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       Wildcat, p.1

           William Trent Pancoast
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  I used to tell Bill Pancoast that he was going to get his ass kicked if he didn’t shut up. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me. Wildcat is the story of the auto industry no one ever believed when I told it.


  —Ken Kreiger, retired autoworker, 41 years service

  Bill Pancoast's Wildcat is a funny, sad, and thoroughly convincing portrait of autoworkers—many damaged by war, broken dreams, or substance abuse—dependent on a General Motors plant in fictional Cranston, Ohio, during the Sixties and Seventies.  After reading this moving story, I once again asked myself: why is the subject of work so often neglected by today's fiction writers?  Fortunately, we have Pancoast to fill in some of the blanks.


  —Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff                                                                                 

  Most novelists haven't been anywhere near an auto plant, let alone worked in one, but Bill Pancoast has. Wildcat takes us inside a spontaneous strike at an Ohio stamping plant in the Vietnam era, showing how righteous anger, insane hijinks, and bloodshed can break out when workers decide to do something—anything—about brutal and boring working conditions.

  —Christopher Phelps, Associate professor,

  American Studies, University of Nottingham

  Just when General Motors is facing its biggest challenge, along comes Bill Pancoast’s Wildcat. This gritty story follows a team of autoworkers back in GM’s oil-spattered glory days. Whether you’re reading about security captain Big Bill or line worker Bobby Finnegan, Wildcat reveals the slimy underbelly of the car industry with a muckraker’s finesse. Pancoast’s knowledge of factory operations, his portrait of labor—and human—relations in America’s heartland, recall Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, as well as Ida Tarbell’s exposé of the Standard Oil Company.

  —James Reiss, author of Riff on Six

  In most of the recent books, articles, and analyses of General Motors, few armchair critics have bothered to write about the company’s attitude toward the rank-and-file workers who build its cars. Fortunately, we now have Bill Pancoast, a front-line autoworker in one of GM’s key factories for many years, to thank for filling that void. In this slim volume, Pancoast packs in accounts of the company’s behavior before, during, and after “wildcat” strikes, the union’s response, and the very human stories of life and death on the line. For those trying to understand why the auto industry is where it is today, Wildcat will provide some of the answers.

  —Dave Elsila, editor of Solidarity, 1976-1998


  A novel


  William Trent Pancoast

  Blazing Flowers Press









  Once again, as always, for Deb

  And for the people who do the work

  Part I

  Chapter 1

  November, 1970


  The security chief barged into command headquarters. “It’s this simple,” he said, glaring around the room at the other officers and guards. “The plant manager wants his turkeys back.”

  The chief was referring to the thousands of frozen birds in the Chevy dump trucks parked at the Cranston General Motors plant main gate on this day before Thanksgiving in 1970. The guards had been handing out the company gift of turkeys as the autoworkers left work that day, but then had come the wildcat strike at two p.m. The shop chairman, president, and shop committee of this local United Auto Workers union had walked through the General Motors stamping plant hitting E-stops, shutting down the presses, stopping fork lifts and tow motors, motioning for the men to follow them. By two-thirty, the parking lot was nearly empty, and the four security officers on turkey detail had been forcibly relieved of duty by eight union pickets who continued handing out the birds.

  “I wished I’d had my gun,” one of the young guards said.

  “Yeah, if we’d had our guns we could have held the turkeys,” chimed in one of the other fellows who had been on the gate.

  “Just shut the fuck up,” the chief said. He laid out a well-worn map and began assigning sectors to the lieutenants. The four square miles of the plant grounds were divided into six sectors, and the chief assigned one to each of the lieutenants. Both captains would be on sector one today for the assault up the hill to the main gate. Big Bill, one of the captains who had been passed over for the chief’s job, rubbed his hands, each the size of a picnic ham, as he thought about kicking a little hillbilly ass on the ramp.

  “Each of you,” and he nodded at Big Bill, then at the other captain, “will have six men and a lieutenant. We are going up that hill, and we will take back our turkeys. The other men will secure the gate. We will move the dump trucks into the executive parking garage as soon as we take possession.” He picked a dozen of the toughest out of the forty security guards. He had hired many of them, and he knew that five of the twelve were just back from Vietnam, half fucking crazy yet from their time in the bush. He would have possession of the plant manager’s stupid turkeys shortly.

  “We taking side arms?” asked one of the lieutenants assigned to the assault force.

  “Hell no,” the chief spat. “Look, you got a handful of dumbfuck hillbillies up there. They got our turkeys. We’re going to take them back. You’ll have your sticks and riot gear. Just push them out onto Route 30, and they can run or get run over. We’ll have two snipers on the roof just in case.”

