My First Union Story–And My Memory of 9/11/2001

Below is a short non-fiction article I did about a strike at a local papermill in the Summer of 2001. The short conversation/interview I had with the striking workers was on the morning of September the 11th, 2001, sometime between when the second tower was hit and when the first one came down. I had gone to class in the A.M. in shock and needing to be near other people, and after us students were send home by the college administration, I stopped to talk with the three fireman who were striking near the main entrance to the Texon papermill. I had been meaning to stop and talk to/interview these guys for about a week (I was then enrolled in several writing classes) but had been too shy. On the morning of September 11th, with the world upside-down, I decided “The hell with it, I’ll stop and see if these guys know what’s going on in NYC.”

Hawk-eye on Texon Strike

By Mike Farrar

Puffs of black smoke belched from the tallest of three factory smokestacks. The Old Salt shook his head and forced a laugh. “They’re going to mess up the boilers,” he said. “It’ll cost them an arm and a leg to fix.” The Hawk nodded, adding, “They’ve been trying to get the place running since Friday, but they don’t know what they’re doing.”

On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, three unionized firemen in the boiler room of the Texon Paper Company in Russell, MA went on Strike. Three days later replacement firemen were brought in to assume their duties. From day one, the picketing firemen watched and listened for signs of activity within the factory from a small encampment outside the main entrance of the paper company on Route 20. Their camp consisted of a tarp and pole tent, three folding camp chairs, a card table, an American flag, a small, battered AM/FM radio, and four paperboard signs with the Teamsters Local 404 logo and the message “Striking Workers.” With over 60 years of boiler experience between the three of them, they knew the sights, sounds and smells of a properly operating boiler. What they were seeing, hearing and smelling wasn’t it. Black smoke issued from the stack for about five minutes, then stopped.

The three firemen, nicknamed for this article “Old Salt,” “The Hawk,” and “Rookie,” (they adamantly declined to have their names in print) didn’t want to talk much about boilers that day. In fact, Rookie said almost nothing at all. The Hawk spoke gravely and matter-of-factly the few times he had something to say. Old Salt, who’d been on ships so long he had salt water in his blood, wouldn’t shut up. He talked about Vietnam (all three men were US Navy veterans), and of the sea and storms and the price of whores in Singapore.

Old Salt talked—and while he did The Hawk’s gaze fell upon him. And then upon Rookie. And upon each car that passed by on Route 20—during which the gaze was accompanied by a brisk wave and usually answered by a supportive toot of a car horn. But that gaze was directed on the smokestacks most of all.

With the Hawk’s sharp eyes were a lined face, a square jaw, broad shoulders and a straight back. He possessed rough, calloused, forever-creased hands earned with a lifetime of manual labor, and fingernails blackened by dirt, grease, soot, and whatever other filthiness resides in the depths of the boiler room. He looked, as corny as it sounds, like the stereotypical strong-back worker of the Industrial Revolution’s beginnings. Strong. Proud. Silent. Dependable. And like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he probably believed that “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man.”

Was this brooding handy-man an example of Susan Faludi’s Stiffed male, a victim of a social tragedy? Was he promised everything and given nothing? There’s no way to be sure after only a few hours of tense conversation. But his demands to his employers were clear: “I don’t want to work weekends for straight-time,” he said, alluding to management’s practice of forcing workers to work Saturdays and Sundays and then take hours and/or days off during the week so they won’t exceed forty hours and be paid overtime pay. “I’m tired of corporate greed.”

As he finished speaking, a low humming issued from the factory, and one of the two small smokestacks begin to emit a steady column of wispy, white smoke which drifted lazily up and away. “It took them long enough,” spat Old Salt. The Hawk merely shrugged and continued to stare at the rising smoke.

A few things jump out at me when I read the piece again, all these years later:

1. How big of a bull-shitter I was back then–I’ve never even read Death of a Salesman and I never finished Faludi’s Stiffed;

2. How I played a little fast-and-loose with the truth. I’m positive the fireman I dubbed “Old Salt” never told me about the price of whores in Singapore or any damn storms. I must’ve thought it sounded cool. We only talked Navy because I was wearing one of my USS Harry S. Truman t-shirts–the aircraft carrier I was on in the Navy–and, like all sailors, they had to rib me about how flat-top sailors were weenies and real sailors were the guys on destroyers–the “tin can” navy. I was smart enough not to tell them I was on a newly-commissioned ship that never deployed while I was on it and the most sea time I got was a month-and-a-half riding around the Atlantic and the Caribbean. I’m not sure if the bit with the smokestacks is 100% accurate either, but I remember smoke and the fireman remarking about the strike-breaking fireman f-ing up their boilers, so its probably close to what happened.

3. How out of it I was that day. The guys were quiet and brooding because they were trying to listen to the biggest, most horrible event of recent American history on their “battered” AM/FM radio–the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. And they were staring off into space a lot because they were probably trying to keep pace with or digest the events unfolding.

All in all, I think 9/11 was TOO BIG for me to process. I tried to get perspective from my classmates, and when that failed I instead focused on those guys and their strike for as long as I could. After my talk with the firemen, I went home, and arrived in time to see both towers collapse. I don’t think I shut off the TV for the next 2 days. Days later when I wrote my draft, I didn’t even put 9/11 into it–it was still too much, too terrible, for me to write about.

As far as the strike is concerned, I’m fairly sure the firemen went back to work within a few weeks after 9/11. I was too lazy and self-absorbed to find out if Texon gave them a good deal, or if they stayed with the Teamsters. The Teamsters Local 404 is going strong, though, and their website is here.

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Filed under september 11 2001, strike, terrorist attack, texon, union, wtc

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