When I think of Labor Day, I remember my Grandpa, Harold Donlon.
Over the years, Grandpa Donlon, was a painter, a real estate agent, a factory worker, and a car sales rep in Cleveland.
I think of how difficult that work was: the physical impact of manual labor, the mental focus it took to endure some pretty rough working conditions, and the courage it took to keep going when that work had become a physical burden.
My mom, Kathleen Lockwood told me that my grandpa’s step dad give him a choice of going to college or getting a Model T Ford. He took the car.
“The car later got stolen and he had nothing,” my mom said. “So his step-dad was a painter and a wallpaper hanger and he encourage him to start his own business.”
When the war started in 1939, grandpa married my grandma Mary Donlon. Work got slow for painting and he took a job at the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Company. They made bearings and bushings, which meant he worked with steel, copper, bronze, zinc, and cadmium.
“He carried bags of zinc on his back, and he was treasurer of union,” my mom said.
From 1940 to 1941 the company had hired 5,000 people and they ran on three shifts per day. As the war effort demanded more products, the Mechanics Education Society of America began to strike, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
“Tensions ran high in the fatigued, poorly integrated workforce, and more strikes occurred when MESA accused Graphite of exaggerating its percentage of war work to exploit employees,” according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
The work was dirty and the union fought for uniforms and showers so they could clean up after work. But the wages were lowered after the war and everything came to a head right around the time my mother was born. The company fired people for petty causes and when a worker by the name of Elmer Torok was fired for breaking a lock that was put on his personal locker, the union had had enough.
According to the article:
“To justify his firing, the company claimed that Torok’s destruction of property was the last of several incidents involving him, but the union countered that Torok’s dismissal was too harsh for the offense, pointing out that at least 18 people had been fired over a two-year period for petty causes.”
On Sep. 5, 1944 – the day my mother was born – the workers went on strike. The next day, the U.S. Army took over the company. The union also struggled to keep itself viable because a battle was being waged between MESA and the CIO, a competing union who had raided its membership during the takeover. The army stepped away in November believing the two parties had reached a working agreement.
As the war continued, my grandfather had watched so many of his co-workers leave for the war and not return. When my grandmother’s friend’s fiancé died my grandfather felt compelled to rally “his troops” to honor his friend and his co-workers. And my grandfather asked all of his co-workers to give up a nickel in pay to buy stars for a victory flag to be flown at the company’s new plant.
“He wanted to support the war effort,” my mom said. “A lot of people he knew went over – all of these men that had a star got killed.”
Roelif Loveland, war correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote about grandpa’s effort. He wrote how my grandfather asked his co-workers for a nickel, but everyone gave a dime. This bought two flags, each had a V for victory, 130 white stars for the number workers who were fighting the war and a gold one for Lt. Robert Clark, a pilot who died on Dec. 9.
“This fact – and sight of the changing shifts – will convince anybody that a large number of people know we are at war,” Loveland wrote. “They are serious and they are doing their best to carry on the jobs for men now represented by white stars on a blue field on a flag which flies a little lower than the stars and stripes.”
My mom also said my grandfather was injured in a fire when a furnace blew up at work, but she didn’t have many details about when this happened.
“He was in hospital for a bit,” she said. “They had just bought the house and they had to take out a second mortgage so instead of paying $9,000 for it, they had to pay $18,000. I don’t know if he got paid while he was off, but I do remember my mom going back to work at Christmas time. She made .50 a week.”
My grandpa was the kind of worker who put suggestions in the suggestion box about how to make his workplace better for everyone. And my mom remembers him getting $100 here and there for his effort.
After he retired, my grandpa would still go to union meetings during the 1960s.
Grandpa wasn’t happy with the direction they were going.
“’All they want is money, and there is just more to this than that,’” she remembers him saying. But he also saw how companies were being bought and jobs were leaving. The company supposedly had contracts, but they didn’t really and they were giving work to the employees, but stuff was not really going anywhere.”
Still, he wanted to work in a safe environment, but this didn’t happen for him. Years of working around steel, bronze, zinc and cadmium had taken a toll him. Granted my grandfather smoked and he likely worked with lead based paint, but my mother is convinced that working around all the dust in the factory contributed to him dying of lung cancer.
“He got showers for people and uniforms – the union did that,” she said. “That’s one of the things he understood… he knew that dust was bad.”
My grandpa died when I was pretty little, in 1975. I miss him horribly and wonder what he’d think of things the way they are now. Until today, I really hadn’t put this story all together because when I knew him he was just my grandpa. But I have to say, I’m pretty darn proud of him.
Today… I honor his struggle.