I know, this all sounds like it has nothing to do with what I’m telling you, like on the road and out west and, you know, how I ended up here. But it kinda does. And it’s when I first connected with Gus.
He was still checking tags when I found him at the back and told him about Duff and walking out.
“You’re screwing with me” was his first reaction but I convinced him and we grabbed our jackets and joined a crowd in the yard. I never realized before how many people worked at Cruikshanks. Management types were watching us from windows on the third floor. We waved at them and shouted insults.
It was like in the schoolyard during a fire alarm, everyone kind of excited but figuring it was probably just a drill, chain-smoking to steal as many smokes as possible before getting called back in.
Most of us didn’t know exactly what had happened between Duffy and McIntyre. Some said they heard McIntyre’d started shoving Duff and some others said Duffy started it but McIntyre had it coming. Or Cruikshanks had this coming.
Brissette came up to Gus. “Some people wanna talk to you.”
I followed Gus and Brissette back through the crowd. This was a different Brissette. He knew everyone and stopped every few feet to talk with them. He was probably the most serious guy there now. “Write it down — we want a list of every incident,” he told them.
He led Gus to some men in a huddle. I could see Duffy in the middle. He looked confused. Gus was asked a lotta questions, specially by an electrician I recognized as our local union president. They were all talking at once. Then someone clapped Gus on the shoulder and they let him go.
We walked a little ways off and he pulled out a pack and gave me a cigarette.
“They wanted to know about my own little encounter with McIntyre,” he said.
“What’s with Duff?”
“No way they’re gonna let him be fired.”
The way Brissette got it, Duffy slugged McIntyre all right. McIntyre was coming back from the front office and he bumped into Duffy coming out of the washroom. He was pretty steamed over something and he lit into Duffy for goofing off. Threatened to dock his pay. Duffy told him he couldn’t do that. That really set McIntyre off. Went nuts. Grabbed Duffy’s arm, spun him around, swore at him. Duffy told him to back off and the two of them swore at each other and McIntyre told him he was fired. And that’s when Duffy popped him. That was his story.
“So McIntyre put his hand on Duffy first. That’s assault,” said Gus. “Duffy was only reacting. You can’t get fired for that. Gotta be a cause if you’re fired. That’s in our contract.”
Some guys had gathered around us to hear and joined in.
“He was defending himself.” “The company’s saying he started it.” “Duffy? That’s a laugh.” “What they’ll say.” “Same thing in upholstery last year. Remember Collier?” “Twenty-six grievances bout the ventilation in woodworking, still can’t hardly breathe.”
The plant was gonna be shut down and operations moved back to the States to a more modern place, someone had heard. No one gave a goddamn what we thought here any more. Year from now the big shots would have jobs in Illinois or somewhere. So they heard.
The union guys in the huddle seemed to be waiting for something.
When the whistle blew at four o’clock for the end of the work day, we cheered. Then we laughed at ourselves for cheering.
The local president climbed on a concrete block to speak. No foreman or supervisor had the right to touch any employee in a threatening manner, he said. We could not allow a brother to lose his livelihood as a consequence of an illegal action by management. Any one of us could be next.
We let management chip away at our rights like this, they’ll take us back to the slave days before there was labour laws in this country, before there was unions to defend workers. We could not let them get away with it. We’d show them we meant every word.
We applauded louder.
We’d show them tomorrow, he said. Our executive was meeting with the union head office tonight. Everyone except shop stewards should go home now. Leave immediately, so the company couldn’t charge us with trespassing. Tomorrow we’d meet here in the yard at eight, the usual starting time. For now go home. Tomorrow at eight.
A worker I didn’t know said to me, “We’ll show you longhairs what a real protest is.”
This kinda spoiled my plan. I couldn’t quit now, not in the middle of this.
But why should I care? By tomorrow afternoon I wouldn’t. Not if I was gone. Pack my things and tomorrow head out on the road. My own protest.
I moved with the stream of workers through the gates. Said seeya to Gus and turned towards my bus stop.
I’d have to tell my parents about leaving. That’d be the tough part.
First Dad would be mad about me quitting a steady job, bad enough I wasn’t going on to college or university or anything, and then they’d both be scared about me hitchhiking. They’d heard the stories. You know, kids being killed on the road. Living off the streets, turning into addicts. Or worse, turning into Jesus freaks. Hare Khrishnas. Like that could happen to me. But they believed the papers and TV. They wouldn’t understand what I was into. I was a kid who didn’t know how the real world worked. “Dream on.” What my Dad always said.
Better not even bother trying to explain. Just tell them and go.
I’d lose my last pay cheque.
So? I’d saved enough to take off. A good three hundred and fifty. Take me to the west coast and then some.
And I could get work picking fruit or something along the way. Lotsa things I could do out west for money.
Someone tugged my arm. Gus.
“Slow down, guy. You wanna go drinking tonight?”