The others nodded. Walter rubbed his hands together. "All right. Tomorrow we work as usual, until the noon whistle. When we go off for lunch, we throw the machines into lock-step. Then we just don't come back. But the big thing is to keep it quiet until the noon whistle." He turned to the lawyer. "Are you with us, Jeff?"
Jeff Bates shook his head sadly. "I'm with you. I don't know why, you haven't got a leg to stand on. But if you want to commit suicide, that's all right with me." He picked up his briefcase, and started for the door. "I'll have your contract demands by tomorrow," he grinned. "See you at the lynching."
They got down to the details of planning.
The news hit the afternoon telecasts the following day. Headlines screamed: MANAGEMENT SABOTAGES ROBLING MACHINES OFFICE STRIKERS THREATEN LABOR ECONOMY ROBLING LOCK-IN CREATES PANDEMONIUM.
There was a long, indignant statement from Daniel P. Torkleson, condemning Towne and his followers for "flagrant violation of management contracts and illegal fouling of managerial processes." Ben Starkey, President of the Board of American Steel, expressed "shock and regret"; the Amalgamated Buttonhole Makers held a mass meeting in protest, demanding that "the instigators of this unprecedented crime be permanently barred from positions in American Industry."
In Washington, the nation's economists were more cautious in their views. Yes, it was an unprecedented action. Yes, there would undoubtedly be repercussions--many industries were having managerial troubles; but as for long term effects, it was difficult to say just at present.
On the Robling production lines the workmen blinked at each other, and at their machines, and wondered vaguely what it was all about.
Yet in all the upheaval, there was very little expression of surprise. Step by step, through the years, economists had been watching with wary eyes the growing movement toward union, control of industry. Even as far back as the '40's and '50's unions, finding themselves oppressed with the administration of growing sums of money--pension funds, welfare funds, medical insurance funds, accruing union dues--had begun investing in corporate stock. It was no news to them that money could make money. And what stock more logical to buy than stock in their own companies?
At first it had been a quiet movement. One by one the smaller firms had tottered, bled drier and drier by increasing production costs, increasing labor demands, and an ever-dwindling margin of profit. One by one they had seen their stocks tottering as they faced bankruptcy, only to be gobbled up by the one ready buyer with plenty of funds to buy with. At first, changes had been small and insignificant: boards of directors shifted; the men were paid higher wages and worked shorter hours; there were tighter management policies; and a little less money was spent on extras like Research and Development.
At first--until that fateful night when Daniel P. Torkleson of TWA and Jake Squill of Amalgamated Buttonhole Makers spent a long evening with beer and cigars in a hotel room, and floated the loan that threw steel to the unions. Oil had followed with hardly a fight, and as the unions began to feel their oats, the changes grew more radical.
Walter Towne remembered those stormy days well. The gradual undercutting of the managerial salaries, the tightening up of inter-union collusion to establish the infamous White list of Recalcitrant Managers. The shift from hourly wage to annual salary for the factory workers, and the change to the other pole for the managerial staff. And then, with creeping malignancy, the hungry howling of the union bosses for more and higher dividends, year after year, moving steadily toward the inevitable crisis.
Until Shop Steward Bailey suddenly found himself in charge of a dozen sputtering machines and an empty office.
Torkleson was waiting to see the shop steward when he came in next morning. The union boss's office was crowded with TV cameras, newsmen, and puzzled workmen. The floor was littered with piles of ominous-looking paper. Torkleson was shouting into a telephone, and three lawyers were shouting into Torkleson's ear. He spotted Bailey and waved him through the crowd into an inner office room. "Well? Did they get them fixed?"
Bailey spread his hands nervously. "The electronics boys have been at it since yesterday afternoon. Practically had the machines apart on the floor."
"I know that, stupid," Torkleson roared. "I ordered them there. Did they get the machines fixed?"
"Uh--well, no, as a matter of fact--"
"Well, what's holding them up?"
