The needler in the haystack.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy (other) Labor Day


The Brooks Locomotive Works at Dunkirk, NY, 1899.
The railroad to the left of the plant is the New York & Erie,
commonly known as "the Erie". Its main competitor,
the New York Central, ran along the shore line of Lake Erie,
seen in the upper left of the picture.

South Plainfield celebrates Labor Day today
with its big parade. In a friendly rivalry with Plainfield, which has hosted the area's July 4th Parade for going on a century, our neighbor borough carved out its own celebratory niche.

When I was a child, two "Labor Days" were celebrated in the mill town where my father was a welder at ALCO, the American Locomotive Company. (This forward-looking corporation was still building steam locomotives in 1954, the year the Dunkirk plant was shut down.)

The other mill, which had been taken over by ALCO in the depths of the Depression, was referred to by oldtimers as "the Brooks Works". It had manufactured steam locomotives in that location since 1869.

These two mills had been organized by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), later the United Steelworkers, in the late 1930s. My dad was part of that effort and was an active union man throughout the 1940s and early 1950s.

The two celebrations were May Day, the original American-inspired day of worker solidarity, and Labor Day in September. Though the September celebration was larger, it was viewed with suspicion by union activists because it drew its major support from the "bosses" (the mill owners and the Chamber of Commerce).

With the purge of left-wing elements from the CIO unions -- including the Steelworkers -- in 1949 and 1950, the local May Day celebration disappeared.

I remember my father coming home from a union meeting one night and telling my mother that there would be no more "union talk" in our household. Shortly after that, my mom explained to my brother and me how important it was that we not tell our friends (and especially their parents) about discussions around the family dinner table.

Though I didn't understand why, I did sense the urgency in my mother's instructions.

Only later would I realize that this was the beginning of the McCarthy era, in which citizens learned to guard their tongues and fear being spied upon by their neighbors and workmates for unpopular political and other opinions.

My dad's first vote as an adult was cast for the American Labor Party candidates. I think my parents voted for the Republican "Ike" Eisenhower in 1952, though they refused to say. They had previously been strong supporters of FDR and his "New Deal".

Though he voted for JFK in 1960, my dad had begun a long drift to the right after the leading elements in the CIO labor movement were crushed.

Eventually, he became a "Reagan Democrat" and then finally a Republican.

There never was any more talk of the tough days of the mill before the union, and the fight to get a union -- or that other Labor Day.

But I think of it every September, and the future that might have been.


  -- Dan Damon [follow]


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