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 “strike”.
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 100,000.
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 hats.
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 packing.  
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. 


Fabio Descalzi said...

Here in the "deep south of South America" we heard similar stories in my childhood. I remember being afraid of "those bad guys on the streets". Pity there were some other bad guys doing some other things up there...

Dan Newland said...

I know what you mean, Fabio!

lllakeside said...

I never knew or remember any of that. Guess we didn't go to Lima much or because too young to now remember then.. Thanks for posting, Dan

Dan Newland said...

My pleasure! These memories of those times will get triggered by something and come back to me in a rush. They come like old movies, clear, indelible, but also imbued with the feelings that I felt at the time, unfiltered by the decades.