Bailey's face was a study in misery. "The machines just go in circles. The circuits are locked. They just reverberate."
"Then call American Electronics. Have them send down an expert crew."
Bailey shook his head. "They won't come."
"They said thanks, but no thanks. They don't want their fingers in this pie at all."
"Wait until I get O'Gilvy on the phone."
"It won't do any good, sir. They've got their own management troubles. They're scared silly of a sympathy strike."
The door burst open, and a lawyer stuck his head in. "What about those injunctions, Dan?"
"Get them moving," Torkleson howled. "They'll start those machines again, or I'll have them in jail so fast--" He turned back to Bailey. "What about the production lines?"
The shop steward's face lighted. "They slipped up, there. There was one program that hadn't been coded into the machines yet. Just a minor item, but it's a starter. We found it in Towne's desk, blueprints all ready, promotion all planned."
"Good, good," Torkleson breathed. "I have a directors' meeting right now, have to get the workers quieted down a bit. You put the program through, and give those electronics men three more hours to unsnarl this knot, or we throw them out of the union." He started for the door. "What were the blueprints for?"
"Trash cans," said Bailey. "Pure titanium-steel trash cans."
It took Robling Titanium approximately two days to convert its entire production line to titanium-steel trash cans. With the total resources of the giant plant behind the effort, production was phenomenal. In two more days the available markets were glutted. Within two weeks, at a conservative estimate, there would be a titanium-steel trash can for every man, woman, child, and hound dog on the North American continent. The jet engines, structural steels, tubing, and other pre-strike products piled up in the freight yards, their routing slips and order requisitions tied up in the reverberating machines.
But the machines continued to buzz and sputter.
The workers grew restive. From the first day, Towne and Hendricks and all the others had been picketing the plant, until angry crowds of workers had driven them off with shotguns. Then they came back in an old, weatherbeaten 'copter which hovered over the plant entrance carrying a banner with a plaintive message: ROBLING TITANIUM UNFAIR TO MANAGEMENT. Tomatoes were hurled, fists were shaken, but the 'copter remained.
The third day, Jeff Bates was served with an injunction ordering Towne to return to work. It was duly appealed, legal machinery began tying itself in knots, and the strikers still struck. By the fifth day there was a more serious note.
"You're going to have to appear, Walter. We can't dodge this one."
"Tomorrow morning. And before a labor-rigged judge, too." The little lawyer paced his office nervously. "I don't like it. Torkleson's getting desperate. The workers are putting pressure on him."
Walter grinned. "Then Pendleton is doing a good job of selling."
"But you haven't got time," the lawyer wailed. "They'll have you in jail if you don't start the machines again. They may have you in jail if you do start them, too, but that's another bridge. Right now they want those machines going again."
"We'll see," said Walter. "What time tomorrow?"
"Ten o'clock." Bates looked up. "And don't try to skip. You be there, because I don't know what to tell them."
Walter was there a half hour early. Torkleson's legal staff glowered from across the room. The judge glowered from the bench. Walter closed his eyes with a little smile as the charges were read: "--breach of contract, malicious mischief, sabotage of the company's machines, conspiring to destroy the livelihood of ten thousand workers. Your Honor, we are preparing briefs to prove further that these men have formed a conspiracy to undermine the economy of the entire nation. We appeal to the spirit of orderly justice--"
Walter yawned as the words went on.
"Of course, if the defendant will waive his appeals against the previous injunctions, and will release the machines that were sabotaged, we will be happy to formally withdraw these charges."
There was a rustle of sound through the courtroom. His Honor turned to Jeff Bates. "Are you counsel for the defendant?"
"Yes, sir." Bates mopped his bald scalp. "The defendant pleads guilty to all counts."
The union lawyer dropped his glasses on the table with a crash. The judge stared. "Mr. Bates, if you plead guilty, you leave me no alternative--"
"--but to send me to jail," said Walter Towne. "Go ahead. Send me to jail. In fact, I insist upon going to jail."
