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McGrath: Labor Day — American worker at risk

Updated: October 2, 2013 6:21AM



The beefy drunk refused to step onto the escalator, and I felt for the handle of the billy club hanging from my belt. I was working as a security guard at Arlington Park Race Track, a job I think about whenever Labor Day rolls around.

While others have ambivalent feelings about the American labor movement and its so-called decline, there is no question for me that the first Monday in September is one of our most important holidays.

It’s on par with the Fourth of July because both commemorate freedom, security and the restoration of human dignity — all of whose absence I never felt more keenly than after working at Arlington Park.

The job did not start out that way. On the contrary, the prospect of enforcing the law in an entertainment venue was exciting. Magnificent thoroughbreds, huge sums of money, festive crowds. Add jockeys, grooms, touts, trainers and a host of colorful characters that I had only read about in stories by Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway.

It was the late 1970s, and the job paid better than minimum wage and involved neither sweat nor heavy lifting, unlike the back-breaking landscaping and construction jobs that I had also held as a young man. What could go wrong?

As is often the case in youth, reality did not match expectations. The first indication came on Day 1, when the Lieutenant lined us up for inspection. He reprimanded several men for having cigarettes in their shirt pockets or for unbuttoned collars. I was scolded for scuffed shoes.

The Lieutenant told us that the biggest mistake to avoid was “roughing up the wrong guy.” He explained how our jobs, which had no health care, overtime pay, sick days or vacation, did not protect us against lawsuits. If we encountered trouble, we were to call the security office to handle it.

That was all. No training. No role playing. We were uniformed props spaced throughout the arena as deterrents. Or scapegoats?

The next revelation was more deflating — that patrons had zero respect for us. I grew to recognize a signature look in people’s eyes. We were a joke, like scarecrows you could ignore.

It’s why no one wanted to direct traffic when the racing ended. Customers ignored hand signals, often nearly running over the cops. Eventually, they were left to crisscross to the exits on their own.

The weekday crowd included hundreds of regulars, gambling addicts with minimal interest in the horses or even the sport. And when their horse lost, they saw us as soldiers of the establishment that had robbed them. But because there was little advantage in attacking us, they attacked elsewhere.

Between races, people often reported purses stolen, pockets picked or their cars damaged. I discovered bathroom fixtures busted, tables and chairs vandalized. Vandals and thieves had the edge, always knowing our whereabouts. It drove me crazy that I could never catch one, especially the pickpockets who left bewildered victims in tears.

Four weeks in, I was pining for my old landscaping gig, dreaming about digging ditches in the blazing sun. Anything was preferable to standing around for hours, accomplishing nothing.

“Security!” a teller shouted one afternoon. I was working in the upper clubhouse, an enclosed, air-conditioned section with pricier admission. An obviously inebriated 40-year-old male customer was leaning against the betting window, cursing the teller for stealing his winning ticket.

The teller demanded that I throw the guy out. But he wouldn’t budge until I assured him that he could appeal his case to a higher authority if he accompanied me downstairs. When I touched his shoulder to guide him onto the escalator, he elbowed me away.

I was not surprised that he redirected his wrath toward me. I had all the nobility of a guard in a prison camp, with none of the power. This smelly, slurring drunk who’d lost his money ranked higher here than I did.

I never got physical — guiding him instead down to the office, like herding a stubborn mule through a maze. Several days later, I turned in my uniform, my cap and my billy club.

I’ve worked many jobs since Arlington Park, and I aligned with unions at every opportunity. Unionizing could’ve helped make the track’s security guards more prepared, committed and fulfilled back then. The customers might have been safer and the track a more inviting attraction for families.

Today, with the American worker under attack in several states whose legislatures have weakened or eliminated the influence of organized labor, the end result is not simply the decline of unions.

The larger danger may be the loss of principles that make up our work ethic — the respect, pride and dignity in what we do.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, has been a member of the United Retail Workers, Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.



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