Busting the Unions

Busting the Unions

The clerk’s ear is dark as a nickel tattoo. Mules block his path west, but not for long. He punches one of the damn mules in the neck and heads around the corner onto 8th street. The mule driver looks aflustered, but he’s a might small to do anything about it. Spits, though. Oh! Maybe he does have a fighting side. Mule driver yells out to stay the hell away from his business. The clerk turns for a bit but moves on.

I stop short of turning and roll tobacco ‘neath a store awning. I know where the bastard clerk is headed anyway, so I take my time. Ain’t no need getting spotted.

Half crocked roustabouts is on shore to help stevedores load cotton. I haint seen much in Cairo—river men off the boats working the docks. They is usually smoking their pipes, sipping whisky and such on deck, pointing and laughing as they do at the dockhands. The third clerk has left his station for a nip is what I figure. His quill pen is still stuck behind his ear from when I started following him along the levee. Clerks and bosses have that swagger to them when they hit town, as if they were born lucky and nobody can touch them. Well, his day is a coming.

That clerk’s a piece of work, that one. Never mind if he don’t look it. Hell all he does is consigns the bill of lading and such. Ain’t hard at all. Then he yells at the loaders. Yells out names he done made up like Canary Bird, Move Wagon, Skyrocket, Bad Boy—names he gived companies have a stake here. He come up with the names ‘cause dock crews can’t remember shit. They’re simple as hell and proud of it. I ain’t yet met a river rider can read or even pronounce Volgelsanger Hardware or Vandevan Mercantile Co. They’re river riders, working today, gone tomorrow maybe all the way to Pittsburg, or catch a steamer down gulf way and laze till the money’s gone all shiftless and self-willed. Only thing worse is a clerk doesn’t know his place. Gonna organize these simpletons. Hell no, goddamn traitor. Clerk’s job has good pay, steady. Traitor should be damn grateful but he’s gone mixed hisself up with the unions.

Damn! Whistles a sounding loud. Startles me fierce for a minute. Chicago Rock Island and Pacific flat cars rolling up, sounding their whistles loud just to bring attention. Loaders all the way to the freight yard can hear them I guess is why. Whistles sound and the haulers know to swarm out of the bars and come up from their shade trees. They come up to the dock like a herd of sheep looking for company work. Train’ll be picked clean in a couple hours, and on her way back to St. Louis most likely. New rails up that way, new engine all shinny and new. Trains hauls everything from lead shot to lady’s curtains. It’s a damn good thing what they done connecting up rails and rivers. What was it, just five years it took them? Steamers, all then damns they put in, and now the rails all coming in like clockwork—it’s a thing to behold.

Predictable. I take a look around the corner and see the Clerk turned into Duffy’s to run his damn mouth, talk about the worker and the company man and what not. Actions to be taken, he’ll say. The workingman is in the right and all them’s got to stick together. He says the same traitorous troubling nonsense over and again, ports all along the waterway. Dumb bastard 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 is probably organizers anyway. I’ll get ‘em all before the month is out, snag a big 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 at provisions, tins of this and that, hats and trousers. Good looking boots I suppose, but I’m looking not to get noticed. By them lumbermen up around Cape Girardeau. The one on the right I recognized, come up from Monongahela area, worked as a climber, trimmer, or both. Now he’s another of them who thinks he knows best. He probably wouldn’t recognize me but I ain’t taking a chance and make it easy. We’ll see about his organizing in good time. Should have taken care of him in Girardeau.

I finish my tobacco, stomp it out and turn up the street. The rail whistle stops hollering but now steamboat whistles are blowing. Makes me think about getting on one of them and heading south. Maybe I’ll winter up in Mexico with them lovely little senoritas. Don’t cost much. Never really wanted to work for the operators anyway, not really, but the pay is good. I try not to think about what happens to the bastards I turn over to bosses. A man has to get paid. Good money in it. Hell, I said I’d get them identified. That’s all I done. Done what I set out to do is all. After that it’s none of my business.

Door to Duffy’s swings open to me just as I’m reaching out my damn hand. Out come these river whores with a big fella. Both of them taking him by the arms, taking him up the street to their spots. I watch them go for a bit then go in. Takes a bit for  my eyes eto ase into the smoke and dark, but I sit up at the bar. I done the same thing for the past couple of weeks, sit there, order a shot, get familiar. I like this one spot because I can use the mirror behind the bar to catch pretty much everything. I catch a name or two here and there, listen, take my time, learn who’s going where and what they’re up to. It’s just a job I’m good at. No need for pity or guilt.

I’ll be. There’s posting on the wall right of the bar, put up by organizers. Bastards. Claim they have a few hundred ready to go up against the companies and form a union. Not if I can help it. Operators Association is what’s really organized, and funded, too.

The damn clerk finally gets to me. He comes over smiling and sits next. I smile back like I don’t know him but I know. Leans his elbow on the bar. He chews tobacco and drinks bourbon. Smells like the hog he is even before opens his damn lips to the spittoon.

“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 as a couple guys in the back watch the two of us. They’s working together it seems.

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

“All my life,” I say, just squirrel piss.

“Tough life.”

“Don’t know much else,” I say. “Not much else I do sept maybe haul.”

Clerk looks me over. Easy to know what he’s thinking and he’s thinking, unions. Sure enough, he points to the posting. “Can you read? Got a meeting next week. Got anything against the unions?”

I look at the posting, inch closer 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 like I’s actually interested.

“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 recruiting dumb fellas.

Clerk laughs. “Union. Nothing to do with north south. A union is workers coming together to make their life better, stand up to the companies,” he says, interlacing his fingers. “Understand? Workers united. Get my meaning?”

I give him a dumb look.

“You work sun up to sun down, days on days?  Hell, that breaks men. Company owns the stores and all. Company owns everything and takes your wages from you by end of week. Ain’t nothing left. 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. “But we aren’t talking how good you work. You ain’t getting paid enough is what I’m saying. And every man needs at least one day off work in a week. Logging is dangerous work, you know. Good men go missing arms and legs, some of them. Every man needs enough to get by and propser, and hard working men like yourself need a day to rest up or they break too soon.”

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

“Arguing for the bosses? Oh my. I’m telling you. We’re getting organized. The workers is all come together to get what’s right, what’s just. Come on down to the meeting on that there posting. The Union needs men just like you. Sure God needs angels. You and your friends are welcome to join up with us anytime. We free pretzels and beef there and free beer, pickled eggs and such. You gonna come?”

I look at the posting again and turn slowly to the clerk. I smile at his dirty face. “Which word is pretzels?” I ask thinking how this dumb bastard will lead me to every organizer in Cairo. I’ll turn in a sympathizer’s report come Christmas and get down to Mexico after, have a time of it with them senoritas.

I add, “I hain’t got no money, you know. I hain’t a contributor, but I got a hankering for pretzels. Can’t hurt nothing.”

Clerk laughs. Tobacco juice slides out the edge of his smile and I 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. I kind of feel bad what’s going to happen and all, though. “Hey mister,” I say to him. “Lend me the price of a beer? I’m down on my funding.”