Working Sober

Working Sober: The Transformation of an Occupational Drinking Culture, by William J. Sonnenstuhl, ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 143 pages, [check with publisher for price]Some of the most intractable struggles in American labor history have been fought not over wages or working conditions but over drink. Before the advent of industrialization, we tend to forget, alcohol was as much the drink of choice on the job as coffee is today. In those days, laborers and their employers tended to work side by side in the same shops, their working hours irregular and often quite relaxed, punctuated by frequent bouts of convivial drinking.But as workshops transformed themselves into factories, historian Paul Johnson has argued, drinking was itself transformed from "an ancient bond between classes [to] an angry badge of working-class status." As such, drinking became a favorite target of middle- and upper-class reformers--most of them less concerned with safe workplaces than with quiet ones: in their minds, the words "sober" and "industrious" went together. In the later years of the century, saloons provided a welcome respite for young male workers otherwise confined to the dreary life of the boardinghouse. Union organizers looked for possible recruits in the saloons, which some observers trumpeted as the "rooster-crow of the spirit of democracy." Moralistic campaigns against the saloons in these years were only barely disguised battles in the class war being waged almost ceaselessly against the poor.It's hard not to sympathize with the workers in these battles, facing off against meddlesome bluenoses whose goals were transparently self-interested. But as heavy drinking has begun to be seen less as a pleasure or a sin and more as an addiction, many in the labor movement and without have concluded that such drinking (while conducive to an elemental worker solidarity) is hardly in the best interests of the workers themselves. Drink has a different meaning today, both on the job and off; few see drink, much less habitual drunkenness, as a proud symbol of a hardworking life.In Working Sober, sociologist and recovery expert William Sonnenstuhl provides us with labor history for the clean and sober age. The book, limited in its focus but broad in its implications, describes how one particular group of workers--the New York city tunnel diggers known as the "sandhogs"--transformed their "occupational drinking culture" into a sober one. Unlike many "just say no" programs, imposed from above by managers less concerned with safety than efficiency, the initiative for this transformation came from the workers themselves, inspired by an alcoholic sandhog who'd found a kind of salvation in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.Sandhogging is dirty and dangerous work, and the few improvements in safety that the profession has achieved had to be fought for long and hard by the workers themselves, grudgingly granted by employers who didn't seem to care if their workers lived or died. A century ago, deaths were common, and though conditions for tunnel miners are a tad more civilized today, the job still involves crawling about in the muck hundreds of feet under the city and regularly setting off large quantities of explosives.For years, drink helped to nurture an elemental camaraderie for the beleaguered sandhogs, and their drinking was hardly confined to their hours off the job. But during the 1970s, when New York city's financial crisis threatened the very existence of their profession, a sandhog named "Jimmy M." stepped in to tell his comrades that the fate of their lives and their community depended upon their achieving sobriety. The message struck a chord. Today, Sonnenstuhl notes, "intemperate drinking has lost its symbolic hold on the sandhogs"; meanwhile, the rituals of mutual aid at the heart of AA have "become more salient for the strengthening of their communal bonds."It's an inspirational story, in its way--at least if you're willing to excuse the sometimes coercive conformism at the heart of AA. Sonnenstuhl's writing, unfortunately, is pedestrian, and he makes only rudimentary efforts to draw out the broader political and historical implications of the story he tells. It's not altogether clear what these implications are: Working Sober can't provide much of a guide for management reformers, because workers are generally suspicious of programs imposed from on high (and for good reason); and it probably won't provide much inspiration for those seeking ways to rekindle labor solidarity outside the hothouse atmosphere of this tiny and dwindling profession.Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that sobriety and labor militancy are not intrinsically opposed: the militant drunk of labor history may be as much an anachronism as the happy drunk of Martin and Lewis comedies. And, perhaps more importantly, it shows how much more effective workplace reforms can be if they are initiated from below.

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