I graduated high school in 1970. I grew up in a blue collar factory town where unions were a way of life. My dad was a union brick/stone mason. He was quite the artisan with a trowel, he did beautiful work, and my brothers and I often “carried hod” for him. I can still see him in khaki shirt, dark blue ball hat with “mud” smeared all over him, cigarette dangling from his mouth. My God he worked hard, also drank hard too.
I’ve been working at something since I was twelve years old. I was stocking shelves when I graduated from high school. My life plans were to get married, find a job in one of the many factories in town, make union scale, buy a home, raise a family, retire when I got to 65 and so on…all of this at age 17, I had my entire life all figured out. I had been paying into Social Security since I was sixteen.
After graduation, I quit my job at the grocery store and was hired on as an apprentice iron worker at one of two local foundries (both vacant lots now) and at union scale, I believe $5.25 an hour. It was during the Viet Nam War and I really thought I was going to be drafted….but my number was so high that I wasn’t called to serve after all. I had several friends who did, two whose names adorn the memorial wall in DC. Instead, I went into a different man’s world. I was photographed, given a security card with my photo on it along with my employee number. A guard would check our card upon entry at the gate every day. I was also issued a steel hard hat.
I was pretty scrawny and going into work with all of these older, hardened “hard hats” was an experience I still remember. I was assigned to an older vet named Tyrone who was to teach me the intricacies of standing on a moving conveyor belt while pouring molten steel into hardened sand molds. The molds were fashioned into crank shafts for army vehicles. We also made the casings for 60 mm mortar shells that were then sent to the Rock Island Arsenal to be loaded with high explosives and then sent to the grunts on the front lines in Viet Nam.
It was hard, tedious, hot and sometime dangerous work. The building was cavernous, big fans blowing in hot air to a building that was already hot. Decatur, Illinois boasted 100+ degrees in the summer with 98% humidity. In August, you ate salt tablets and drank great draughts of ice cold water. You were surrounded by hot sweating men in an atmosphere that Dante would cringe at. I was a strong, young, innocent man who was determined that against all odds, I would become a union iron worker.
I stood on that conveyor belt, large ladle in canvas sheathed gloves pouring molten steel into mold after black mold. When I ran out of liquid steel, I jumped off the belt, ran my bucket down the line to the fork lift driver bringing more of the fluid, war making stuff to pour into my “bucket.” Once in a while, my relief man would be too drunk to come in and I would pull a double shift. When I was finally off work I was hungry enough to eat a cow and thirsty enough to consume a Niagara.
I would head to the showers to try and wash off the black foundry sand that clogged my pores. My eyes and forehead were white from my protective goggles and hard hat, but the black sand always managed too make it through my khaki work clothing. Scrub as I might, I could never get it all off. I think my sand encrusted clothing helped to destroy my mother’s washing machine.
After my shower, the older guys would take me across the street to an open field dominated by a shack with a large horse trough out in front. The trough was filled with ice water and dozens of bottles of Miller High Life and Budweiser. This was long before the advent of the microbrew. I wasn’t old enough to legally drink yet, but no one carded me, and I swear, in that hot stiffening air, I could feel as though I was drinking the nectar of the gods. I can’t stand those liquids now, much preferring the micro beers that are now so much in abundance. My Lord it was almost surreal!
The older men would make snide, good natured comments about my lack of sexual prowess (yes it was a man’s world) Most of them bragging about conquests that at the time seemed too good to be true and as I now know, were. I attended the monthly union meetings where the talk of strikes and getting even with “Johnnie Wagner” the millionaire owner of Warner Castings seemed to be raking in even more dough at the expense of his workers. One man was actually fried to death when he lost control of his fork lift and his tub of hot steel sloshed on him. Trying to hurry but lost his life in doing so. I heard his death scream and smelled his burning flesh.
I paid my dues, paid into Social Security and still get pissed when I hear someone say that the unions ruined this country. We worked like dogs and were paid decent wages only because we forced the companies to pay them. Those days are now long gone. Now they want us to back off of Social security too? I’m not sure I understand why there is not more of an outcry about the rich bastards in Washington wanting to take it away.