Busting the Unions

The clerk’s ear is dark as a nickel tattoo. Some mules are in his way as he turns west, but not for long. He punches one in the neck and heads around the corner onto 8th street. The mule driver looks at him sideways and spits. “Incorrigible,” he is probably thinking, if he can think. I stop to roll a cigarette under a store awning. I know where the clerk is headed, bastard. There’s no need to risk being spotted.

Half crocked roustabouts have come ashore to help the stevedores with loading and unloading. It’s not something I see very often down here in Cairo, Mississippi—river men working docks. The third clerk has left his station for a nip. His quill pen is stuck behind an ear as I follow him down the levee. Big bosses, and even some of the little ones, have that kind of swagger when they leave their position, as if they were born lucky.

The clerk’s a piece of work, that one. He never minds what he looks like. He just consigns the goods, yelling out to loaders—Canary Bird, Move Wagon, Skyrocket, Bad Boy—names he gave out for the companies working here. These names he uses, the ones he came up with because the crews can’t remember shit, they’re simple as hell. They have to be. What river rider can even pronounce Volgelsanger Hardware and Vandevan Mercantile Co., and why should they know better? They’re river riders. What outfit ever did anything for them? They’ll be here for a month or two, then head up, maybe all the way to Pittsburg, or catch a steamer down gulf way. They’re shiftless and self-willed, and the only thing worse is some agitator like the clerk, thinks he can organize them. He’s a goddamn traitor—job as a clerk, good pay and all, he should be grateful. Instead he’s on the wrong side—mixed up in unions is what he is.

I hear the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific flat cars rolling. Whistle sounds. I follow the clerk. Them flat cars crawl the market slow, blowing the damn whistles, bringing attention to themselves for loaders all the way to the freight yard. Haulers are already swarming out of the bars and from beneath shade trees, circling. Train’ll be picked clean in a couple hours, and on her way again by dark—St. Louis. New rails, new engine all shinny and new. She hauls everything from lead shot to lady’s soft curtains. It’s a good thing they all did here connecting up the rails with the rivers. What was it, five years of work? Steamers, damns, and now the rails all coming together like this—a thing to behold.

I look around the corner. Clerk turns into Duffy’s. Damn predictable. Up to Duffy’s, brag, talk about the worker and the company man and what not. Actions to be taken, he’ll say. The workingman is in the right. We have to stick together, he says over and over again. Well, he can keep talking. Led us to the sympathizers is what he did, unawares. Duffy’s on the list for sure now, reported all the way up. Half the men in there are probably organizers anyway. I’ll get ‘em all before the month is out, snag a bonus.

Lumbermen pass me up all laughing and talking, in a hurry for a swig or two. Just got paid. I turn my head and stop for a look into the window of the provisions store, tins of this and that, a hat and trousers. They have good boots in there. The lumbermen are from up around Cape Girardeau. The one on the right came from the Monongahela area I recall, worked as a climber, trimmer, or both. Now he’s one of them who knows what’s best for everyone. He probably wouldn’t recognize me but I don’t make it easy. We’ll see about his organizing in good time. Should have taken care of it in Girardeau.

I finish my cigarette and turn up the street. The rail whistle hollers out and steamboat whistles are blowing and I think about just moving on. I’ll winter up in Mexico with them lovely little senoritas. I never really wanted to work for the operators, not really. I try not to think about what happens to the men I turn over to the bosses but a man has to get paid. Good money in being mean, mean and dangerous. I don’t abandon my station in life. Said I’d get them lined up. I do what I set out to do. I got this far didn’t I?

The door to Duffy’s swings open just as I’m reaching out my hand. The river whores have a big fella by the arm, taking him up the street to their spots. I go in and let my eyes ease into the smoke and the dark. I sit at the bar as I have done for the past couple of weeks, and order a shot. I like it here because I can look into the mirror and catch pretty much everything and everyone. I’m less obvious about it this way. I catch a name or two and listen. Take my time. Learn who’s going where and what they intend to do. It’s just a job and I’m good at it, no need to be guilty.

On the wall at the right of the bar there’s a posting, put up by the organizers. Bastards. They claim to have a few hundred ready to go. Not if we can help it. The Operators Association will see an end to this nonsense.

Clerk turns to me, finally. He smiles. I smile back at him. He is looking for another sucker and it’s finally my turn. He heads over and leans his elbow next to mine on the bar. He’s chewing tobacco and drinking bourbon. He smells like a hog even before opens his mouth to spit.

“Seen you in here a few times, mister,” he says.

“I seen you here, too.” I say. I look into the mirror. He’s studying me and a couple guy in the back are studying him. They all work together.

Clerk says, “You dress like a lumberman. Work the mills?”

“All my life,” I say. That is pure squirrel piss.

“Tough life.”

“I don’t know much else,” I say. “Not much I can do.”

Clerk looks me over. I know what he’s thinking just like always. He points to the posting. “Got a meeting. Next week. You got anything against the unions?”

I look at the posting and slide over there and act like I’m reading it for the first time. It says ‘Meeting at the activity hall on December 10’. I take my time so I will look like I am actually interested. I return to the clerk.

“I hain’t confederate or union, I don’t spect. I’m mostly from Kentucky.” I say this with a confused face. The unions like dumb fellas.

Clerk laughs. “Union. Union. It has nothing to do with the north or south. You understand? Workers coming together in a union,” he says, interlacing his fingers. “We stand up for what’s right. Workers united. Get my understanding?”

I give him a dumb look.

“You work like a horse, hours on hours, right? Company owns the stores and all. Company owns everything. You work but don’t have a pot to piss in. Am I right?”

“I work good,” I say. “I’m a real good worker.”

“Well I know you work good,” clerk says. “Are you working for good pay? Logging is dangerous work, you know. Good men go missing arms and legs, some of them. You work every day of the week?”

“Sunday mornings is off,” I say. The clerk seems to be getting agitated.

“Well you can argue for the bosses all you want, but I’m telling you. We’re getting organized. The workers are going to come together and get what is right. You should come on down to the meeting up there on that posting. The Union needs men just like you. Sure we do. You and all your friends are welcome. We got free pretzels and beef. We got free beer and pickled eggs. You should come.”

I look at the posting again and turn slowly to the clerk. I smile as his dirty face. “Which word is pretzels?” I ask. This bastard will lead me to every organizer in Cairo. I’ll turn in a sympathizers report before Christmas and get on out of here after that, after I have a time here drinking and enjoying myself a bit.

I add, “I hain’t got no money, you know. I hain’t a contributor, but I guess I can eat pretzels. Can’t hurt nothing to eat pretzels.”

Clerk laughs. I see tobacco juice at the edges of his smile and decide to play him for a free drink right in Duffy’s. Being a private detective isn’t all that bad, I guess. It’s a living. And taken with a few drinks, a few free pretzels—all the while being paid by the Pinkertons and them—one of my better jobs I’d say.

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