Author: Martin, George

Reflections on Labor Day

Monday was Labor Day and it got me thinking about how the labor movement
affected my life.

My father worked most of his life at the American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO) lead refinery in the tiny village of Selby, just west of Crockett, where I grew up. It started out as a very tough job: dad had a shovel and there were piles of lead ore to be moved, or cleaned up, or whatever, and it was done pretty much by hand.

Later he learned to operate heavy equipment: a large crane called a Marion Crane (after the company that made it) that was used to unload the ore from gondola cars, and a giant front loader that had tires at least six feet high. There was a steep hill near the refinery that had a Southern Pacific train tunnel through it. Sometimes I would hike down the tracks about a mile, climb up on the cement tunnel portal and sit there a while and watch my father work the big crane.

I knew there was a certain amount of gold in the ore that the lead came in, and that the refinery had a “gold room” where that was recovered, and that they were very strict about searching workers going in and out of that facility. So when I spotted some sparkly stuff in the dirt along the fence line, I gathered up a bunch and took it to the jewelry store in Crockett, thinking maybe I had struck it rich. Mr. Ghioldi peered at it through his magnifying eyepiece and informed me I had a beautiful sample of iron pyrite, “fool’s gold.”

Thus are the dreams of the young crushed by reality.

Dad was a member of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union. It was a favorite target of Sen. Joe McCarthy and the federal government for supposedly being Communist-infiltrated. I have no idea if the Red-baiters were correct. All I know is that the local at the Selby plant was run democratically, and when strikes were called, the union gave everybody boxes of food to tide us over.

Those boxes of food were received with delight by my sister and me. I don’t know where the union bought the food, but there were brand names in there we were not familiar with, so each new package was an adventure. The one that sticks in my mind was Carnation brand corn flakes. In our world, Kellogg made corn flakes; Carnation made the evaporated milk that Mom put in her coffee.

And speaking of coffee, Mom and Dad drank Folgers or Hills Brothers. The union goody box had cans of coffee labeled “Chock Full o’ Nuts. We looked, but couldn’t find any nuts.

We were very fortunate in those days to have a neighborhood grocer, Mr. Korba, just down the hill two blocks from our house, who gave us credit. He had a large sort of file cabinet that housed flat metal “pages” about two feet square that flipped on hinges, like a book. Each “page” had a bunch of metal clips, and when you would buy something on credit, Mr. Korba would clip one copy of the receipt to the board. When you came in to pay, he would retrieve the slips, total them up, and that was your bill.

After a month-long, or six-week strike, the Martin family had a heck of a pile of chits. But Dad always got them paid off eventually.

Those strikes were hard on the families, but they did win us things like Kaiser Permanente medical coverage, a defined benefits pension package, more vacation time and better pay.

Dad would take me down to the picket line sometimes to visit his friends. They always had a big barrel with a fire going inside, since strikes mostly seemed to happen in the winter. Once, when I got older (I must have been in college) I remember bringing my guitar to the line and singing labor songs and folk songs for the strikers. [And you thought there was going to be no bluegrass content!]

A few years before the refinery shut down for good, about 1969 or so, the Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers merged with the United Steelworkers Union. That was a huge blessing for Dad because he got enrolled in the much stronger USW pension fund, which paid him a pension until he died in 1990.

We had a comfortable house (one unit of two duplexes owned by our extended family), a car, the boat I wrote about last month, and both my sister and I went to college, thanks to California’s then nearly-free higher education, and Dad’s union paycheck.

When I was about 12 years old we were on strike in the fall, and we decided to go pick walnuts. The whole family went, a wage was established and we set to work. The memory of that day is why I am so sympathetic to farm workers.

The nuts were pretty widely scattered, and the ground beneath the trees was big, hard dirt clods. For a little while it was an adventure for my sister and me, but after a while our knees started to hurt from crawling around gathering nuts. And the bags seemed to take forever to fill. We had started about 9 a.m., I think, and before noon we started complaining to Mom and Dad. I believe, in truth, they were about shot, too.

So Dad approached the boss and asked him to pay us off. But the man with the money wasn’t due for some hours yet. Someone, either Dad or the boss, suggested paying us in walnuts. And that ended up being a brilliant idea, as we came home with a huge burlap sack full of nuts, which we ate for at least a year before we used them all.

After college I had the great good fortune to get a job at a newspaper that had been organized by the Newspaper Guild. The three other papers I worked at during my career also had Guild contracts. I enjoyed medical insurance, the pension that is helping support me as I write, and for most of my working life, five weeks of paid vacation. It was almost like living in Sweden, except better weather and no peppermint schnapps.

I feel sorry for today’s young people who come out of college and into an economy that seems to have not enough room for them. And for those older workers whose manufacturing jobs were shipped to Mexico and China.

The time when America was more unionized (and let’s face it, the tax system was much more progressive) was a time of general prosperity. A working man earns money and spends it, while a rich person usually just puts it in the bank, or into the hedge funds and new types of investments that nearly brought our entire economy to its knees. I wish we could spread the wealth around a bit right now.

That’s why I really like Labor Day.

Posted:  9/9/2010

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