The union lawyer's jaw sagged. There was a hurried conference. A recess was pleaded. Telephones buzzed. Then: "Your Honor, the plaintiff desires to withdraw all charges at this time."
"Objection," Bates exclaimed. "We've already pleaded."
"--feel sure that a settlement can be effected out of court--"
The case was thrown out on its ear.
And still the machines sputtered.
Back at the plant rumor had it that the machines were permanently gutted, and that the plant could never go back into production. Conflicting scuttlebutt suggested that persons high in uniondom had perpetrated the crisis deliberately, bullying Management into the strike for the sole purpose of cutting current dividends and selling stock to themselves cheaply. The rumors grew easier and easier to believe. The workers came to the plants in business suits, it was true, and lounged in the finest of lounges, and read the Wall Street Journal, and felt like stockholders. But to face facts, their salaries were not the highest. Deduct union dues, pension fees, medical insurance fees, and sundry other little items which had formerly been paid by well-to-do managements, and very little was left but the semi-annual dividend checks. And now the dividends were tottering.
Production lines slowed. There were daily brawls on the plant floor, in the lounge and locker rooms. Workers began joking about the trash cans; then the humor grew more and more remote. Finally, late in the afternoon of the eighth day, Bailey was once again in Torkleson's office.
"Well? Speak up! What's the beef this time?"
"Sir--the men--I mean, there's been some nasty talk. They're tired of making trash cans. No challenge in it. Anyway, the stock room is full, and the freight yard is full, and the last run of orders we sent out came back because nobody wants any more trash cans." Bailey shook his head. "The men won't swallow it any more. There's--well, there's been talk about having a board meeting."
Torkleson's ruddy cheeks paled. "Board meeting, huh?" He licked his heavy lips. "Now look, Bailey, we've always worked well together. I consider you a good friend of mine. You've got to get things under control. Tell the men we're making progress. Tell them Management is beginning to weaken from its original stand. Tell them we expect to have the strike broken in another few hours. Tell them anything."
He waited until Bailey was gone. Then, with a trembling hand he lifted the visiphone receiver. "Get me Walter Towne," he said.
"I'm not an unreasonable man," Torkleson was saying miserably, waving his fat paws in the air as he paced back and forth in front of the spokesmen for the striking managers. "Perhaps we were a little demanding, I concede it! Overenthusiastic with our ownership, and all that. But I'm sure we can come to some agreement. A hike in wage scale is certainly within reason. Perhaps we can even arrange for better company houses."
Walter Towne stifled a yawn. "Perhaps you didn't understand us. The men are agitating for a meeting of the board of directors. We want to be at that meeting. That's the only thing we're interested in right now."
"But there wasn't anything about a board meeting in the contract your lawyer presented."
"I know, but you rejected that contract. So we tore it up. Anyway, we've changed our minds."
Torkleson sat down, his heavy cheeks quivering. "Gentlemen, be reasonable! I can guarantee you your jobs, even give you a free hand with the management. So the dividends won't be so large--the men will have to get used to that. That's it, we'll put it through at the next executive conference, give you--"
"The board meeting," Walter said gently. "That'll be enough for us."
The union boss swore and slammed his fist on the desk. "Walk out in front of those men after what you've done? You're fools! Well, I've given you your chance. You'll get your board meeting. But you'd better come armed. Because I know how to handle this kind of board meeting, and if I have anything to say about it, this one will end with a massacre."
The meeting was held in a huge auditorium in the Robling administration building. Since every member of the union owned stock in the company, every member had the right to vote for members of the board of directors. But in the early days of the switchover, the idea of a board of directors smacked too strongly of the old system of corporate organization to suit the men. The solution had been simple, if a trifle ungainly. Everyone who owned stock in Robling Titanium was automatically a member of the board of directors, with Torkleson as chairman of the board. The stockholders numbered over ten thousand.
