Join Ekos-Squared and the Cole Family on Saturday, October 2, 2010
Roselle, NJ, 1959, June — The first day of summer vacation and my mother, Jeanette, wakes me 6:00 AM. “You need to get out of the house and find a job.” I was 16 and old enough to work full time. She had breakfast waiting. As I went out the door, muttering, she hollered, “And don’t come back until you get one!”
What was I going to do? Well, I thought, “what about the Gold-Bell Bakery on St. George Avenue? Great bread Maybe I’ll get lucky.” I took the railroad track hypotenuse and soon found myself at the G-B counter breathing in the aroma of freshly baked bread and pastries. The woman behind the counter, “what can I get you, today?” I said, “well, I, errr, I’m looking for a job.” She said “Wait here.” Then to my astonishment out comes Mr. Gold (Saul Feingold) or Mr. Bell? (can’t remember which) holding an apron!!!! — short and stocky, chewing a cigar stub. “Can, you work (woik) now?” – (Brooklynese Yiddish accent).
I followed him back to the big workroom with its wooden floor and tables, huge mixing bowls and ovens. He showed me the duties of a “cleanup boy.” I was the only non-union guy in the shop, so I was not to do anything connected to baking. The biggies were scraping the chars off the post-baking bread trays, sweeping, and washing huge dough-soaked bowls. The worst job was cleaning sinks — generally clogged with a sodden medley of dough and cigar buts. The best job was frying donuts. Donuts — not covered by any unions. Gold-Bell sold no bagels (different union).
On that first day they kept me busy until 6:30 PM. As I left, one of the owners gave me a huge bag of breads and rolls. When I got home my mother was visibly relieved. (She recently admitted her fear she had sent me into harm’s way.) My father, always looking for pun, called me “the family bread winner.” I felt like a million bucks.
I remember the bakery job as one the best in my life. I felt I was doing something that mattered (food); I was part of a team. I learned how bread and rolls are made. I learned how to make pumpernickel sour starter — stale old rye breads in a big barrel of water, fermenting. The cake baker taught me all about icing; one of the bread guys was a young Puerto Rican who was shocked that I was still a virgin at 16. He tried (unsuccessfully) to fix me up with one of the girls up front.
Friday mornings were wonderful times. Gold sent me down the street to get the coffee to go with the just-out-of-the-oven babkas. Most were for sale, but two were for the workforce, and they got dosed with butter while hot. Oh, Lord – that with fresh coffee. To hell with diets.
Labor Day was an important holiday in my family.
My father, Archie Cole,
was a union organizer from his twenties until the day he died of cancer at the age of 77 (1994). He devoted his entire career to efforts to improve the wages and job conditions of workers. And although he served as President of the New Jersey Industrial Council he never stopped joining the workers on picket lines. He got arrested more than once. He also worked tirelessly for racial equality and was a long-standing member of the NAACP — typically the only white guy in sight. His union IUE, AFL-CIO, brought hundreds of buses to the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. I was on one of those buses, and had the great privilege of hearing Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream“
speech in person. (Use this link to see a great video of the speech with many pictures of this historic day.)
Archer Cole, Father and Trade Unionist, 1917-1994; he always knew how to get his points across
Arch often spoke of the importance of unions to all families – union or not. The victories of union workers have raised the wages and working conditions of all workers. In his last two decades he shared with us his discouragement – the number of union members, especially in manufacturing, were continually dropping owing to automation, job export, and increasingly aggressive corporate campaigns to break unions. I believe that the demise of the labor movement is one of the key reasons why the great majority of Americans have seen their economic security dwindle.
On this Labor Day I think of the more than 15 million Americans who are unemployed – many for a long time, and many have run out of government support, and how they must feel when they look at their spouses and children. And millions have lost their homes.
What I learned at the bakery is that work is not just about making a buck. It’s about being connected to the great cycle of life, its about being valuable and contributing to the human community; it’s about being a “bread winner” with a feeling of worth and dignity. And this is why I will be marching on October 2. I hope you will too.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Addresses March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, Source: UK Guardian
Union leaders (you can see Walter Reuther) center right. Can you identify others?