How I became a union organizer for drivers at 21

July 3, 2019

John Bendel

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Hey, truck drivers have to start somewhere.

For me it was driving a Chevy straight truck with an enormous plywood body for Nassau Cabinets, a company that made kitchen cabinets in North Brunswick, N.J. The body projected over the cab and had a rear wheel overhang so long that if you turned sharply away from a curb, the end of the truck would swing across the sidewalk and probably hurt somebody.

I had to pass a road test for the job. Elwood, the boss, walked me out of the office, pointed to the truck behind the building and asked, “Can you drive that?” I said yes. I passed the test.

I started the very next day by driving over the curb turning onto Ridgewood Avenue and down to the corner, where I rolled over the curb turning onto Livingston Avenue. The truck had a two-speed rear axle with a red button on the shift lever. The helper had to tell me what it was. A few minutes later getting up to highway speed, the helper said I should shift the rear into high. I pulled the red button. It slammed into gear so hard I can still hear it 54 years later. It hadn’t occurred to me to throw in the clutch. I did that at least another half-a-dozen times. Those GM rear ends in the 60s were pretty damned tough. That day’s helper? I never saw him again.

My days at Nassau Cabinets came to mind reading Tyson Fisher’s story about a court fight between a New Jersey delivery fleet and its drivers. The fleet was called Cream-O-Land Dairies.

You see, after I stopped jumping curbs and had been driving a while, I got into a tussle with Nassau Cabinets over New Jersey labor. Before it was over, the Teamsters and the feds were involved.

Nassau was turning out cabinets for new construction in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. There was a lot of construction, and soon the company needed more than one driver. But Nassau Cabinets was like today’s big truckload carriers; Elwood hired drivers, but he couldn’t keep them.

Then as now the problem was money. They paid by the hour, but not much and it was straight time all the time – no time-and-a-half over 40 hours. That was one thing for the guys in the plant (it was all guys then) and something different for me. Often enough, I pulled out at 8 a.m. and returned well after 10 p.m. I was single without a girlfriend, so I lived with it. At 21 years old, I couldn’t get a serious trucking job. You had to be 25 then. The insurance companies enforced that.

But those hours were hard on family guys, especially since they didn’t earn overtime. So that second driver seat kept turning over. I got used to welcoming a new fellow driver almost every Monday morning.

One Monday morning, my new fellow driver was Eddie, a streetwise guy who grew up in Jersey City and had an “angle” on everything. No matter what you were talking about, he asked “so what’s the angle?” When he found out about Nassau’s no time-and-a-half, he came up with an angle. “Why not unionize the place?” he asked.

Sounded like a fine idea to me.

So, Tony and I looked up “unions” in the Yellow Pages (a directory where you looked for people and businesses before the internet). And there it was: International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. Their name was longer in those days.

Oh yeah. These were the guys. They would whip Nassau Cabinets into shape in no time. Screw this $1.50 an hour crap. We’d be making $3 an hour the same as the Teamster drivers over at Hermann Forwarding – and with overtime! This is going to be great.

Up one flight from the street above a real estate office in Perth Amboy N.J., in a dingy office that smelled of cigars, we met with a fat, bald Teamster guy. He asked how many people worked at Nassau Cabinets. We said about 30, but we just wanted to join as drivers.

Dirty look from Baldy.

Just you two? That’s it? Nah, he said. We gotta organize the whole place or it isn’t worthwhile. He gave us a bunch of sign-up cards and told us to start collecting signatures the next day, Thursday. The first thing that happens, he said, is that you’ll get fired. But don’t worry. We’ll get your jobs back in a couple of months.

I worried anyway. If Eddie worried, he didn’t show it.

“We’re gonna kick some ass,” he said.

Thursday morning, we came in early and began passing around the cards. In less than 10 minutes Elwood found us.

“What are you doing?” he demanded even though it was obvious.

“We’re passing out union cards,” Eddie said matter-of-factly.

I just sputtered.

Elwood told us to punch in, get in our trucks and go to work. He kind of threw us out, but he didn’t fire us. Friday, Eddie handed cards to a couple of guys who came onto the loading platform, but that was all. We didn’t go inside.

Monday morning, Elwood called everyone to a meeting and announced that Nassau Cabinets was going to be a union shop. Everyone would join The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Everyone, that is, except drivers – Eddie and me.

Elwood had blocked the Teamsters by finding a friendlier union.

Baldy was mad when we told him over the phone.

“Can’t Eddie and me join?” I asked.

He was silent for a long time. I thought he had hung up. He finally responded. Dues from only two guys? Just two when we could have had 30? It wouldn’t be worth the trouble, he said.

