McGrath: The meaning of Labor Day for me
By David McGrath email@example.com August 31, 2012 8:54PM
Updated: October 3, 2012 6:13AM
“You better do it, or you might not have a job.”
He slammed down a one-pound box of flooring nails on the tailgate of the pickup truck. He had warned me earlier that week that I wasn’t hustling up enough business, and that if things didn’t get better, I needed to dump the nails onto the interstate highway from nearby overpasses.
It was among the worst jobs I ever had — driver and laborer for a emergency mobile tire repair service. It was headquartered at a truck stop off the interstate where I fielded radio calls from drivers of 18-wheelers crisscrossing the Midwest.
It was one among several rotten jobs that I recall every Labor Day.
When I did get a distress call, I’d hop in the pickup truck and drive to the mile marker where a semi truck was disabled along the shoulder.
Drivers never shut off the engines to not lose pressure in their air brakes, which made it all the more daunting to crawl underneath to place the jack under the axle — where the gravel was like hot embers, where other trucks and cars roared by near me and where I had an irrational fear that the chugging engine would suddenly lurch into gear, crushing me underneath.
The wheels, once you removed them for patching, were very heavy and nearly as tall as a man, with split metal rims that could explode apart if improperly aligned, causing fatal injury to the tire repairman trying to inflate it.
My boss, however, had peculiar ideas about “stimulus measures” — essentially ordering me to puncture customers’ tires and endanger their lives. Rather like a firefighter setting houses ablaze to make work for himself.
Refusing to toss nails onto the highway, I was eventually let go. Having had no say in how I did the job, I had no influence or means to protest termination.
The most physically grueling job I ever had lasted a mere week, when I was promised minimum wage to haul buckets of mortar up four flights of stairs of a building being rehabbed at the Great Lakes Naval Center.
“Keep your shoulders back,” the foreman advised, after watching me struggle up the stairs, lugging a 50-pound bucket in each hand.
On Monday night, my knees, back and shoulders were nearly paralyzed. On Friday, the foreman handed me a check for only half of what he promised, along with a feeble excuse about cost overruns.
No contract was violated, no law broken. So all I could do was take consolation in the fact that my thighs and biceps had been chiseled rock hard.
I was still in my teens when a Montgomery Ward store hired me as a “porter,” a fancy word for janitor, and my main responsibilities were to clean the men’s and women’s toilets on all three levels and to empty the wastebaskets in all sales departments several times a day.
A stinky job with stinky pay, but I was fortunate to be mentored by A.C., a veteran porter who showed me the ropes, such as which cleaners to use in the aisles (lemon extract for stains on tile and vinegar for carpet spills) and how to bale up cardboard without slashing my hands on the baling wire.
Yet when the Blizzard of 1967 stopped all commerce and traffic in the area, my boss placed a call to my home. He asked if I would act as maintenance supervisor for the next several days or however long it would take the city to clear the streets.
“A.C. can’t make it?” I asked him.
“I didn’t call him,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, A.C. is the best man I have. But you can’t have them in leadership positions.”
A.C. was black, and it was not uncommon to hear such a sentence in 1967. Nonetheless, it was my first experience of a human being cruelly dehumanized by an employer.
In fact, what was true of all three of my earliest jobs was the voiceless, helpless status of the worker. All that separated them from the realm of despotism was that you could leave if you wanted.
It took labor unions in this country, including the three I would eventually join, to restore representation, dignity and human decency to the American worker.
Even today, in 2012, when sweatshop abuses are history-book horrors to most people, anyone who has worked for a living has experienced, or can easily imagine, the potential for tyranny and oppression — absent the accomplishments of American Labor.
David McGrath is a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest.
He’s an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and has been a member of the United Retail Workers, the Chicago Teachers Union and the National Education Association.