The year was 1955, I had graduated from high school that May. I was a month shy of 18 at the time. I had joined the National Guard the year before, a lot of my friends had also joined as soon as we could. At the time the draft was still going on and by being in the Guard we weren’t draft eligible.
I lived in a northern Minnesota community, on the Cuyuna Iron Range, the smallest of the three Minnesota ranges. Many of my friends and classmates’ fathers were miners. Jobs were scarce and because I was not 18 I couldn’t even apply. I went off to Guard camp and was 18 when I came back at the end of June so I applied around but because I was late all the vacancies had been filled, but some of my school friends had gotten on. Nepotism was useful, having a family member working in a mine was a real help.
Anyway, I soon got a call at one of the mines, the father of the girl I had been dating was hiring foreman and my brother also worked at the same mine so the nepotism was alive and well. It was one of the smaller open pits. My first day on the job was blaster’s helper which allowed me to fill the charged holes with the handy wheel barrow and a #2 long handle shovel I’d been provided. Not romantic but still…
After one day I’d pretty well mastered the shovel/wheelbarrow operations so I got transferred to driller’s helper at the same pay level, #5. This was not a promotion. I carried water by the bucketful to the driller who seemed to not care how much he spilled as he was using it. I helped empty the mud from the drilled holes, meaning I got in the mud’s way as it splashed out of the mud bucket. I took samples and recorded the info in a log book. Hey, I was a high school graduate so I could do that administrative stuff. If you’ve ever met an open pit iron miner his clothes are rust color, his car is rust color, his wife is rust color, his kids are rust color. A driller is the top of the line rust color because he works in red mud all day.
I was like a pig in mud, so to speak. I had a job, I was making $1.86 @ hour, a grown up wage. Now I could get a car, some beer and with a little luck a girl friend since my old one had gone to school in Minneapolis and didn’t get home too often. After a few weeks I noticed my pay check had been docked a few dollars, I can’t remember how much but I’m thinking about 4 bucks. I asked the guys at work why that happened and they told me, “Oh, union dues” WTF is up with that? I don’t remember joining a union. “Oh, we have to belong to the Steel Workers Union to keep our job, it’s a closed shop”
“Well, what do we get for our money?” The driller said, “We are protected, no one can bump us, unless they have more seniority” “But” I said, “you may have noticed that I’m the youngest guy working here, everyone has more seniority than I have”. He said, “Yep, everyone here can bump you but since drilling is the crappiest job here and no one else wants it, you’re safe.”
Anyway, I was now a union member. The weeks went by, uneventful, pay was good, work was dirty but after Monday one didn’t get much dirtier the rest of the week. My mother took my clothes to the laundromat ’cause she didn’t want to get her wash machine filled with the red color. As we entered into fall the discussions were “I wonder when we get our pink slips” since the open pits didn’t work in the winter after freezing set in. Sometime around the first of November the foreman met us after our shift was over, handed out the pink slips. At that point many of the miners were happy, get their rocking chair money, do a little logging, fishing, many had small farms and could wait out the winter. I was not happy, I didn’t want to work in the cold but I still wanted a paycheck.
Then, sometime in January/February I got called back to work, we couldn’t drill but I got assigned to an older guy to lay a pipeline from the bottom of the pit, up the side and over the edge in to a holding pond. Every thing had to be ready by spring when the snow/ice was gone. Pipeline was about 4 inch diameter, maybe 20 ft long to a section. It was unbelievably cold, trying to work in the snow, climbing the sides of the pit. The other guy knew what was going on, I did what he told me but mostly I stayed in the little shack we had and kept throwing coal into a little stove to keep warm. I think it took us (the other guy did 90% of the work) about 2-3 weeks to do the job, I was miserable.
Then I got put on a jack hammer crew with my brother and a couple other young guys. We drilled holes in a road bed that was then blasted and dug out so the ore below the road could be mined when spring came. After one day on the jack hammer my wrists hurt so bad I could hardly work. The next day I shammed it, pretending to do a little and after 3-4 days I could actually produce a few holes in the frozen dirt. We did that for about 3 weeks and got laid off again, probably about the first of March, 1956. Jack hammer operators got driller’s wages so I was getting about $2.25 @ hour.
Finally, Spring came and we got called back to work, the company had a contract for the type of ore we had so a second shift was put on, a third shift on the drills. I was promoted to driller at 18, working with the old guys. The proverbial pig in mud, now I had a helper. Overtime, week ends, etc, money was good for a kid. Then Guard camp came and I needed a break, took my vacation so I got paid for both work and Guard.
Then strike talk! Our contract was over on June 30th, for the whole Cuyuna Range. Most of the old timers weren’t concerned, they lived like that their whole lives, a few days unpaid summer vacation and go back to work.
Not me! I ran around telling everyone that I wasn’t going to put with this crap. If the strike lasted over a week I was going to Man Up and join the Army! Well, the 8th day came, no sign of the strike being over. I convinced my brother that we both should go in the Army. We were both in the Guard so we volunteered to be drafted, that was only a 2 year commitment plus it allowed the draft board to meet the quota for the month a little easier.
The strike lasted 5 weeks, then back to work for 5 weeks before we got our military orders. Now I wasn’t too happy, we’d lost 5 weeks pay, got a modest pay increase, like 20 cents @ hour. The older guys got another week or two vacation but I’d lost 500 bucks at a job that lasted about 7 months a year at best and some years never saw the mines open for lack of a contract.
We did our Army time, I ended up in Germany, my brother in Greenland. When we go home the mine was closed that year, as were most on the Cuyuna Range. I walked across the street from the State Employment office to the Army Recruiter, got lined up with a long tech school and re-enlisted, my brother hung around, thinking something would change.
I did my 20 years Army time, a lot of it overseas. I had started going to college while I was in service and when I retired finished my last two years with a BS Ed. I never taught, my kids said I had no class. I was able to turn my education into second career in business.
If it had not been for the union and going on strike I might never have had a reason to leave Podunkville and learn all the things that experience and travel provide. I went from being a farm kid in the woods full circle and ended up about 4 miles from where I’d started in 1955. Now though, my wife and I are comfortable as the years pass us by. I credit the union with giving me the reason to look beyond the limited horizons that I had at 18. I can not thank the union enough. I never looked back except to wave good bye.