Where the Air Tastes Like Copper
By Lee Conrad
Roscoe Griffin stood sheltered by the corner of the 3-story windowless building waiting for the procession of cars to begin drifting into the parking lot. Dawn was just breaking, and the autumn sun converted the chemical fumes coming from the stacks on top of the building into a mosaic of colors. Colorful though the fumes were, they held a deadly future. The smell, as the fumes drifted down, made Roscoe’s already nauseus stomach even worse.
His sleepless night and the nervousness for what he was about to do didn’t help matters much. Roscoe Griffin was an organizer for Local 200 of the Electronics Workers Union, and the building he was standing next to was his employer of 15 years—Citadel Circuit Boards. Even with the backing of the Union, he felt very alone, questioning this career limiting move in the early morning hours.
As the car headlights began showing up in the distance, and the first of his hoped-for converts started finding their usual parking spots, Roscoe moved away from the building carrying the heavy stack of union flyers to the long walkway leading to the door of Building 5.
Positioning at the edge of the sidewalk and the grass Roscoe spotted Jack Ehlers, always early, diligently heading toward the door.
“Morning Jack,” said Roscoe. “Here is our union….,” But before he could even finish his pitch, Jack whirled away with his hands in the air as if descended upon by the plague.
“I don’t want one of those,” he said in a panicked voice as he hurries past Roscoe into the building.
Roscoe thought to himself, this is going to be a long half hour when Vickie Morgan showed up. She always reminded him of Janis Joplin.
“Hi ya, Roscoe, honey. Give me one of those flyers.”
“Hey, Jack,” she yelled to the figure fleeing into the building, “You know some of us with no balls have more than those with,” taunting Jack as she chuckled all the way into the plant.
As Rosie Gonsalves walked briskly past Roscoe to catch up with Vickie, she turned back and shouted, “Trying to change the world, Griffin?”
“Yeah,” says Roscoe smiling. “Want to help?”
Turning back towards the parking lot, Roscoe cam face to face with Stan Linski.
“Hi Stan, how about a look at the union flyer, we really need to build an organizing committee.”
“No need for the hard sell, Roscoe,” smiled Stan. “Give me a couple of those. By the way, turn around and take a look at the guard shack. You caught their attention.”
Sure enough as Roscoe turned, one of the security guards was talking on the phone and staring right at him.
Roscoe felt like he stepped off a cliff and was waiting for the parachute to open.
With 10 minutes left before his shift started, the door to the guard shack opened and two security guards flanking the head of Human Resources came marching down the sidewalk towards him. A little wave of panic set in but he stood his ground and continued to hand out flyers to employees that began to see their usual boring work day get a whole lot more exciting.
“Good Morning,” said the Human Resources Director Alan Wells in a matter of fact tone. “Can I have one of those flyers?”
As the Director spoke the security guards inched closer to Roscoe.
“Good morning, Mr. Wells. I’m here on behalf of the Electronics Workers Union, and I am an employee of Citadel,” said Roscoe showing the Director his employee badge.
“Fine,” said the Director coldly. “Don’t forget your shift starts in about nine minutes,” the director said looking at his watch. “You wouldn’t want to be late and break any company rules now would you?” he asked with a look of menace in his eyes.
As Roscoe entered the building and walked up the stairs to his department, the smell of chemicals started seeping into his lungs. Even the clothes he wore today, although freshly washed, had the lingering smell of a day in this place. New hires couldn’t even pronounce the names of the myriad of chemicals used in the building.
As he opened the door to the third floor, he almost walked right into his manager, Dick Akers.
“Glad to see you are on time, Roscoe,” Akers said as he looked at his watch.
“There is a little change in your work assignment today. Go help Rosie on the etcher.”
Now it starts, thought Roscoe, as he walked into his department.
“Hi Rosie, I guess I am working with you today,” said Roscoe.
“To what do I owe this honor?” Rosie smiled. “No, don’t tell me, you got demoted ‘cause of your outside activities,” she said sarcastically. “Here’re your gloves and don’t forget to start chewing some gum,” Rosie cautioned.
It was a well know practice to chew gum while working on the etching machines. The fumes of cupric acid and the toxic soup of the other chemicals, never adequately ventilated from the room, tended to irritate the throat. The workers would joke as they went outside for lunch that they would choke on the fresh air. Back inside the air tasted like copper—and copper tastes like blood.
Roscoe looked up at the clock, where the plastic face of it was pitted from repeated exposure to the fumes in the room. God, it is going to be a long day, he thought as the first of the etched panels and a wave of fumes hits him in the face.
The morning progressed fairly uneventful as Roscoe kept to his work under the watchful eye of Dick Akers who seemed to be hovering around him more than usual.
It was about 10:30 am when all hell broke loose.
As Vickie burst through the door of the etch room, she quickly ran over to Rosie. “Rosie, come with me quick. It’s Ellen,” Vickie said with a touch of panic in her voice.
