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Sticking to the Union

In response to:

Sticking to the Union from the April 9, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

In his round-robin review of recent labor books (“Union Blues,” NYR, April 9). Murray Kempton has the following to say about the training program organized by Nate Smith of Pittsburgh:

Neither he [Smith] nor anyone else likes therefore to say how it all turned out in the end: he clearly accomplished the training of sixty-seven Negroes as operating engineers and just as clearly almost none of them is working on a union job at this moment.

Wrong, Mr. Kempton, and on more than one count. I do not know whether or not Kempton interviewed Nate Smith, but I did. (Cf. Dissent, “Confrontation in Pittsburgh,” January / February, 1970 issue). Smith proudly informed me that after completing his training program all the men went to work, as union men on union jobs. “In the end, 90 men received their union cards and an opening to a new life at $5.00 per hour. ‘Dig is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life,’ 42-year-old Carl Richardson, now working as a road grader, is quoted as saying.” (S.P.)

Shortly thereafter, however, the Operating Engineer’s Union went on strike against all public programs (highways, etc.) in Pennsylvania, putting everyone—white and black—out of work; this strike lasted over a year and was settled only within the past few weeks. It is anticipated that all union men—white and black—will be back at work, with plenty of overtime.

Finally, Nate Smith’s Operation Dig involved more than heavy-equipment operators: there were about twenty-five carpenters, electricians, etc., who finished the program, were admitted into their respective unions and went to work.

I share Mr. Kempton’s concern over the largely negative and hostile attitude of the construction unions regarding training and admission to membership of blacks, as a reading of my Dissent article will indicate. But nothing is to be gained by distorting the facts. Doors can be opened up and Nate Smith has proven this.

Stanley Plastrik

New York City

Murray Kempton replies:

Of course I talked to Nate Smith. I am as surprised to find Stanley Plastrik doubting that I did as I am to find him so inordinately proud that he did. Talking to the person you quote is a minimal responsibility for comment. Not taking the word of the best of persons is a minimal but still pretty fundamental responsibility. In Pittsburgh last March, I was as surprised as I was distressed to be told by an associate of Nate Smith’s in the Pittsburgh concentrated employment program—his admiration for Mr. Smith was at least equal to Mr. Plastrik’s and mine—that almost no graduate of Mr. Smith’s classes was working in a union job at that moment. The operating engineers’ strike was, of course, a major factor in this disappointment; but it did not have to be as major as it was. Many members of Local 66 had been able to use their traveling cards to get union jobs outside the state; Nate Smith’s graduates could not, the fraternal spirit of the Brotherhood of Operating Engineers being too limited in their case. Now that the Pittsburgh strike is over, of course, the experience should improve: even so the results of the experiment are scarcely hard and fast enough to support Mr. Plastrik’s entire scorn of my own reservations. I shall avoid being as discourteous as Mr. Plastrik and therefore not raise the question of whether he interviewed Carl Richardson. It is my own recollection that Richardson’s statement that “Dig is the best thing that ever happened to me”—while doubtless accurate—is to be found in material assembled for Nate Smith’s most recent proposal for an Office of Economic Opportunity grant and was uttered while Richardson was in training and before he was working as a road grader, which I certainly hope he is.

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