Maintenance Alcoholics & Proletarian Collective Role In Supporting Alcoholic Longshoremen

Maintenance Alcoholics & Proletarian Collective Role In Supporting...

Several times over the years I have made the mistake of "confessing" to people that I am a maintenance alcoholic. I have often become the recipient of an angry tirade "There is no such thing as a maintenance alcoholic! If you are an alcoholic and take one drink you are on a trajectory toward wife-beating falling-down-drunk behavior". This is of course the underlying theme of Alcoholics Anonymous. Voicing this heresy was as if I had thrown a crucifix into the toilet in front of a Christian.

In my early years working as a longshoremen on the waterfront (beginning n 1953) I experienced an unusual phenomenon of maintenance alcoholism sustained by proletarian solidarity support and peer group pressure. Alcohol usage has been described as the main disease afflicting maritime workers, with much evidence to support that. We had quite a few longshoremen who had the tendency to drink to excess. Since the work was quite dangerous and required a very high level of physical and mental functioning being drunk on the job did not just interfere with getting the work done but was very dangerous.

How did we deal with a brother who showed up for work with too much alcohol or who drank on the job? The work unit, the gang collectively, would tell him to replace himself and lose the balance of the day's pay or if he was resistant we would call the union dispatcher and tell him to send out a replacement. The employer never knew about the problem; we protected our brothers from possible boss's reprisals. At the same time we sometimes cut a brother some slack and if the work was not too arduous we would tell him to go into the wings and sleep it off while we carried him. There was always a sense of implied sympathy and support but at the same time we would pressure a brother who was losing control. This peer group non-punitive pressure was often very helpful in aiding a brother to control his alcohol intake. A longshoreman who was being carried would often do the same for another brother who was over the limit.

The employer was aware that we were protecting longshoremen and over the decades reestablished control even to the point of requiring drug testing. This was possible because the job control that longshoremen exercised in the earlier years became eroded. When I started on the waterfront the longshoremen controlled the job making all the decisions about how to proceed. The stevedoring superintendants stayed away from the actual working longshoremen. If a superintendant was foolish enough to appear over the hatch or even come down into the hold of the ship the work stopped while longshoremen gazed upon the furious boss. The work only resumed when he left the vicinity. This level of worker job control was seldom achieved except in a few unions and industries.

I have discussed this phenomenon of worker supported maintenance alcoholism with older longshoremen in a number of other countries and found somewhat similar practices where the docker/wharfie/Havenarbeiter/estibadore climate of solidarity and the unions had been strong.

It was about half a century ago that I discovered that I was an alcoholic. I had such extremely high motivation in my need to take care of my daughters, my obligations to my brother longshoremen, and the responsibility to continue my political work unhindered that I have been for the most part able to control my intake to three beers per day.

In point of fact I knew a couple of longshoremen who could not function after one beer but had a tendency to go "off to the races". These left the waterfront voluntarily. - By Howard Keylor

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