Friday, April 9, 2010

My Union Bona Fides

My experience as a union worker was mostly positive, although the work was grueling and the bosses on my construction sites were as demon-possessed as any bosses ever to walk the face of the planet. Time indeed was money.

I was in the local Laborers Union of the AFL-CIO. The years were 1968, '69 and '70. My primary job the first year and a half was hand-digging ditches, trenches, channels and squares, and scraping foundation holes to within 1/128th of an inch so footings and piers could be sited and poured. My secondary job was to break down the forms made up of wide planks that the concrete for the footings and piers were poured into. That lumber was then cleaned of 60d nails (think crucifixion size nails) and re-stacked for re-use. My third job was generally to clean up the various staging yards and fetch just about anything the skilled labor guys wanted at Mach 2 speed. My fourth job was to take uncensored verbal abuse as one of the "rabbits," the young, mostly college kids who held these summer jobs.

Dozens of my contemporaries held well-paying blue-collar summer jobs in those days. They worked building roads, in small steel mills, as meat cutters in slaughterhouses, in factories that made grinding wheels as big as a house and as small as an eyelash brush. Some painted houses, some put in sidewalks, some drove truck, some did tree work for the county.

Aside from playing into our romantic self-conceptions - we were all in our minds "On The Road" just like Kerouac, Neal Cassady, or even Tom Joad - we earned damned good money, money that could almost pay for a full year of college, plus spending cash, in that era.

I was part of a crew that lived in a motel that was astronaut themed. It was sweaty, nasty, back-breaking work building the Stony Brook University Campus near Port Jefferson on Long Island: dormitories, a library, and two administration buildings. But...

The "rabbits" earned - get ready - $7.14 per hour for straight time. We earned double time - $14.28 an hour for overtime, and $21.42 an hour for any time we put in before 7:30 AM and after 6 PM. Great money for an unskilled man supporting a family in those days, a king's ransom for a college kid. I averaged about $475 per week before deductions over the course of 8 to 10 weeks.

Breaks were union regulated. Twenty minutes for every two hours worked. Forty-five minutes for lunch on top of that. If you worked before 7:30 AM or after 6 PM, the construction outfit bought your meals.

The shop steward made rounds constantly on a little traffic cop scooter. If you were looking a little peaked in the July sun, he'd blow a whistle, point to you and shout out "water," and his "boy," about 14 years old, would run a big tin can of ice water to you. The steward watched you drink it, then rub the ice cubes over your neck, arms and chest. After a stopwatch-timed 5 minutes he blew the whistle, and shouted "work on." And back to work you went.

After a summer and a half of that, I was chosen to learn surveying, the assumption being that someone in college had a strong sense of geometry. What a relief! A little higher pay and almost no shoveling. I started holding the sticks (surveying rods) and eventually did the triple check, peering through the transit level and siting up the sticks after the chief surveyor-engineer had done it twice himself. All the figures had to be spot on each other through each of the three readings. One bad set of numbers and you started all over.

Transit levels - now called theodolites - are very accurate. They measure long lines in fractions of minutes of an angle. At a distance of one mile, one minute of angle covers about 1.5 feet. At a distance of one mile, one-tenth of a second of angle covers about 0.003 feet. Our buildings were 200 to 250 feet on a side, so we would be accurate to .000105 feet. Some serious measuring and squaring up. Of course this is absolutely necessary because if an angle starts slightly out of true, by the time you travel 250 feet it is wayyyyy out of true. The parallelogram effect.

The digging, scraping, trenching, and lumber cleaning gave me an animal appreciation for a 6,800 calorie a day diet. (One which, given the level of physical exertion, allowed me to lose 14 pound over the summer.)

The surveying gave me an abiding reverence for the building of the pyramids and the Roman aqueducts.

The quashing of unions in the last 30 years is a terrible, terrible thing for our country. In another generation we will know the full meaning of this almost cosmic blunder. Meanwhile,

Raise your glass to the hard working people
Let's drink to the uncounted heads
Let's think of the wavering millions
Who need leading but get gamblers instead...
      - Jagger/Richards

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