Some of the folks I spoke to around Ohio were natural story tellers. One of them was George, an autoworker in Toledo. For almost two hours he reveled in walking me through his three and a half decades as an employee of Chrysler. More than once, he made me laugh to tears. As I work on his story, I have to share one of his anecdotes, told to me with passion and pride.
George would not stand for being put in danger at work. That adamancy lost him his job during his first year with Chrysler, 1977. Back then he was working on Jeep Cherokee tailgates, which hung by hooks overhead the workers. Each tailgate weighed about seventy pounds, and a jerk in the line could cause the hooks to break, sending those bulks of metal tumbling down onto the men below. George, with the innocent audacity of a novice, demanded that a safety cage be put in place. Management handed over a hard hat. There were four men.
Some days later a tailgate fell, landing six inches in front of George, “boom!” George was set off. He shut down the line, nailed his union card to the wall, and declared he would only retrieve the card and resume working if and when the situation was addressed. The plant manager asked George if he was refusing to work. When George replied that indeed he was, the manager called in a replacement. George, emboldened beyond containment, picked up his hammer and threatened that “anyone who’s gonna come do this job is gonna go through this hammer!” Security guards swept in and escorted him out of the building.
Witnesses to the episode, George’s fellow workers initiated a wildcat strike. They informed the management that if the safety issue were not properly addressed by the following week, they would not come back to work. That weekend, seventy-five feet of safety cage were put up. The men went back to work. Three months later, George did too. He had taken his case to the National Labor Relations Board, received back pay, and particularly enjoyed the posting of a public apology on the bulletin boards in the plant for ninety days.