Sunday, September 2, 2007

Union Hot Dogs -- by Larry D. Sweazy

I live 45 minutes from the town I grew up in, Chesterfield, Indiana, a small town on the outskirts of a larger industrial Midwestern city, Anderson, a once mighty player in the automobile industry. In accordance with Thomas Wolfe’s famous line, “You can never go home again,” I abide, and rarely go back.

When I was a kid, Anderson was a thriving metropolis with two General Motors plants as its economic center, Delco Remy and Guide Lamp. Delco made alternators and Guide made headlights, among other parts—and was solely owned and operated by GM. There were other smaller factories in Anderson, but between the two GM operations, they employed more than 20,000 people in their heyday. Anderson was a company town. You did not dare drive a Ford or a Japanese car. Most everybody that lived in Chesterfield, a one-stop-light town on the way to nowhere, worked for GM. It wasn’t really a suburb, not in today’s terms, or a bedroom community, it was an extension, a small outpost, vanilla icing on a large sheet cake. The pace was slower, and Chesterfield was firmly planted with 7 churches and 6 taverns. Even then there was a balance between good and evil.

My grandparents migrated to Anderson from Illinois in the late 1930s, and my grandfather was employed at Delco until the early 1960s, when he retired. He was an elevator operator in Plant 1, the administration offices. Most all of my aunts, uncles, some cousins, and even my mother, step-father, and half-brother, worked for GM at one point or another in their lives. My life as kid depended on GM.

I remember strikes. Sick leaves. Shut-downs. The smell of a new Buick. My grandfather’s Oldsmobile—always white, always a 4-door (we didn’t call them sedans, that was too pretentious for us). And I remember the Union. UAW (United Auto Workers), a once powerful force that celebrated holidays with cookouts for its members at the Union Hall on the Bypass.

What does a kid know about unions, other than it was an entity that existed in my household, an underlying current that had as much or more influence on our well-being as GM did. We were factory kids—very few of members of my family worked in management. They were Remy rats; floor workers, binders, press operators—non-skilled tradesmen.

My first pair of glasses came from the optometrist at the Union Hall, heavy plastic black frames and thick lenses. My 5th grade picture makes me look like a nerd from the Wonder Years. There was a pharmacy there, too. And doctors offices. All to care for union members. Health care was something we took for granted.

And on Labor Day weekend, there was that cookout. Rows upon rows of 55 gallon barrel drums cut in half and made into grills. The grills would be all ablaze with dancing fire, billowing with the blue smoke of hamburger fat dripping on charcoal. There was music, pony rides, balloons, clowns. It was a carnival. All for free as long you had your union card. The cookout was a thank you to the working man (and woman)…a brief reprieve from the monotony and thud, thud, thud of 2 ton presses and the smell of melting glass. A breath of fresh air.

Hot dogs never tasted so good.

You know how this is going to end. You know the world we live in today.

There is no longer a General Motors plant in Anderson. 20,000 jobs gone. Delco Remy's Plant 11 is now a field of grass, the parking lot a buckling sea of cement, heaving upward, crumbling day by day. Plant 3 is gone—the limestone fa├žade crafted in the thirties in Art Deco style is nothing but dust, hauled away in a parade of dump trucks. The past rests in the landfill, the elevator cage my grandfather operated melted, recycled, used up, used again, and just used. The foundation and land have to be toxic, of little use. The Union Hall is gone, too, moved to a small office to service the retirees who still remain in town, all them tired, shell-shocked…wondering who’s going to speak for them now that they are too old and too weak to speak for themselves. There was always somebody there to do it for them—the Union. What are they are going to now?

I could go on, and tell you about the dangers of a town betting its existence on one company. But you know that story. It’s our American story. Here today. Gone tomorrow. You clean up the mess. We fed you. Clothed you. What more do you expect, we need to lower our expenses and make a profit?

I rarely go home. Because home is no longer there. The Anderson of my youth is the dust we breath, the memories of summer coming to an end, and the chill of fall, a promise of cold weather and loneliness, right around the corner. The free hot dogs, eternal youth, and the certainty of staying warm and clothed in the winter are just a fantasy—a Wonder Years dream better left to the movies and literature.

Anderson is a bedroom community now, a 30 minute commute to the suburbs of Indianapolis, an hour from downtown, Monument Circle and Conseco Fieldhouse…a world away.

There is a reason why we have a 3 day weekend at the beginning of September, why we have Labor Day. But I think we have mostly forgotten, mostly given up the reasons to celebrate since we have sent the workingman’s clothes away from our own shores, and the boarded up the windows to our own shops…our own dreams.

I exist in the global economy, benefit from it. I am not complaining about the way of the world today, or fighting against the tide—globalization is here to stay, and as an adult, I can live with that. The past is gone. But I still celebrate Labor Day like I did when I was a kid...

Today I will remember the days when union meant coming together. That’s as close to going home as it gets for me.

2 comments:

GA in TX said...

Larry,
I grew up in Anderson, not the child of a factory worker nor the wife of one, and how we envied everything you took for granted-the wonderful Blue Cross/Blue Shield card, earning way beyond the minimum wage, those cost of living raises and all that that money would buy.
Our lives were harder than you can ever imagine and (factory) friends would often ask us how we could possibly "make it". We existed.
My mother's great vision for me was to become a factory worker right out of high school. I, however, another vision for myself, and no matter how good the money or illusion of union security wanted more for myself than to do repetitive brain numbing work.
I eventually earned a degree in journalism from Ball State, moved to Texas and am the editor of a small newspaper in South Texas where "union" is a dirty word, which I find hard to understand because the union did help raise the standard of living for just about everyone concerned (unfortunately members took unscrupulous advantage of it). Labor Day isn't celebrated down here in any way shape or form. What we had there in the Midwest was a very special slice of those Wonder Years you so longingly speak of.
Georgia Wingate Thompson
Kingsville, Texas

Larry D. Sweazy said...

Georgia,

There was a dark side to factory life, but I wanted to highlight the Union on Labor day, and didn't think it was time or the place to explore that. Maybe I will in the future. Anyway, I obviously didn't follow my family's footsteps into the factory, and I'm happy I didn't considering how things turned out.

Good luck in Texas--it's a world away from Anderson.

Best,

Larry