Today is Labor Day, the first Monday in September, the day President Grover Cleveland declared a national holiday in 1894. The Knights of Labor and the Central Labor Union organized the first labor parade in New York City in 1887 prior to the national holiday. There had been efforts before to commemorate May 1st as a national holiday to celebrate American workers, but the tragic outcome of the Haymarket Massacre in 1886 made that date too volatile and controversial. On Tuesday, May 4, 1886 a peaceful rally by workers striking in support of an eight-hour workday was disrupted by a dynamite bomb thrown at police officers as they attempted to disperse the demonstrators. Seven police officers, four civilians and dozens of protesters and bystanders were injured. Again in 1894, following the Pullman Strike in Chicago with the death of workers by the U.S. Military and U.S. Marshals, Congress rushed legislation to make Labor Day in September a national holiday, a tribute to American workers.
As I’ve written before, I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, a blue-collar, working-class community on Lake Michigan, south of Milwaukee and north of Chicago. Racine was well known for its opposition to slavery and was a destination for many slaves who escaped and traveled the Underground Railroad. Later, waves of immigrants, Danes, Germans and Czechs settled in Racine between the Civil War and World War I. A second wave of African Americans arrived following the war seeking jobs in Racine’s factories. Racine was an industrial center and home to J.I. Case (industrial equipment and tractors), S.C. Johnson (cleaning and chemical products) and Modine Manufacturing (heat exchangers). Other business and products were invented and produced there including the garbage disposal (InSinkErator) and malted milk (Horlick’s Malted). Racine was a factory town with a strong history of organized labor.
I grew up listening to family members talk about the unions, of which they were members. Dad would talk about attending union meetings which typically were followed by tipping a few mugs of beer or a boilermaker (a beer and a shot of booze). The unions were part of the fabric of everyday life in a factory town.
Unions put food on our table when family members were on strike. Union pay filed the gaps when the unions negotiated contracts. My family supported political candidates, often Democrats, who sought to represent working families and unions.
In 1971, I became a union member too, a member of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) when I worked for Jockey International in Kenosha, Wisconsin. By the 1970s unions were beginning to struggle, developing their own internal corruption, with power and decision-making limited to a smaller group of leaders and stewards, with the rank and file members beginning to lose their voice and representation. This was the environment I arrived in. At Jockey, most of the employees were women, in the sewing and knitting rooms, the kitchen cafeteria, and the clerical offices and in the finish departments. The highest paid jobs were held by men, and the union stewards were predominantly male. There were efforts being made in the early 1970s, like many other facets of American life, to work towards equal pay for equal work, and civil rights and representation.
In this environment I met a woman, who was anonymous but who I respected and admired. She was Spanish-speaking and rebuffed the sexual advances and harassment by the sewing machine repair technician, a man whose job it was to repair the machines so they would perform at optimal capacity. In the poem that follows, I called her Maria.
This Labor Day, I remember her, my family members and all workers, from all walks of life, who work with their hands, hearts and minds.
I also dedicate this poem to all the Solidarity Singers who risk being arrested at the Wisconsin State Capitol each day for asserting their right of freedom of expression and assembly.
Maria from the Sewing Room
Maria from the sewing room
keeps to herself. She doesn’t take the concrete stairs three floors down and back
to eat the daily lunch specials
the Polish and Italian matrons
make each day in the steaming basement kitchen.
Instead she brings her sack lunch,
the Kraft paper bag, reused so many times
it looks like the stained, wrinkled skin of my great grandmother.
Maria retreats to the ladies room,
laid out like a two room suite,
with torn naugahyde love seats and chairs with
rusted steel tubing arms and legs
interspersed with ash tray pedestals with squeaking metal levered doors
that collect the cigarette butts we discard.
This is a textile mill. An ancient cream city brick building
with creaking wood floors in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
We’re only allowed to smoke in the bathroom
during toilet breaks and lunch.
It’s a union-negotiated agreement.
Some days static electricity alone
causes the fabric dust in the air to ignite
like lightning bugs on a summer night.
A wall of porcelain sinks and mirror face the chairs
under the buzzing fluorescent lights.
The second room houses a row
of institutional green, painted wooden stalls
housing toilets with black horseshoe-shaped seats.
The stalls have inked messages and carved initials.
Some recently painted over, others freshly engraved.
Maria sits in one of the chairs and reaches inside the bag
to retrieve her lunch, two corn tortillas, a tomato,
a glass salt shaker and a peach placing them in her lap.
Her hand dives deeper into the bag
retrieving square paper napkins and a pen.
She crosses her legs, carefully capturing her lunch
in the space in between as she places the napkin
on her knee and begins writing.
Earlier that day I saw her waving shears in one hand
and shaking a spool of thread in another yelling in Spanish
as she argued with the lone sewing machine maintenance man
in his cowboy boots and pegged jeans
who wears his tool belt low like a gun holster
and swaggers between the rows of operators.
He has his girlfriends whose machines are
lubricated and hum like streamlined engines.
We suspect he exchanges favors.
Each sewing machine operator earns a base rate plus piece work.
He refuses to fix Maria’s machine; she spurns his advances,
so she brings her own tools and when he’s not looking
repairs and tunes her machine until it hums and whirs.
I ask her what she’s writing. She tells me, letters to her husband
working the cabbage harvest and living with the other migrants.
She says sometimes she writes poems to her children
so they are reminded there is beauty in the songs of birds
and that God lives in the crocuses in Spring.
I smoke my last cigarette until it reaches the filter
and leave the bathroom without telling Maria
how much I admire her as she folds the napkins,
returning them to the bag and her teeth bite into the peach
as juice runs down her face like tears.