12 abril, 2024

Frank Sobotka and the Death of the Working Class

– My father worked there.
– Beth Steel?
– In the shipyards there, yeah
– An uncle of mine was a supervisor there, but he was fired in ’78.
– My father was dismissed in ’73.

The preceding conversation is the first dialogue of the second season of The Wire. McNulty and his partner are discussing the closed factories in the port. We still haven’t met this season’s protagonist: Frank Sobotka.

THE ORDINARY WORLD: WHO IS FRANK SOBOTKA?

The first episode of The Wire’s second season serves as a lesson in character introduction. When Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) first appears, we learn exactly who he is and what he wants. In fact, the character’s very first line is this:

When the canal is dredged, we can all work. Your people and mine.

This is Sobotka’s goal: to dredge the canal so that everyone can work.

In his first appearance, we learn that Frank Sobotka is one of the union stewards. Later we learn that he is the treasurer. Some of his colleagues doubt his ability to accomplish the dredging and opt for a simpler solution: repairing the grain pier.

After the discussion, Sobotka leaves the office, smiling as he watches the work at the port. Nothing makes the union man happier than to see work being done at the port. Soon after, we are introduced to two more characters: Nick (Pablo Schreiber), his nephew, whom Sobotka instructs to tell the Greek that a container will arrive tomorrow. And Ziggy (James Ransone), a scatterbrained worker who we later learn is Frank’s son.

This opening scene gives us a glimpse into Frank Sobotka’s world. We’ve met two of his family members and learned that there’s a container due at the port tomorrow for the Greek.

Frank & Nick Sobotka.

In the next scene, they show us the stained-glass window that Frank donated to the church. Sobotka asks the priest to introduce him to the senator and mentions that things are not going well at the port… The priest replies that he already knows and informs us that Frank has made generous donations. The conversation ends with the priest asking Sobotka:

– How long has it been since your last confession?

Sobotka responds with a muffled laugh as he walks away.
The Father is suspicious that something is going on at the port. How is it possible for a union in such a precarious situation to make such large donations?


After a night at the bar, anyone who has never been in a bar like this… feels sorry for you. Nick and Ziggy meet the source of the money: The Greek (Bill Raymond).


The mob gives Sobotka money in exchange for the stevedore making their containers disappear without going through customs.

Finally, to wrap up the main characters in the plot, they introduce us to Beatrice Russell (Amy Ryan); a port security officer with whom Frank has a good relationship.

Thus, they have presented Frank Sobotka’s goal, the reservations he has within his union, his closest relatives, his dealings with the Mafia, and the vigilant observer who will be watching his every move. Now all that remains is to set the action in motion.

  • End of the first episode:

One of the containers prepared for the Greek’s men to take away is left at the port. Frank, angry, orders them to move it out of sight and stack it. However, Russell, the port security officer, happens upon the container. She gets out of her car and goes inside to find thirteen dead women.

And so begins the best season of the greatest television show in history.

AN INVESTIGATION FOR PERSONAL REASONS

One of the donations Frank has made to the church is an expensive stained-glass window that was exported from Germany. On the other hand, Police Commander Stan Valchek (Al Brown) has also raised money to buy a stained-glass window for the church. But when Valchek arrives with his gift, the parish priest informs him that the stevedores have already donated one.

Frank’s stained-glass window (left) and Valchek’s stained-glass window (right).

The commander angrily leaves and goes to talk to Sobotka, but after several complaints and insults, they fail to reach an agreement. In revenge, Valchek decides to investigate Frank Sobotka and find out how a union in such dire straits could have amassed so much money.

And so begins this absurd investigation. It’s not the pursuit of justice that motivates him, but a personal feud. If the union hadn’t crossed Valcheck’s path, no one would have paid attention. No one cares.

In summary, we have two dock-related investigations that will eventually converge: the girls’ deaths and the union investigation.

THE DOCKWORKERS UNION

Frank Sobotka is a man who takes pride in his work. When he’s at the union, at the bar with his co-workers, or working at the port, he feels at home and content. However, when he steps out of his comfort zone, such as during a meeting with the governors, he feels uncomfortable and burdened.

