Four Near-Death Labor Experiences

09.5.2005 | George Zucker

Labor Day makes me grateful the job I took to earn money for college wasn’t my life’s work, or I might not be here to write this. In 1951 I graduated high school and took a job at a cold-roll steel mill near Elizabeth, New Jersey. The steel, rusted and crumpled, came to us on railroad gondolas and flatbed trucks. We pickled it, flattened it and cut it. The steel left the mill, gleaming and oily, in bundled strips or shiny coils.

As the steel moved from the back door to the big trucks up front, grimy men, many of them bitter about their hard lot in life, worked amid clamor and danger. Older workers, scarred and missing fingers, didn’t grumble much. They shoved steel into the maws of heavy cutters with muted resignation, mindful only that their fingers avoid the powerful, pumping thunk of the big blades.  

I was 17 and newly accepted by a college I could not afford. My Teamsters classification was Class A Hooker – the guy on the working end of a crane. We wore our union buttons on our baseball caps and took macho pride in Jimmy Hoffa, the scrappy union organizer who was making headlines in his climb to the top. “He may be a crook,” it was often said, “but he’s our crook!”

Some years later, that quip would not seem so funny.

Tex, my partner, was the crane operator 30 feet above me. We worked all day without speaking to each other. A glance or a nod was enough. I’d stroll to a machine with a full bin and the big hook and spreader would drop to me. Tex and I never had a beer together (though the working man’s bar down the road never asked for IDs) or even a coffee-break chat. At lunch, he’d squat alone against the brick wall of the truck bay. Few people knew his last name or what demons drove him from Texas to New Jersey. But we had a rapport few close friends do.

Tex was a master crane operator. His light touch with tons of steel saved my life every day. So I wasn’t angry the three times he nearly killed me.

Pickling steel was a nasty business anyway. I had to walk on two slimy 4x4s spanning a boiling tank of sulfuric acid. From this narrow, slippery purchase I’d guide the bent and rusty steel into the hot acid bath, then reach across to remove the 50-pound spreaders. A whiff of steam from this cauldron was like inhaling a bad cigar. If bubbling acid splashed on you, your pants leg fell off the next day.

One morning, Tex looked away for an instant and the steel kept coming at me. I grabbed the spreader chains and swung over the boiling acid. Tex winked at me and shrugged his shoulders. Then he lowered me to safety on the catwalk.

The next time he almost killed me, we were stacking steel plates on wooden pallets. I was standing between two tall stacks as Tex put the last plate on top. Near my nose, a wooden pallet splintered with a crack like a pistol shot. The leaning pile of steel groaned toward me, but stopped inches short of crushing me against the pile at my back. This earned a nervous smile from Tex.

By the third time, I had enough money saved to start. We were unloading five ton steel coils from a flatbed truck. For this work, we used a special hook shaped like an L. While Tex was taking a bite on the last coil, I was prying up the truck’s two by four pallets with a crowbar. Tex was having a tough time with the last coil. It was too far forward on the truck to be lifted straight up, so Tex was trying to “walk” it into position.

Suddenly, there was a noise and I saw a blur from the corner of my left eye. I jumped to the right just as the big hook popped free from the heavy steel coil and brushed my left cheek. Inches more and it would have whacked my head like a golf ball on a tee. Now I knew why the older men didn’t complain so much — they might live to make retirement.

And Tex? The last close call bothered him. “Sorry about that,” he said.

I saw Jimmy Hoffa in a different light in1959, two years after he took over the Teamsters. I was by then a reporter in Indianapolis and Hoffa was back in his native Indiana to keynote a state Teamsters convention. I was one of only four reporters seated at the press table on the basketball court of the Butler University field house. Hoffa, 45, was in his fiery prime. In an angry speech about his troubles with the federal government and the charges of violence and corruption surrounding him, Hoffa repeatedly pointed to us and blamed the press for all the bad news.

Hundreds of Teamsters in the audience howled their displeasure at what Hoffa said were the unfair barbs they were reading in the newspapers. After a huge ovation at the close of his talk, burly truck drivers swarmed about the press table as we got up to leave, blocking our exit and shouting unquotable epithets.

I reached into my wallet and pulled out my old Teamsters union card and held it up. At the familiar sight, one of the truckers took me by the arm. “Make way for the brother!” he shouted. “Let the brother through!”

The brotherhood politely stepped aside.


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