The Shop Steward

From Damage Control, a collection of short stories by Frank Diamond.

Go ahead, I’ll talk while you’re eating lunch. We only get a half hour. 

This is your membership card. I’m supposed to tell you that dues will be deducted from your paycheck at the end of each month. We have a closed shop here. Everybody joins. That keeps us strong and it makes it fair. We all pay the same for the same protection. 

My name’s Ted Gibson – the shop steward. Any questions, you come to me. People sometimes talk shit about the union and I like to set things right. 

I tell them, “Who’s the union?” 

You’re the union. The union’s not outside you. You and me and everyone who works here is the union. People need to understand that. 

I hear you’ve got a year of college. That’s good. Real good. You should go back. I never finished grade school and I’ve been stuck in this place. I tell all the young people, “Get out. Find something decent.” You don’t have to be smart to do these jobs. 

I know what I’m saying because I’ve worked for this company 25 years. I’ve done every job in here, too. Anything you see. 

I’ve worked all the shifts, even the graveyard – 11 at night until seven in the morning. Yeah, I was one of the janitors. This was years ago, but I did it. But there was a slow-down and the bosses told me it’s either that or you get laid off. At the time, my children were babies. Things picked up a little the next year and they moved me back on the line. 

Now – today – if the place closed down, I’d be one of the last on the list. Most of the people here would have to go before me. Plus, I’d have my pension and would get some severance. But I had no seniority then. 

That was a tough time for me. It’s quiet on the third shift. You wouldn’t need those earplugs. Doesn’t even seem like the same factory. It’s too quiet. The sun rises right out that window there. Just over those railroad tracks. Real beautiful. I used to look down at the street and watch the world wake up. My body never got used to it, though. Some people it don’t bother. But I didn’t sleep and lost a lot of weight. I got diabetes and didn’t even know until the doctor told me.

A couple of times I fainted. That’s a fact. I would be hosing down the showers and my eyes would close and I’d start to reel. The guys told me. Once I reeled too much and wound up kissing concrete. Chipped a tooth, dislocated my thumb. 

I remember the boss shouting, “What happened?” and rushing over while the other guys helped me to my feet. I was mumbling things, not thinking right. 

I was embarrassed by the concern the boss seemed to show until he said – sharp like – “Go home, Gibson.” 

That woke me up. I couldn’t afford to be docked two hours.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Hurts a little, but I can finish.”

“Report to me when you’re done.”

That morning, as the first shift was beginning, I was sitting in the nurse’s office. The buzzer sounded and the machines started pounding away. I felt the “Thump! Thump! Thumpity!” right here. Inside my injury. Did you ever knock your thumb out of its socket? Hurts like hell. I mean pain. 

But what also hurt was the fact that the boss said I might get fired for sleeping on the job. Can you believe it? Sleeping on the job. Standing up, like a cow. That was the company’s case. They didn’t care what they accused you of. We didn’t have a union then. 

“I’ll call you at home, let you know what we decide,” he said. “I’m sorry this happened, Gibson. Before you go, let the nurse take a look at it.” 

I said, “I just dosed off for a second, Mr. Zimmer” – that was his name. “It was more like I fainted.” 

“If nobody tries to take advantage of this, things will work out, Ted,” he said. 

“Take advantage?”

“Sometimes an employee says he got hurt on the job. Goes on disability. Costs the company a lot of money.”

“I fainted, that’s what happened,” I said. “And I can’t afford to take no time off.”

Understand that he wasn’t a bad guy. Just doing his job. Business was slow and the company was looking to save money. Company’s always looking to save money. By accusing me of sleeping on the clock, they could refuse to pay me my disability. They’d fire me, rather than gamble that I wouldn’t try to cheat them. 

So those people who complain about dues don’t know what the union’s keeping at arm’s length. See, the beast swallows everything. Even the good men. Especially the good men. Remember that when you’re high up – after you finish college. 

Listen, now, because I joined the union that very day. Before we even had one, I signed up. It happened while I was in the nurse’s office and a guy from first shift stuck his head in the door. 

“Anyone else here, Ted?”

“She gets in about eight,” I said. “You sick?”

“Sick of this place.”

I started to laugh but caught myself. The way he was looking at me. 

“What’s up?” I asked.

“A union’s up,” he said, and handed me a piece of paper.

“Tonight,” he said. “My place. We have about 20 people going. Make sure you’re not followed. The company’s hired detectives.” 

“Detectives?”

He smiled wide so I could see his gold tooth.

“Be there.” 

“All right,” I said. 

But, tell the truth, I wasn’t too sure. I’d heard stories of what happened to people who tried to start unions here. I didn’t court trouble. Still don’t. 

If I had known what would be the situation the next few months – meeting in secret, threats, intimidation – I would of right then and there decided not to get involved. I was practically of that mind anyway. But there was just a small glimmer and, as I waited for the nurse, that light grew. And all the while I kept repeating the names of my children. To myself. Like a chant. 

Then, the nurse came in and right away asked me questions. 

“How did that happen? Did you take any aspirin? I know that must hurt, Ted.” 

She was a big woman. Friendly. She shot something into the hand and talked to me while we waited for the joint to numb. 

“Nothing’s broken, so you shouldn’t have to miss time,” she said. “Just rest it in hot water whenever you can.” 

Then she came over to me, looking real serious. 

“I’m going to set it for you, Ted. It’s going to hurt,” she said, and took hold of my thumb like it was a rope she needed to yank. 

“Easy, Ted,” she said. “Courage.” 

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