In one scene, Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and Russell visit the control room to watch containers being unloaded. Suddenly, the union representative appears and explains the operation of the loading and unloading system. Sobotka steps in to supervise the police officers and informs them that many containers are missing. Despite the challenges, he finds joy in explaining his work.

Beatrice Russell: from antagonist to guardian angel.

The intrusion of the police into her world disrupts her daily routine. And though she tries to control herself to deal with the situation, it overwhelms her inside.

Another scene that reveals Sobotka’s temperament is the delivery of the subpoenas. Frank takes them calmly, but with anger. He tells the police that they know nothing about the girls. In truth, he tells them, they didn’t know there were girls in that container.

What reason would we have to leave them there to die?

And he explodes again. He tells them that he fears no one, that his union has endured a lot, and that four cops won’t keep him awake. Sobotka is a proud man of his work who explodes when anyone interferes with his union.

FRANK SOBOTKA AND HIS LAWYER

One of the characters who suffers most from Sobotka’s temper is his lawyer.
The union leader accuses him of squeezing money out of the situation, like politicians who only notice the existence of the port when they receive money.

The conversations between Frank Sobotka and his lawyer represent two very different working classes: the liberal professional and the blue-collar worker. One has succeeded within the system, while the other has been forgotten by society.

Sobotka criticizes the fact that with the money the lawyer’s son gives him, he can choose any future he wants. Meanwhile, Sobotka’s own future will be lucky if he can continue to work at the port in five years. The lawyer replies that their grandparents worked so their parents could go to college and improve their situation. The American dream is real.
To which Sobotka replies that the only thing that really matters these days is your father’s name. Maybe, in the past it was real.

The winners want nothing to do with old workers’ struggles.

Despite his frustrations and his resort to questionable practices, Sobotka perseveres. The hope of returning to a better past compels him to continue.

NO COUNTRY FOR WORKERS

Frank Sobotka’s greatest enemy is the passage of time. Time marches on, taking with it a working class that is either replaced by machines or whose jobs are outsourced to Asian countries.

One sequence shows the world’s most advanced technology for unloading containers. This technology reduces workplace accidents. Sobotka understands that without work, there can be no accidents.

Efficiency

The representative of a company operating at the port replies when Sobotka raises the issue. Despite his efforts to bring more ships to Baltimore, if his colleagues are replaced by robots, there will be no work for the union.

Throughout the season, the show portrays a working-class neighborhood of single-family homes next to massive shuttered factories.
In one scene, Nick and his partner visit one of these rehabbed houses that’s for sale. When they inquire about the price, they leave, unable to afford it, while another couple arrives in a Mercedes to view the property.

The inexorable march of time is displacing a working class that no longer even fits into its own neighborhood.

LEARNING FROM UNCLE FRANK

At one point in the plot, Frank calls his nephew Nick to reprimand him for stealing a container with Ziggy. He advises Nick not to steal, stressing that if the companies in Baltimore notice that cargo is disappearing, they will stop doing business there. The result would be less work and a worse situation for the union.

However, Frank lacks the moral strength to dictate their life choices. Nick and Ziggy end up stealing and dealing drugs, and Sobotka can’t stop them because he has normalized theft and dealing with the mob.

The power of necessity is irresistible. Sobotka empathizes with his nephew. Both see reflections of themselves in each other, having walked the same path.

In the previous scene, beyond the container theft, what really bothers Sobotka is the misconception that the money is for him. He firmly believes that his actions are justified, unaware that they will ultimately destroy everything he is fighting for.

PACT WITH THE DEVIL

We don’t know how, when, or through whom Frank Sobotka sold out to The Greek to make the designated containers disappear. What we do know is the motive and the consequences.

Frank’s first reaction to learning about the dead girls is to visit The Greek. Sobotka is angry and feels guilty; he doesn’t realize the girls were already dead. He believes the blame lies with him for stacking the container and breaking the vent. He agrees to continue working with The Greek on one condition: if there are girls in the containers, they must be informed.

