by Thomas Peele
BANG-East Bay unit
Editor’s note: Investigative reporter Thomas Peele once believed that supporting union efforts posed a conflict of interest to reporters. In this moving essay comparing his hardworking father’s life to his own, Peele reexamines that view.
My father drove a rusted 1963 International Scout, the floor boards rotted away, the muffler growling like a garbage disposal with a butter knife wedged in it. He worked a low-paying, filthy job cleaning the bowels of furnaces, his hands forever blackened. The stink of fuel oil clung to him no matter how hard he scrubbed. My mother cleaned houses, took in ironing, and sometimes she worked the counter at a newsstand. What made the subsistence living they eked out in my childhood even more painful is that we lived in one of the most affluent places on earth, the South Fork of Eastern Long Island New York, the so-called fabulous Hamptons.
When I was 11, a bright red bumper sticker appeared on the Scout’s tailgate: NIXON. “We’re Republicans,” my father said, and he was quite proud to support the president’s 1972 re-election. Party affiliation was not something I’d contemplated. But the men who came to the house briefly in October campaigning for local office handed out pencils and potholders adorned with flags and elephants. Sometimes they gave my mother typing jobs in exchange for the fealty. Those men — insurance brokers, land-use lawyers, the president of a trash hauling company — were petty oligarchs who profited nicely from their control of the local service economy. They, in turn, were kept on tethers by the Manhattan bankers, and industry titans whose mansions lined the ocean dunes. No one called them the one percent in the 1970s, but they still had us by the scruff of the neck.
The 1972 election would mark the fifth time my father would vote for Richard Nixon (if you count vice president). Republicans were the party of order, he said, and order came first. Not law and order, the Nixon mantra, but the order of his life, the way things were, things that were indelible as the oil that stained his hands and could never be challenged. There was little difference to him between the top of the ticket and the men at the bottom, the local bosses who could make his life even worse if they suspected a hint of disloyalty. My father believed he was acting in his financial interests. He wasn’t.
He worked in a non-union shop for a Cadillac-driving owner whose ideas of benevolence were frozen Thanksgiving turkeys and one afternoon each summer with an open tab at a beer joint. Basic safety equipment like breathing masks and gloves weren’t in the budget. Neither were pensions — not that many of his employees would live to eligibility, thanks not just to the work, but to a lack of health insurance. But organizing, asking a trade union for help, was out of the question, dismissed with the wave of a gnarled, blackened hand. The union reps who sometime approached my father and his co-workers were “rabble rousers,” “fucking commies.” Even, I overheard him once, “white-trash agitators.” To my father, someone else was white trash, not him.
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