But in the end, he went along. I don’t know why. He had signed cards from Eddie and me. Maybe he had no choice legally. In any case, he did walk into Elwood’s office and declare that he now represented Eddie and me. Elwood told him politely to go to hell. So Baldy took the next step, which was to contact the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the company refused to recognize the bargaining group (Eddie and me), there would have to be an election. If a majority voted for the union, we would be Teamsters. If not, we wouldn’t be.

With only two in the potential bargaining unit thus only two voters, that meant both of us had to vote yes. If one of us voted no, the vote would be split 50-50. There would be no majority and no Teamsters at Nassau Cabinets. The vote was scheduled for a month later.

Eddie was happy. He kind of swaggered when he walked about the company. He seemed to be telling the guys in the plant, so you’re going to be Carpenters and Joiners? Ha. We’re going to be Teamsters. We’ll be tougher. We’ll make more. Eat your heart out.

But we weren’t making more just then. A week after the carpenters’ union announcement, Nassau Cabinets began paying everyone time-and-a-half for overtime – everyone but Eddie and me, that is. Eddie was still happy. Here’s the angle, he would explain, pretty soon we’ll be making a lot more than them even without overtime.

One day, a week or so before the election, Elwood pulled me aside behind a stack of plywood.

Elwood was full of questions. This guy Eddie talked you into this, didn’t he? Eddie’s a dirt bag, don’t you think? We’ve treated you OK, right? Do you want to see the company destroyed by the Teamsters? They don’t care about you. They just want to get their foot in the door. If they win this election, we’ll be on the road to bankruptcy. No one will have a job. You don’t want that to happen, do you John? Do you? You can make sure that doesn’t happen by voting no. Will you vote no, John?

Out of loyalty to Eddie and – since we had gone to the union together – for my own integrity, I said no, I would not do that.

Elwood turned and walked away.

Election day at Nassau Cabinets was bright and sunny. What could possibly go wrong on such a beautiful day? This was almost 40 years before 9-11. That was an otherwise beautiful day too.

Two workmen and two suits from the U.S. Department of Labor were already there. They had set up a one-man, stand-up tent – a portable voting booth on Ridgewood Avenue in front of Nassau Cabinets. Cars were parked along the street, including two marked “U.S. Government.” People stood near the booth talking. I recognized Elwood and Baldy. The Labor Department guys had tags pinned to their lapels to identify them. A couple of North Brunswick cops were there too. I have no idea why. And there was Eddie, looking kind of small in his work clothes. There were others I didn’t recognize. It seemed like this had turned into a big deal.

“There he is,” I heard someone say, meaning me. But we didn’t vote right away. We had to wait five minutes until 8 a.m. – another mystery. Was it supposed to be on company time? I didn’t get to ask about that or anything else. It was all over in a couple of minutes.

Eddie went into the booth first. Then it was my turn. I marked my ballot yes and came out. One of the suits went into the booth and came out pretty quickly.

“One vote in favor, one vote opposed,” he announced.

He said more things about how the union had not been certified. It all sounded very official. It all amounted to the same thing. We had lost.

Wait a minute. We?

I looked around. Eddie wasn’t there. He had taken off, probably with a pocket full of Elwood’s cash. I never saw him again. I walked away too. It was all over for me, or so it seemed. No cabinets would be delivered that day.

That afternoon after thinking of all the awful jobs I might end up with – mopping floors, working on an assembly line, or waiting the counter at Lucky’s Pancake Lounge, I got up the nerve to call Elwood.

“Yeah, John, you can have your job back,” he said.

He had two loaded trucks out back and cabinets piling up on the dock for the next day. He could always fire me later. I had no union protection.

“By the way, you’ll be getting time-and-a-half,” Elwood said.

So, I lost, but won too.

What does this have to do with the Cream-O-Land Dairy? Well, that dispute has to do with New Jersey labor law and the obligation to pay time-and-a-half after 40 hours. Turns out back in 1963, Nassau Cabinets should have been paying time-and-a-half all along.

That was then. Now, thanks to the state legislature in 2000, things are murkier. How should time-and-a-half be calculated? Does it mean time-and-a-half based on the state minimum wage or is time-and-a-half based on a worker’s actual pay? And precisely who has to pay? Trucking companies? Private carriers? That’s what they’re arguing about now.

I didn’t stay at Nassau Cabinets very long because Nassau Cabinets didn’t last very long.

One Friday afternoon, I was using the new forklift on the dock and had the mast too high. It caught a sprinkler system pipe and pulled it hard. Down the line inside the building, a pipe fitting gave way sending water cascading down on the countertop department. They had to shut down the entire sprinkler system.

At some point late Saturday afternoon, a fire started and spread, fueled by wood, sawdust and eventually by exploding barrels of flammable paint and glue. That night they said you could see the flames and smoke for miles.

By Sunday morning Nassau Cabinets was gone.

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.

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