Later, he meets with The Greek again, but he doesn’t show up. Frank’s first impulse is to leave; he hesitates twice, and the second time he says:

– I don’t need anything from you. Neither your problems nor your money. I have a union.

But he doesn’t leave. Instead, he stares at a steel mill. Vondas (Paul Ben-Victor), the Greek’s deputy, approaches, looks at the factory and says:

– They used to make steel there… Smoke from the chimneys, but inside…

Where are you going to go when there’s no one looking out for you?

Sobotka knows he should distance himself from the Mafia. If the union were strong, he would, but it isn’t, so he stays. He needs the mob’s money. With that money, he can influence politicians’ decisions. With influence, he can get the canal dredged. Dredging the canal means more ships in the harbor. And with more ships, everyone can work.
The alternative is the steel mill. Smoke billows from the chimneys, but inside, no one is working the steel.

At the end of this remarkable fifth chapter, Nick hands him a paper listing the containers to be picked up. Sobotka declares the deal off. Nick tells him they’ll pay triple for each container, and Sobotka relents.

They then have the following conversation:

– It’s now or never, I have no choice.
– We have ships today, Uncle Frank. Today. But it’s written on the wall.

To which Sobotka replies:

– Fuck the wall!

Frank Sobotka does not want to see his union die. It’s probably doomed for decades, but as long as he keeps fighting, he’s still standing. He’s reached a point where he doesn’t care how he fights. He has to resist. And for that he has a plan: to drain the canal. And he will do whatever it takes.

He has the opportunity to dismantle the Mafia and resign from his position as treasurer: securing the rehabilitation of the grain pier. He could retire with a victory…

DEFEAT

But a more ambitious goal ends up being his downfall.

His son Ziggy ends up in prison after committing a murder. His nephew Nick is wanted for drug trafficking, and finally Sobotka himself is arrested by Valcheck in front of the entire press.

His lawyer tells him to forget about dredging the canal. There’s nothing to be done. Even the restoration of the grain pier is in doubt after what happened. His union was sentenced to death and the port was placed under state administration.

– It wasn’t about me.

Frank Sobotka was just doing his job. But he destroys the messenger and kills the message.

The moment the lawyer tells him that the grain pier probably won’t be built either, Sobotka responds, utterly defeated:

– Do you know what the problem is, Brucie? We used to build things in this country, we built them. Now we just steal from the guy next door.

NO REDEMPTION POSSIBLE

After losing everything, fate offers him redemption. Russell approaches Frank and asks for his help in the investigation: to testify against The Greek. Frank agrees, but has to wait a day to testify.

As he leaves the meeting with the police, he runs into Nick and tells him that The Greek can get Ziggy out of jail. All they want is his loyalty. Sobotka gets angry again; the devil tempts him again… and he falls again.
He has a chance to atone for his sins, but the temptation to free his son from prison is too great to resist.
He meets up with The Greek again, but by the time he arrives, they already know that Frank has been to the police…

Sobotka walks toward his destiny.

The eleventh chapter ends with a fade to black as Frank Sobotka walks toward the mobsters. Toward a destiny long foretold on the wall.

Throughout the series we see lazy and corrupt cops. Drug dealers kill. Junkies beat each other up for a few bucks. Politicians are corrupt and win elections. Teachers don’t care about their students, and the most dishonest journalists get the most awards.
But the union leader is not allowed to be corrupt. Sobotka pays for selling out to the mafia with his son in jail, his union shut down, and himself dead.

THE DEATH OF THE WORKING CLASS

One of our own.

The leader of the stevedores’ union at the Port of Baltimore is found dead in the canal that brought him down. His colleagues pay their respects in solemn silence. The police tell us he died fighting; his comrades already knew.

Frank takes a small victory to his grave: the grain pier will be reopened, and some of the lucky ones will continue to work. Today, utopia is simply having work.


As they’ve been saying all season, you can’t fight the passage of time. It’s written on the wall: Sobotka dies; the class struggle dies with him.

But the inexorable march of time will eventually consume everything. It will erode the wall and what’s written on it. Only then will we know whether Sobotka was a romantic dreamer rooted in the past or a pragmatic materialist fighting for the future.

Fuck the Wall!