They were all present. They were packed in from the wall to the stage, and hanging from the rafters. They overflowed into the corridors. They jammed the lobby. Ten thousand men rose with a howl of anger when Walter Towne walked out on the stage. But they quieted down again as Dan Torkleson started to speak.
It was a masterful display of rabble-rousing. Torkleson paced the stage, his fat body shaking with agitation, pointing a chubby finger again and again at Walter Towne. He pranced and he ranted. He paused at just the right times for thunderous peals of applause.
"This morning in my office we offered to compromise with these jackals," he cried, "and they rejected compromise. Even at the cost of lowering dividends, of taking food from the mouths of your wives and children, we made our generous offers. They were rejected with scorn. These thieves have one desire in mind, my friends, to starve you all, and to destroy your company and your jobs. To every appeal they heartlessly refused to divulge the key to the lock-in. And now this man--the ringleader who keeps the key word buried in secrecy--has the temerity to ask an audience with you. You're angry men; you want to know the man to blame for our hardship."
He pointed to Towne with a flourish. "I give you your man. Do what you want with him."
The hall exploded in angry thunder. The first wave of men rushed onto the stage as Walter stood up. A tomato whizzed past his ear and splattered against the wall. More men clambered up on the stage, shouting and shaking their fists.
Then somebody appeared with a rope.
Walter gave a sharp nod to the side of the stage. Abruptly the roar of the men was drowned in another sound--a soul-rending, teeth-grating, bone-rattling screech. The men froze, jaws sagging, eyes wide, hardly believing their ears. In the instant of silence as the factory whistle died away, Walter grabbed the microphone. "You want the code word to start the machines again? I'll give it to you before I sit down!"
The men stared at him, shuffling, a murmur rising. Torkleson burst to his feet. "It's a trick!" he howled. "Wait 'til you hear their price."
"We have no price, and no demands," said Walter Towne. "We will give you the code word, and we ask nothing in return but that you listen for sixty seconds." He glanced back at Torkleson, and then out to the crowd. "You men here are an electing body--right? You own this great plant and company, top to bottom--right? You should all be rich, because Robling could make you rich. But not one of you out there is rich. Only the fat ones on this stage are. But I'll tell you how you can be rich."
They listened. Not a peep came from the huge hall. Suddenly, Walter Towne was talking their language.
"You think that since you own the company, times have changed. Well, have they? Are you any better off than you were? Of course not. Because you haven't learned yet that oppression by either side leads to misery for both. You haven't learned moderation. And you never will, until you throw out the ones who have fought moderation right down to the last ditch. You know whom I mean. You know who's grown richer and richer since the switchover. Throw him out, and you too can be rich." He paused for a deep breath. "You want the code word to unlock the machines? All right, I'll give it to you."
He swung around to point a long finger at the fat man sitting there. "The code word is TORKLESON!"
Much later, Walter Towne and Jeff Bates pried the trophies off the wall of the big office. The lawyer shook his head sadly. "Pity about Dan Torkleson. Gruesome affair."
Walter nodded as he struggled down with a moose head. "Yes, a pity, but you know the boys when they get upset."
"I suppose so." The lawyer stopped to rest, panting. "Anyway, with the newly elected board of directors, things will be different for everybody. You took a long gamble."
"Not so long. Not when you knew what they wanted to hear. It just took a little timing."
"Still, I didn't think they'd elect you secretary of the union. It just doesn't figure."
Walter Towne chuckled. "Doesn't it? I don't know. Everything's been a little screwy since the switchover. And in a screwy world like this--" He shrugged, and tossed down the moose head. "Anything figures."
HE WALKED AROUND THE HORSES.
BY H. BEAM PIPER.
This tale is based on an authenticated, documented fact. A man vanished--right out of this world. And where he went--
In November 1809, an Englishman named Benjamin Bathurst vanished, inexplicably and utterly.