…I was not a union man. I didn’t have the union card, the union number. I couldn’t talk the union talk so I couldn’t walk the union walk. I didn’t know the secret handshake or the secret code word. I was scab. No I was worse than a scab. I was the bloody cut under the scab, that was oozing scab puss from scab blood from the scab scar under the scab or so they told me. Now what?
The local union rep must have taken pity on me as he approached me a few minutes later.
“You have to be a union member to work this site.” he said
“But I am only working for my uncle, for the summer.” I pleaded
“Doesn’t matter.” he reiterated. “No union card, no work. It’s that simple.”
He gave me the address for the union hall, somewhere downtown. As we were out in the East end burbs on this job site it would take some time for me to go there. I left and I did and arrived there about mid afternoon. It turned out that my particular skill set – manual labourer – was a sub-sub section of a sub section of the section of another section of the Teamsters charter. Oh, I had heard of these guys. Jimmy Hoffa and all of that. Or Hal Banks and his band of the great lakeside reprobates.
Into the union hall I went to a chorus of boos and hisses as my reputation and celebrity status at the job site had preceded me. I waited a short while but was soon greeted by an elderly lady, late middle age, heavily made up with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She wore thick, black rimmed glasses and reeked of nicotine. A chain smoker I surmised as memories of my grade seven school teacher came wafting back to me
“Follow me,” she ordered, just like the best of them. It would seem to me that assertiveness was part and parcel of being a Teamster, part of the job, or so I thought.
I did follow her and before too long I was ushered into a room on the second floor. It was a smallish room cramped with oversized furniture, which smelled of stale tobacco and cheap whiskey, or perhaps it was stale beer. I wondered if anyone here had been sick or shot or murdered or worse or something in these chairs. Perhaps their legs had been broken, or their arms. Was anyone garrotted here? I thought. I kept looking behind me. My mind was racing and getting way ahead of any rational thought. I have to stop watching Elliott Ness and the Untouchables.
An oversized desk was stationed just in front of a pane glass window, which appeared as if it was shaded in a ghastly shade of yellow, especially when set against the afternoon sun. The whole room seemed to be permeated with tobacco smoke and reeked of stale air. The scene was suffocating. It was surreal.
“Sit down” a very high pitched voice, almost feminine like, cracked from the vicinity of the desk. I couldn’t quite make him out due to the glare coming from the mid afternoon sun through the mid afternoon window. On further inspection, on sitting down, opposite from where I sat, I was confronted by a very large, grossly overweight man, very old, about 40. Balding with a comb over, his face was pudgy with puffy cheeks and puffy lips with a puffed out bulbous snout that was riddled with reddish and purplish veins, all puffy, which over stepped its bounds above a small puffy mouth and an equally puffy triple chin. Like a sommelier, his nose was so big and puffy that it must have seen, sniffed and sensed its way through too many cheap whiskeys.
“So,” he said. “How did we get ourselves into this predicament?”
“We?” I thought. He went on.
“This site is a union site young man. In fact all of the construction sites in this city are union sites.” he waved his hands to no one in particular as he was prone to talk with his hands.
“Now, you wouldn’t want to shut down all of the construction sites in this city would you? Would you?” he repeated, his voice rising somewhat, in a sort of lilt, as he stressed his point. His two hands locked in what appeared to me as a karate chop manner aimed at my face!
“Uh, uh, no sir.” I stammered in a nervous stammer.
“So,” he said so a lot. “All you have to do is join the union and all will be fine with the union world.” After all, the union is there to protect you and provide you with a fair wage.”
My interest perked and piqued. He suddenly had my full attention. Fair wage? Wasn’t a dollar and twenty five cents an hour considered a fair wage?
Sensing my confused interest with what must have been an equally confused and dumb look on my face, he went on.
“Three dollars and forty five cents an hour” he proffered. And all you have to do is pay us twenty five dollars a month, in union dues of course”
“Let’s dues this” I thought but hesitated, thinking about my uncle’s reaction.
“But what about my uncle” I said. “He may not want to pay me that rate of pay. After all, he offered me this job at my fathers urging.”
“Your uncle knows the rules full well. In fact he hired another student just yesterday and at the union rate. You are being conned I’m afraid. It always seems to occur in families”
I was kind of pissed off. At my uncle. “Why would he do this to me” I thought?
“Here, sign these forms and you’re in. We’ll take your dues off for the whole summer with your first pay docket. Good luck”
I shook his puffy hands, signed the forms then left, in a hurry, not quite knowing what to do. Damn, I forgot to ask about the secret handshake! Back downstairs and in the main hall I went for the pay phone and called the office. My older cousin Russell answered. He was my uncle’s, his father-in-law’s estimator. I explained what had happened and he told me not to worry. He would handle it with my uncle. Just show up for work tomorrow, same site.
Show up indeed. With that I went home for the day. I couldn’t wait to pass this good bit of news on to my Mom and Dad…