owned Robert Hall, which sold suits. My father had worked for over 35 years at this firm. As a reward for his years of loyalty to the corporation, the UM & M personnel office responded affirmatively to my father’s request that I get one of its summer jobs in 1965.

The reason why I had gone to high school in Indianapolis for 1 ½ years was that UM & M had finally given my father a promotion as a reward for his years of service. His Indianapolis job involved doing mostly clerical work and recording the special rebates that Homestead Draperies gave to the largest Indianapolis department stores. He also was supposed to assist the sales manager of UM & M’s Homestead warehouse in Indianapolis.

But the sales manager turned out to be an ex-Marine who didn’t really wish to delegate any of his more interesting or lucrative work to my father. My father soon felt the Indianapolis job was not attractive enough to give up living near his relatives in New York City and working in Manhattan. So, at his request, UM & M had shifted him back to their 34th St. and Fifth Ave. office in Manhattan in the summer of 1964.

My father accepted the System and its values during his work-life. He was not a rebel or a non-conformist. But he did tend to ask for raises more quickly than the other clerical workers and he didn’t kiss the ass of his supervisors in order to get promotions. He also wasn’t afraid to complain to his supervisors, if he felt any of their policy decisions were organizationally illogical. He was an accurate, efficient worker who was never in a job slot that required him to do anything more than make deliveries, shelve drapes and cloth, or keep records, answer phones and expedite shipments of piece-goods and drapes.

My father believed U.S. corporations could not legitimately demand that a worker be busy every minute of the day, if all the assigned work was done. “You’re being paid for your time, not just for the work you’re actually assigned to do,” he explained to me once.

Both my father’s parents had died on the Lower East Side before he was 14. During the 1920s, he quit high school to get a day job. Before he was 16, he had held three or four menial factory or delivery jobs. But he found the job-hunting process under U.S. capitalism so oppressive that he was unwilling to risk being jobless again after he was hired by his firm as a messenger-office boy at 16. So he ended up staying with his firm from 1927 until it pressured him to finally retire in 1981. During the 1930s, UM & M (then called Seneca Textile) kept him employed while others were jobless. After he served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a propeller specialist during World War II, his firm gave my father back his job with no complications.

The night before I began my UM & M summer clerical job—two decades after World War II had ended—I was as excited as if it were the first day of school. I could hardly sleep.

In the pre-employment interview, I had dressed up in a suit and tie and, during the work-week all summer, I continued to wear a suit and tie. In 1965 if you worked in a skyscraper corporate office, you wore a suit and tie if you were a man and a dress, or a skirt and blouse, if you were a woman. Nobody questioned this corporate dress code.

Dressed in my suit and tie, I was still somewhat nervous as I hopped on the bus from Whitestone and rode to the Main Street, Flushing IRT station at around 8:05 a.m.

The morning rush hour trains were crowded. Only fans kept the subway cars cool. I didn’t like the process of going to work in the crowded cars, right from the start. The subway cars came frequently, though, and it cost only 15 cents a trip. A bus ride was only 15 cents also in 1965.

When I arrived at the 1407 Broadway corporate office, I was oriented for a few hours with six other UM & M summer employees. Then I was assigned to do filing and paper-shuffling for the Leisendorf accounting firm that was going to be auditing company records that summer. After a few hours of doing the corporate office clerical work, I was ready to go home and retire for life, and live on a social security check. What a drag! What a total, tedious bore and drag! It became evident to me that working 9-to-5 in a corporate office was even more boring than going to high school. And it lasted at least two hours longer.

“Just think about the paycheck you’ll be getting. It feels good when you get that check on payday,” my father advised me in the evening. But getting a paycheck still didn’t make 9-to-5 wage enslavement feel good to me.

Yet I did not walk out on my summer job. What I earned that summer was required to pay for my attending Columbia and getting away from my parents’ apartment.