As Rosie left the etch room she called back to Roscoe “Hey, union man, try not to mess anything up while I’m gone.”
As Roscoe waited for Rosie to come back he noticed a few more of the women talking and then heading to the woman’s bathroom.
By now the whole department had stopped work and his manager was no longer peering over his shoulder.
Leaving the etch room Roscoe walked over to a crowd of workers near the woman’s bathroom as the plant medical team start wheeling a stretcher with Ellen on it towards the elevator.
Seeing Rosie, Roscoe walked over to her. “What the hell happened?”
“Ellen had a miscarriage in the bathroom, damnit,” Rosie said angrily.
“She’s not the first one to go through this, and with all these damn chemical fumes hitting us in the face she sure as hell won’t be the last. At least 8 women have gone through what Ellen just did, but they had it happen at home, out of sight…..and out of mind.”
“We women don’t talk about it much but when it does happen, and we take a few sick days off, these damn managers try to tell us it is our own problem, nuthin’ to do with these chemicals they say. Oh and don’t forget get to bring in a note from your doctor they say-- like we’re kids!”
“Hell, a couple of the women in this building thought they were lucky when they didn’t get miscarriages, only to have babies born with fingers missing—or worse. And don’t think you might not have problems yourself some day,” said Rosie.
Roscoe knew that was true. Years ago, one of his friends that cleaned out the trichlor vat complained to the boss that he felt a burning sensation when he got a heavy dose of residue mist. Eight years later, he was out of work and being treated for testicular cancer.
Shortly after the medical team left the floor, the plant manager made his appearance.
Now, Jimmy Stockwell was not just the plant manager, he was also the son of one of the richest families in the town. He was in his forties, but the good life had left him flabby. Many of the workers said the silver spoon he was born with was still used on the weekends, but the police never bothered him.
The crowd of workers who gave Ellen their get well wishes was still around talking as Stockwell strode over.
“Don’t you all think you should get back to work now?” he asked sharply. He looked over at Dick Akers as if to say—get them moving already. The crowd of workers started grumbling at his total lack of compassion for what happened to Ellen.
Sensing the anger, Stockwell flatly told the workers, “You know I don’t need this job and my family certainly doesn’t need you. We can ship this plant right off to China in a heart beat, and then were will you be? And I can pay them a fraction what I pay you, and they will be grateful to buy an extra pound of rice,” he said with a laugh. “You can bet they won’t complain about a few chemicals or some fumes in their eyes.”
That was too much for some.
From the back of the crowd, Sharon Galli was listening intently.
Her anger built slowly but listening to this arrogant jerk pushed her over the edge. She went to her work station grabbed a beaker, put a chemical label on it and filled it up.
As Jimmy Stockwell stood in front of the workers waiting for them to go back to work, Sharon walked purposely through the crowd, strolled up to Stockwell and threw the liquid at his crotch.
Stockwell yelled as the liquid hit him. “What the hell did you throw at me,” as he starts to take his pants off.
Sharon calmly tells him “We don’t need no show, Mr. Stockwell. The label says Cupric Acid but it’s just water. Now you know how we feel.”
“Ellen went out of here because this place isn’t safe. And you know I went through the same thing she did, and I ain’t gonna see another woman go through that,” Sharon said with defiance.
The cheering was spontaneous and Roscoe Griffin standing in the crowd was cheering just as loud as everyone else.
It was Rosie who spoke up next. “Mr. Stockwell if your thinking of firing Sharon here you better think again cause if you do, we are going to raise holy hell and the first thing we are going to do right now is sign some union cards.”
“Hey, union man, where are you,” Rosie called out looking for Roscoe.
As the crowd of workers went to the break room, they all signed up, and Roscoe, feeling slightly overwhelmed, collected them all.
The shift ended but the mood was certainly different than when it started. As Roscoe headed to the door, Rosie yelled at him. “Hey, Roscoe, wait up.”
With a grin on her face she said, “This could be the start of a…aw hell, how does that line go?”
“A wonderful friendship or something like that right? I guess we have to rent Casablanca,” said Roscoe.
“What next, union man? Things got shook up today. Ain’t going to be the same tomorrow,” said Rosie with apprehension.
Roscoe turned to Rosie and put his hands on her shoulders to calm her. “Well, first thing we do is go to the union office and tell them what happened.”
As they walked down the sidewalk to their cars, Jimmy Stockwell and Alan Wells, the Human Resources director entered the guard shack and watched as Roscoe and Rosie left.
Stockwell turned to Wells and calmly said, “Make the call.”
As the HR director picks up the phone, Stockwell says coldly, “Tomorrow will not be the same as today.”
Lee Conrad lives in upstate New York and is on staff with a national union.Lee worked at IBM for 26 years and is a Viet Nam era veteran. Contact Lee.