Thursday, July 12, 2012

First Experience with a Union

This was during the summer of 1966.  I graduated from Xavier High School which was located on 16th Street in Manhattan. I had commuted to high school from our apartment in Jackson Heights. My summer job was in the central lost and found office of American Airlines, at LaGuardia Airport, in one of those classic old hangars that had been built a very long time ago.  This was a 10 or 15 minute walk from where we lived.

Not long after I started working there, we moved to Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Stuyvesant Town is a large apartment complex, developed originally by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. It was on the East Side, bordered on the south by 14th Street and on the North by 20th Street. On the west the border was at First Avenue, and on the east, Avenue C. So, it was a 15 minute walk to the high school I had just graduated from, after commuting there for four years from Queens.  Now I was doing virtually the same commute, but in the other direction.

My job was in the lost and found office for baggage. The airline routed any lost baggage to our office, if the local station couldn't return it to its owner within x number of days. We would try to figure out where it should go. Sometimes this was easy, in that the bag had a tag on it with a name and address. But in those days, passengers were not required to put name tags on their bags, so sometimes, maybe most of the time, all you had was the bag itself and whatever was inside.

We had a set of keys from each manufacturer and could, usually, open any bag with a key without damaging it. I learned, for example, that one key from Samsonite or American Tourister could open just about any other bag from Samsonite or American Tourister!  Sometimes the lost bag would be a duffel bag or sea bag from a soldier or sailor home on leave. They would just leave the duffel bag at the airport intentionally, figuring they could pick it up again on the way back. It didn't work out that way.

I worked directly for a woman named Trudy, whose last name I remember but won't report, and she was, I would guess, around 30.  She was very attractive, but since I was 17, she was completely out of my league. Basically, she was the expert on how to work with these bags, document their contents, try to figure out who the owner was, and put together a teletype message to send to a central exchange among all the airlines where a computer would try to match lost bags with claims. If we could positively ID the owner, which happened probably less than half the time, we would get help from one of the claims specialists in the other office, who would try to contact the owner by phone and arrange for return of the item.

The bags were often very heavy. In those days, few if any bags were lightweight material like they are now, and there was no particular weight limit that I recall. My job was to lift the bags on the table. And really, that's all it was.  But Trudy didn't like sitting down all day, so she had me sit behind the desk and take notes, while she lifted the bags, popped them open, and sifted through the contents. She was particularly fond of Asian porn in the duffel bags/sea bags, and made a point of hustling out to show it to one of the other ladies who worked there whenever she found some. No, she never showed it to me.

One day Trudy injured herself hauling one of those heavy bags that I had been hired to haul.

This got me a lecture from one of the (female) managers there. I was supposed to be doing the heavy lifting, not Trudy. The fact that Trudy didn't want me doing it didn't enter into the discussion at all.

So we had an uneasy truce. While Trudy's back was bothering her, I did the heavy lifting.

The bags came to us via a dumbwaiter from somewhere in the bowels of the building.  A fairly old guy used to bring the bags up, and put them on a cart. He would roll the cart to our office, and slowly unload them, one bag at a time, and I would pick them up and stick them in our shelves somewhere to be inventoried later. After I got chewed out for not helping Trudy, I felt like this old guy (he was probably in his late 50's or early 60's, but decrepit) should get some help too, so I started helping him unload the stuff.  He thanked me and I thought I had done okay.

The next day I was called into the director's office (his name was Alec Mercer), along with his right hand man (his name was Amos Kreiss). I had been the subject of an official union grievance. I was taking work away from the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the same union that represented the people who had put the New York subways out of operation while I was making the commute I talked about earlier, to high school. Why did I do that, I was asked.  I explained that I was just being polite. The guy was struggling with the weight of these bags, and it was taking him forever, and I had just gotten chewed out for not helping Trudy, so I helped him out.

The director explained that I couldn't touch the bag while it was on the cart. I could only touch it after it was off the cart and the guy had let go of it. Those were the rules. And so I learned.

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