When I was a twenty-year old college dropout, I had no idea what I wanted to do beyond earning enough money to buy a sports car that would help attract young women interested in having fun. My older brother was in his last year of college, diligently pursuing a degree that promised a good-paying job and security, but after fourteen years of sitting in classrooms and listening to teachers and reading textbooks and doing homework I’d had enough. The world of school was a prison and I had to make my escape.
I went to work in an Armour meatpacking plant in Omaha, Nebraska, where the unionized labor force earned decent wages, enough at the time to support a middle-class lifestyle. But the work was physically hard, stupefyingly repetitious, and often involved the handling of viscera and other bloody animal parts. On the bottom of the ladder, seniority-wise, I got the least desirable jobs and was among the first to go in periodic layoffs. I did buy a used sports car, but it wasn’t the female magnet I had imagined and relationships with the opposite sex were brief and unfulfilling. When my brother graduated and moved to California to work in a government job, his letters with their vivid descriptions of his new car and apartment and travels helped persuade me to give the loathsome world of academia another try.
Entering one’s ninth decade, it’s inevitable to be drawn to such moments in the past and wonder how one’s life would have proceeded if a different decision had been made. That hulking meatpacking plant at the edge of the city’s sprawling stockyards closed a few years after I left, unable to compete with new non-union plants being built in rural areas of the Midwest. One of my friends there was a young man with a wife and two small kids who had just bought a house, and I sometimes wonder if he was still working when the place shut down, and if he had achieved his dream of becoming a beef boner, a job that required the skilled use of knives and paid lucrative piecework wages.
The lessons I learned in two years at that meatpacking plant weren’t of the physical realm. Growing up on a farm had given me the stamina to work hard for long periods of time, and I knew what it was like to see a butchered cow’s innards spill out onto the ground. I did learn how hot dogs and sausages were made, but I didn’t leave the place with any special skills. Instead I learned what it means to be a member of a labor union, to feel solidarity with other workers in their quest for better pay and working conditions. I learned how it felt to work alongside people of other races and ethnicities, to see them as individual human beings and not just specimens of a group with which I had nothing in common because of the color of my skin or the birthplace of my ancestors.
I was working in that plant the day John F. Kennedy was shot, in the department where pork products were packaged and readied for shipment. My job was to take boxes of luncheon meats from the end of a conveyer belt and stack them on low trailers to be pulled into coolers. A more mindless job could hardly be imagined, and I was daydreaming as I often did when I noticed that everything had come to a halt. Instead of sorting, wrapping, labeling, people were standing, either silent or talking in low, serious tones. Within moments I knew why.
The meatpackers union had long supported Democrats, but Kennedy’s executive order giving collective bargaining rights to millions of federal workers cemented his reputation as a staunch ally of labor. Many of the workers at the Armour plant were ethnically eastern European, with roots in the Roman Catholic faith, and Kennedy was the closest thing to a hero inside that malodorous complex of red brick buildings that occupied several blocks on the city’s far south side.
Because most departments operated on an assembly line principle, more or less, work stoppages for anything but the most dire reasons were intolerable, and the foreman in his white frock coat and hard hat barked at us to get back to work. Nobody moved to comply. This scene was apparently repeated in the other cavern-like areas of the plant and after some time passed one of the plant superintendents appeared and spoke to the foreman and when he was gone the foreman told everybody to clock out, adding that we would be paid for the entire shift.
Because it was a Friday I didn’t have to work the next day, so I drove to my parents house and for much of the next forty-eight hours sat in front of the TV, watching events unfold, including the shocking sight of Jack Ruby stepping out of a crowd and firing a fatal shot at Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s an image that burns itself deeply into the memory, but what affected me most profoundly from that time was the sight of people spontaneously deciding to ignore their foreman’s demand that they get back to work. Whatever that refusal cost the company in revenue and profits was trivial in comparison to what an assassin’s act had cost the country.
I’ve never regretted that cesura in the sometimes ragged, sometimes off-key symphony of my life, but once I packed to leave on the 130-mile trip from my parent’s farm to the university where I would spend the next four years it became history, a chapter in a closed book. After graduating, I joined the white collar world, where sweat and blood and the stench of butchered animals was far, far away, another planet in another galaxy. But when I would read about unions or individuals engaged in strikes and disputes with their employers, I would think about fellow workers who wanted, above all, to be accorded dignity and respect. I would think that reserving dignity and respect for those who dress up to go to offices and have college degrees and think nothing of spending a working person’s weekly wage on a restaurant dinner was very wrong.
At some point I left that white-collar world and re-joined the working class, for reasons we can leave to another time. But that interval proved to be relatively brief, just a stop on the road to becoming an independent businessperson. In that incarnation, I was an employer, where empathy for those I asked to work hard and long at sometimes tedious, even mind-numbing tasks was put to the test. What if there was a presidential assassination or something equally grave at a time when any pause in the work could mean serious problems? Mine was not a big corporation, but a very small business. If my employees had stopped, put down their tools, would I have yelled at them to get back to work? Or told them they could go, that they would be paid for the entire day?
I believe it would have been the latter. But there is a glaring fact in this ninth decade of life. I’m not really sure of anything other than the fact that disdain for people who make their living with bodily sweat is an act of inhumanity. We should banish pejoratives like peon and drudge and value everyone’s honest efforts, no matter how far below us on the social scale we perceive them to be.