We were contacted by the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.
For some reason we were allowed to have a meeting at LAX. I think the union worked this out, possibly as a way of showing their influence. We sat at a conference table in the office building. There was a coffee urn and pitchers of water. That stagnant air and those funny acoustics. Everybody looked nervous. Our union rep had just flown in from Denver, Ernie Mogg. He was too big for his suit and had a horizontal smile—kind of Buddha-like. Next to him sat the union lawyer. Can’t remember his name but he was quite the stereotype. Unlit cigar, barrel chest, red-faced. I’m not making this up. They went through some set speeches and promised a few things—raises of course, and some sort of flight benefit. They were vague on that. I arrived at the meeting a little pissed off because the manager had been riding me, had threatened to “have my job”. I proposed that we not sign off on anything unless the BRAC promise to have the Operations Manager fired. To my surprise they readily agreed. I felt powerful—revenge is sweet.
Ernie and the lawyer collected our cards and just like that were in the Brotherhood (although there were more women than men in our rank and file). Ernie told us to elect a steward and three vice stewards, one from each shift. Everybody looked at everybody else then everybody looked at me. Ernie said, “just do it now since we have a quorum. You don’t need speeches. You all know each other.” One of the guys with a Muslim name nominated me. He said, “they’ll listen to Owen because he’s white and he doesn’t have a record. If I go in there we’re fucked.” A backhanded compliment if there ever was one but it was true.
And so I was elected. My deputies were plenty tough. A British anarchist for the day shift, a tough-as-nails dyke (haven’t seen her in years but I think she’d be pleased with that description). Her brother also worked the shift, and somehow they kicked the day people into line—by intimidation, mostly. Swing shift rep was a theology student at Loyola Marymount , my introduction to lefty Christianity. He was soft spoken but he was happy to fuck up management. I often wonder what happened to him. Graveyard shift belonged to my Muslim friend, who I can only remember as Gary because I met him before went for the skinny ties, shiny shoes, short hair and wrap-arounds.
The airlines stalled even though the law was on our side. A few weeks went by before the union called to say that negotiations had begun and that a meeting had been planned.
The day before the meeting we were fired. Me, the vice-stewards, one brother and a couple of fellow travelers.
The Op Manager approached me as I entered the locker room. Handed me a check. TERMINATED/LAST PAYMENT stamped across the front. I almost punched him—and as I write this I wonder how that would have changed my life. Another drop of adrenalin and I would have killed him without remorse. I had never felt the weight of that kind of power structure before—at least not in a personal way. And lashing out is, I think, a sane reaction. But I guess we don’t want to kill people…
He had me turn in my blazer and go home. I handed it over and boarded the employee tram back to the terminal, unemployed. I stopped in baggage service to inform my comrades. Borrowed a bunch of change, went to a phone booth and called the BRAC. Stay cool, go home, wait it out. Last thing I wanted to do but I went back in, took the tram out to the lot and drove home.
Getting fired sets up a strange psychology. Even if it’s management’s fault, a form of intimidation, whatever, you’re left with that kicked in the chest feeling. I shared an old house on the Torrance/Gardena border. We had a dog, a black lab mix and I remember walking the dog and feeling really low, then saying it’s not my fault then it is/it isn’t/it is. So strange, that we identify with our oppressors and give them all that power. But it happens, it’s a human trait.
The union acted, fast. I got an early morning phone call from Ernie Mogg, everything was fixed, we could report to work that evening. I guess they had some muscle, back then.
I got to work a little early and one of the mechanics met me as I entered the locker room. They had threatened to walk out, and so had the Sky Caps. The place was swarming with union reps. Coming from a union family I knew about strikes but I’d never encountered this—it certainly wouldn’t have happened at the Taco Bell in Redondo Beach. I clocked in and went out to baggage service and one of the Sky Caps—the union steward—shook my hand.
“ You may get your tires slashed and you shouldn’t take the tram alone. And record everything—write everything down!” and I have to admit that I was a little smug, didn’t believe him. And I was young and felt strong—could take care of myself.
But, just like he said, next morning, 3am I’m in the Employee lot changing a tire. At least they’d only slashed one. And I was scared and didn’t fell so young and strong.
From then on it was a war.