  Across the street at the union hall, the parking lot was full, cars spilling onto the edge of the state route running through this Ohio town that fifteen years earlier had welcomed the General Motors plant. Seen from a distance, the haphazard assemblage of vehicles looked like a junkyard, most of the pickup trucks and cars showing long, red streaks of rust. Up close, the bald tires and worn interiors were visible. These guys weren’t getting rich working at GM, or if they were, they weren’t spending their money on the product they made twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

  Milt Jeffers, the shop chairman, leaned back in the leather chair in his office in the new union hall and popped open another beer. He took a long swig, then sat forward and peered over his sunglasses. “What the fuck you mean, what are we going to do with the turkeys?”

  “Well, I just wondered….”

  “Fucking idiots, everywhere I turn,” Jeffers said as he stood up and tossed his car keys to Jimmy Hatfield, his personal assistant. “Take my car over there and fill the trunk up with turkeys.”

  By now the second shifters had formed a single-file line on the highway as they saw the turkeys being handed out. One man in each dump truck was tossing the frozen birds, which were then handed down the line of men to the waiting cars. Crazy Jack was in charge of the operation and seemed to know all the workers, shouting to many by name as they approached to get their Thanksgiving turkeys, courtesy of General Motors and the United Auto Workers. Jack saw the chairman’s Cadillac do a U-turn and swing towards the line of cars, and he stepped forward, holding his hand up to stop the next car. The chairman’s boy buzzed the electric window down and popped the trunk release all at the same time. “Fill her up,” he shouted, and flipped his thumb at the now open trunk.

  “That goofy son of a bitch,” Crazy Jack muttered and motioned to the guys to put their turkeys in the trunk. The back end o
f the shiny, new car was beginning to sag when Jack heard the crack of a rifle. Hell, he knew that sound, even identified it as a 30-06. He instinctively pulled his neck into his shoulders and looked around. Craaack, came another round and Jack knew that it was coming from somewhere in the parking lot of the union hall. One of the guys was shooting the video cameras off the plant walls. He shook his head and looked down the highway towards town. This was bad shit happening. Once the guns are fired, the cops show up fast.

  Then Crazy Jack heard a shout. He figured the cops had already been spotted and was ready to wing it out of there. The man in the closest turkey truck gestured wildly down the hill to the plant. About a fourth of the way up the two-hundred-yard-long concrete entrance ramp marched the assault force, shields held in front, helmets and face guards in place, sticks at the ready, just like a big city police force, with the best equipment that money could buy. They were in no hurry, marching six wide up the ramp, which was two lanes wide and skirted on the sides with 12 gauge sheet metal in place of guard rails. Big Bill called the marching cadence through his megaphone, slapping his nightstick in rhythm against his bad left leg: “Leeefft. Leeefft. Leeefft, rot, leeeeffft.”

  Crazy Jack came around the trucks. There were a couple dozen union guys there by now, pointing down the ramp, laughing and giving Big Bill and his boys the finger. Big Bill responded by going to a double time: “Leeft, leeft, leeft, rot, left.” Here they came, GM’s own private police force, going into battle for their plant manager’s honor and the honor of every plant manager, every GM assistant vice-president, and the honor of the GM chairman himself.

  Then there was a thunk as a turkey hit the pavement and rolled down the concrete ramp, bouncing unpredictably as only a frozen turkey can. More turkeys rolled crazily down the ramp, and then a dozen guys were on the trucks lofting frozen turkeys down the runway, turkeys careening this way and that, ricocheting off the sheet metal walls. One of the front guards went down as a turkey slammed into him. Big Bill shouted into his megaphone, “Kick their sorry hillbilly asses! Come on, motherfuckers!”

  Big Bill marched on, all his pent up resentment at his commander’s incompetence and all the nepotism that ran this industry giant urging him onward and upward on the concrete ramp. He might as well have been back in Korea because he was fixing to kill somebody at the top of that damn hill when he got there. Then a turkey going about twenty miles an hour hit a rock six feet in front of him, launched itself and caught his left knee. Big Bill went down in a massive heap of beer belly, holding his left knee in pain.

  And above the din of shouting and laughing and horns honking, and the thunking and banging of the frozen turkeys as they clattered and careened down the chute past the guards lying every which way, towards the plant and the reinforcement guards entering below, could be heard the wailing of sirens filling the air from every direction. The dump beds of the Chevy trucks were activated, and another two thousand frozen turkeys slid out of the beds like a flash flood toward GM’s finest, and while the men all scrambled across the highway toward the union hall, the chairman’s Cadillac slowly pulled away from the scene, its rear bumper only inches from the ground.

  Chapter 2


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