Sunday, September 21, 2014

Solidarity Forever

I was a Teamster once. It happened while I was living near Yosemite National Park, pursuing a doomed mailorder business   I think I may have mentioned elsewhere.  Things had gotten pretty desperate, and a friend with some clout in the park maneuvered me into a job on the maintenance crew.  I lasted about a week.

It was a first for me, and quite possibly for the Teamsters as well. I had never done maintenance work, not even on my own possessions, much less on someone else’s. I was pushing 40 at the time, and in not-too-good shape.

The maintenance crew for the park had its work cut out for it. As the seasons changed, whole communities of workers in the various concessions came and went, and their housing was put up or dismantled accordingly.

Many of these temporary workers were accommodated in dormitories – “Boys’ Town” and “Girls’ Town.” Each roomer was furnished a bed and a bedside dresser. I learned, on the first day, that we were expected, each of us, to carry one item to waiting trucks. One man, one piece of furniture.

I could struggle one of the dressers down the stairs and to the truck (in the time my fellow Teamsters took two or three) but the beds --  I don’t think there’s anything you can compare them to today.  They were cast-iron frames holding what must have been lead springs. I never heard an actual weight value, but they were monsters.

The foreman cheerfully demonstrated the technique. With the bedframe upended, resting on its side -- you addressed it from your left side. Bending at the knees, you grasped what was now the bottom rail with your left hand and the upper rail with your right, which now crossed over your head. You were now in position for the approved method of lifting, with your legs. Straightening your knees -- off you walked.


What our insructor might have  spent a little more time on, for us newcomers to the job, was that if you didn’t get the bed exactly at the midpoint, the dam’ thing would tilt forward or backward, and take you with it.  The result in many cases was a series of lurching dance steps, with the inanimate partner leading.     

It was at this point that I discovered that the dressers weren’t all that bad, and went looking for some. As luck would have it, all the dressers were already accounted for, but the foreman was looking for help with the tents.      

I didn’t mention the tents, did I? Visitors to the park who sought the real outdoorsy experience could rent tents down near the river. Not those little two-man pup tents like you had in the army. Family-size tents. Big, heavy canvas jobs. Rolled up, they were big enough you could just get your arms around one. Here again, the one-for-one rule obtained: one set of arms, one tent.  

As I said, I lasted about a week, retiring from the field before doing myself an injury. The Teamsters collected their dues out of my first (and only) paycheck and we parted ways.  

I don’t say that about the dues grudgingly, by the way; I’m a union man in spirit even though that’s the only union job I’ve ever had.  I’d be even less use in a steel mill than I was on that maintenance crew, but these many years later I’m an associate member of the United Steelworkers. I’d have joined the Wobblies by now if they'd still been around.