Labor Union Graveyard by William Klein

It’s Labor Day, and I’m thinking about those who built this country.  It was built on the backs of immigrants like Europeans, Latinos, Chinese, Irish, Italians, African American slaves and people desperate to support their families – any immigrant who was inspired by a dream of something greater for themselves and their loved ones.

Before labor laws those same people took what they could and begged for jobs that were dangerous; volatile and life threatening experiences for meager wages. Children worked for families to support the cause and even with their assistance families barely survived.

Workers weren’t given time off for holidays and worked six or seven days a week until they died.  They weren’t offered pensions and when their wages grew to a point that compromised the bottom line of profits or they grew too old, they were disregarded and sent packing only to be replaced by someone younger. They had no voice in companies.

When workers tried to form unions, they were broken up by the robber barons who used violent tactics. There are stories of thugs riding in gunboats down the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland and shooting into houses to kill labor leaders and quell the uprisings for workers’ rights. Organizers were threatened and some lost their jobs to “scabs” who crossed picket lines.  Those organized workers waged war in the fight to gain rights for workers.

I worked in the steel mills to put myself through college.  I was a laborer and found my old work shirt the other day. My friend Connie inspired me to keep a memento of my father’s helmet in my office to remind where I’ve been and the workers who made us what we are today. Those were special days with my dad and being employed where he was employed as a salesman.

The poetry of plenty and romantic notions of the Industrial Revolution were not lost on me as I examined machinery that lay abandoned in a silent graveyard of business in one section of the mill.

Those days at the mill were lessons in life. I came home looking like a grimy dust ridden ragamuffin.  They called me “Gumby” because I was tall and lanky but my gloves, boots, goggles and helmet were disproportionately large and made me look like the cartoon character. 

I worked in a profit-sharing steel mill and earned five dollars an hour, forty hours a week. Profits were shared by the workers, but since I was only summer help, I didn’t get the full benefits. That was okay with me, it was nice to be a part of something and knew that I was helping those guys grow as a company. That same job in a union mill would’ve earned me upwards of twenty or thirty dollars an hour – a fact that was not lost on me for as hard as I worked.

I just appreciated the opportunity to make some cash so I could stay in college. I knew I didn’t want to make the mill my life’s work, an easy lesson learned. I dumped bins of metal, cleaned up portions of the mill, painted and did odd jobs and assisted guys wherever they needed me. Those guys taught me a lot about life, as we’d sit at lunch hours.  They shared stories of how tough it was to find work to support their families and the challenges of raising families when they were out of work. They helped me focus on what I wanted in life.

The occupational hazards stay with you.  The acid steam from the cleaning house didn’t do much for my asthma. I remember the dry bloody noses from moving lime bags that broke open. A few memory scars are still there. The stitches I got on the side of my hand because I jumped off the top of a coil of wire only to have my hand stabbed by a plate sticking out of the coil. I learned that I wasn’t fond of the sight of my own blood with that one.

I’ll never forget that experience.  I remember guys telling me stories about the mill when it was running at “full turn.” They told me stories about tow motors whipping around the corners and workers not hearing the horns and being crushed to death.  

They told me stories of guys cleaning scraps under in the cleaning house where the crane dipped coils of wire to lube the steel.  One guy didn’t know the crane was running, and the tank was filled too high.  It splashed over the side of the tank and instantly killed the man, acid cleaning the skin from the bone in seconds. Horrifying. My cousin told me stories about going in steel mills to repair furnaces.  They had only so much oxygen and played chicken to finish the jobs.

The stories we don’t hear that inspire us to recognize the importance of labor are the very stories that built this country. I visited the grave of labor leader Cesar Chavez a few years ago before I moved back from California.  He was buried at the UAW museum for the farmworkers at Keene, Kern County, California. There were two other people visiting the site on Labor Day.

I felt sad that a man who gave his life for the cause of labor had no one to visit him and honor him on this special day. In a capitalist country we pride ourselves on the free market of labor.  We get what we can for our gifts. Today we honor the unions.  Many people I know benefitted from the unions, but I wonder how many remember the costs those paid with their lives for the benefits we enjoy today.

One thought on “Labor Union Graveyard by William Klein

  1. I miss those lunch times. I was in the sheet metal union and then out on my own painting (non union). There’s something about working hard and then having a giant sandwich, resting, and bsing with the guys. Such comradery. The practical jokes, the satisfaction of finishing the job, The paycheck! labor day is one of my favorite holiday.
    ps- the actors union really took care of me when I needed it


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