Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Doing some historical research on organized labor the other day, I
suddenly recalled, in very vivid detail, when I first heard the word “strike”. I
can’t remember the political details involved, but I assume it was during a
prolonged strike (156 days) by electrical workers at Westinghouse plants all
over the United States that took place in 1955-56. I would have been about six
years old at the time.
My pristine little home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, is located—as I’ve
mentioned here before—about 20 minutes south of the once thriving industrial
city of Lima (pronounced “lie-mah” not “lee-mah”, although it was indeed named
after the Peruvian capital). Or, better said, perhaps, Lima is located 20
minutes north of Wapakoneta—since the founding of our town pre-dates that of
Lima by a couple of decades—and lies about halfway between Cincinnati and
Toledo on Interstate 75. The land where both towns were built all originally
formed part of the Hog Creek Reservation, the traditional tribal homeland of
the Shawnee Nation, wrested from their hands through a series of broken
promises, ignored treaties and forced relocation operations, in which these
noble natives were “invited” to make a new life for themselves in Kansas on the
distant opposite side of the Midwestern region.
It still says Standard Oil but now it's an art center.
Back in its day, Lima was best known for its oil industry—boasting, as
of the early 20th century, one of the largest oilfields in the
United States and one of the country’s largest oil pumping operations (the
Buckeye Pipeline), as well as a major refining and petrochemical operation
(which continues to function today, 125 years after its founding). Such was the Lima oil boom that John D.
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, headquartered at the time in Cleveland, decided to
set up refining operations there and to open a major office on the town square.
The building is still there, and still has gold letters on the façade reading
“Standard Oil”, but today houses a cultural center.
But oil wasn’t all that Lima was about. It was home to one of the
country’s most important locomotive builders, its most important builder of school
buses, a major steel foundry, one of the country’s most important military tank
and amphibious vehicle construction plants, and the Westinghouse Small Motors
manufacturing division, among other industries. This last business,
Westinghouse, as I mentioned before, was where I first learned the word
Back when I was a little boy, I-75 was still being built and the only
way to drive into Downtown Lima from Wapakoneta—unless you wanted to come in
from the west and cross the entire West Side—was either on the North Dixie
Highway or on what we called “the back way” along country roads. But both of
these routes took you through the grimy, industrial area known as the South
End. There, the highway ran past endless fields of enormous oil storage tanks
and industrial plant gates. The air was usually thick with the sulfurous stench
of sour crude and ammonia from the refinery and by night was eerily lit by the sullied
orange flames of the operation’s venting towers.
The South End was also home to some rough neighborhoods and some even
rougher slums. Although when I was growing up there never appeared to me to be
a lot of surface racial tension between blacks and whites in Lima, the city had
a bad reputation for racism dating back to when my father, Whitie, was a kid. That
was when Lima was a major center for an infamously violent branch of the Ku
Klux Klan that was known—ironically enough—as the “Black Legion”. It was,
regrettably, a homegrown Ohio racist organization that originated as the “Black
Guard”, the armed band of black-hooded thugs whose original job it was to
protect KKK officers and their families. In a city with an estimated
population of around 50,000 at the time, the KKK openly held a parade in the
center of Lima in 1923, a year after my dad was born, that drew a crowd of
Members of the Black Legion in their ridiculous regalia
Against this background, Whitie grew up in a mostly white enclave of the
South End during the hard times of the 1920s and ‘30s—an era in which the natural
grit of both he and his older brother Red got well-honed living there. Neither
of them were guys you wanted to mess with, even before they went off to train
and fight during World War II.
But Red and Whitie were educated in a bi-racial atmosphere and while
they weren’t exactly chummy with the African American kids they went to school
with, neither were they hostile. Living daily, blacks and whites together, they
weren’t imbued with many of the prejudices and irrational fears of the majority
of the people in our all-white town. For Whitie, the South End was home and we
always felt fairly at ease when we traveled through it with him.
That was not the case with our mother, Reba Mae, who had grown up in the
all-white conservative rural community in and surrounding our town. She had
nothing against blacks, inheriting her mother’s tolerance for all rather than
her father’s open and virulent racism. But she was indeed permeated from childhood
with the fear-mongering that was common in many carefully preserved white communities
back then. And if we kids accompanied her on a shopping trip to Lima, we knew
that when we passed through the last “friendly territory”, crossed an old
concrete abutted bridge and started entering the South End, she would
invariably begin to almost literally prick up her ears, sitting forward, tense
in her seat, gripping the steering wheel hard at ten and two and murmuring, “Are
your doors locked, kids? Answer me. Are your doors locked? Roll up your
windows. Danny! Lock you door!”
So there was always a certain apprehension when we drove through the smoky,
steely South End of Lima. But on this particular day there was something new. I
think Whitie was driving us all to downtown Lima for a dinner of hamburgers,
fries and frosted malts at the Kewpee sandwich shop—a kind of busman’s holiday
for Dad, since he was, at the time, part-owner of the Teddy Bear Restaurant, back
then, the go-to place for hamburgers, fries and malts in Wapakoneta. I was, as
usual, on my knees on the backseat of Whitie’s ’49 Ford, my nose pressed to the
window, because I always liked to be watching once we passed the Westinghouse
plant and the car climbed the tall bridge over the railway-yard below, to take
in that gritty, grimy industrial view—which today promised to be more wintry,
grey and thrilling than ever—and especially to observe the long rows of air
ducts on the roof of the massive locomotive works building, looking for all the
world like so many large rusty tin hens come to roost in a row on the soaring
heights of the structure far beneath the bridge.
Today, however, something else caught my attention first. Directly
across the street from the Westinghouse plant, the sidewalk outside of the
factory parking lot and the tarmac on the other side of a tall fence, within
the lot, were lined end to end with scores of men. Conspicuous by their absence
were women and children. The men inside and the ones outside were grimly facing
one another. It wasn’t hard for me to tune into the mood that was very
apparently unpleasant and hostile. I noticed that my mother and father were
purposely looking straight ahead as we drove by very slowly, directed by
traffic cops around the part of the crowd outside the fence that had spilled
off the sidewalk onto the pavement, but I gawked unabashed at the scene.
A number of the men on the outside of the fence were uniformed police
officers, most holding long clubs at port arms with both hands—one gripping the
butt, the other palming the tip. A few of them were carrying riot guns instead.
Others on the outside of the fence were men in plain clothes. They mostly wore
overcoats against the day’s dank chill, the brims of their felt hats pulled low
over their eyes, so much so that their colorless grey clothing also resembled
uniforms. And some of them, too, were carrying clubs.
On the inside of the parking lot fence, men stood pretty much shoulder
to shoulder as well, but in less uniform style. They came and went and milled
about and spelled each other at the fence. Some warmed their hands at a few metal
drums from which yellow-orange flames sometimes leaped, others shared steaming
coffee from metal Thermos flasks, and still others stood with their fingers
laced through the diamond-shaped wires of the chain-link fence, staring down
the men outside, their faces challenging and angry. Some of the men inside also
wore overcoats and hats pulled low. But others were wearing bomber jackets or denim
and sported billed caps with ear tabs, ball-caps or snap-billed tweed cloth
caps. There were men carrying hand-lettered, poster-board signs nailed to
two-by-fours. A few, I recall, had their heads bandaged in gauze underneath their
As we advanced past the scene, I heard my mother mutter to my father, “I
wonder when this is going to be over so people can get back to work.” Whitie
said hard telling, but probably whenever the damned union got its way...or when
the company’d had enough and run that bunch of goldbrickers out of there. I
leaned over the seat between them and asked what was going on.
“It’s a strike,” my father said.
“What’s a strike?” I asked.
And that question got me my first abbreviated and editorialized lesson on
labor relations. My parents’ view was pretty much the norm among conservative business
owners, small and large, in our area of the country. Indeed, Whitie identified
with a factory-owner in our town who, when threatened once by his workers with
unionization, told them that he was a wealthy man. He didn’t need a job. They
did. He treated them fairly, he claimed, and said that if they wanted to
unionize, to be his guests, that he would simply shut the place down, put a
for-sale sign on the door and send them home. Result: The workers practically
lynched the union activists who had tried to organize them, and sent them
In short, from what I gathered,
the guys on the outside of the fence who were defending corporate interests
were the the "good guys", and the ones on the inside of the fence defending
their livelihoods and their families’ lifestyles were the "bad guys".
They were anti-American, socialists who wanted to undermine the American
economy. I remember feeling afraid of the strikers, being glad they were being
contained behind the fence, inside the parking lot, by the “good guys” with the
clubs on the sidewalk outside.
It would take me years to
figure out that this wasn't always—hardly ever, in fact—the way things actually
worked. And it wasn’t until, as a professional musician, I became a union
member myself, that I really began to think about the anti-union prejudices I’d
been brought up with and to realize that, whatever certain big-labor unions had
morphed into, the idea behind unions had started out, and often continued to be
a good one: people standing together, without discrimination, to defend
themselves and others against helplessness and exploitation.