Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Family Mystery Involving a Captain of Industry

Great-grandpa was always conscious of the camera.

My family is Polish, on both sides, as far back as anyone has researched, though I hesitate to describe myself as 100% Polish because of the fluidity of the country’s borders. One family name is awfully close to that of a Russian statesman, and my maternal grandmother’s lovely olive complexion led to speculation of Romany or Albanian blood. Meanwhile, my features are so solidly Central European that a Bosnian checkout lady once spoke to me in her language; we shared a laugh when I explained why she took me for one of her own.

Poland’s wealth of natural resources and strategic location smack complete with a port on the Baltic Sea conspired to make it the long-suffering scrapper of the region. Its neighbors (Germany, Prussia and Austria) continually angled for control of its lands and resources, resulting at one point in the dissolution of the country in 1795. It returned as a satellite state in 1807 thanks to a deal Napoleon made with the Prussians, and returned to the map in 1918, but for over a hundred years, its main functions were to supply food and soldiers for whatever conflict was being fought by whomever was in control.

When my great-grandfather fled his miserable peasant sharecropping life, the power in charge was Russia. At one point in his journey, he hid in a hay wagon with his boat ticket sewn into the lining of his coat while Russian soldiers poked the hay with pitchforks. If they had found him, he would have been conscripted into the Russian army, or killed, or conscripted and then killed.
He was still a teenager when he arrived in the U.S., and once he was hired onto the Ford line, he worked there until he retired. We don’t know whether he worked on Jeeps or Lincolns, assembled engines or added steering wheels, but we do know he was a huge fan of “Old man Ford” and disliked the younger Ford.

According to family lore, Henry Ford regularly walked the assembly line and knew my great-grandpa and his coworkers by name. In 1919, his son Edsel succeeded him as company president, and again according to faded collective family memory, he was interested primarily in efficiency and profits. His anti-union stance was the chief source of great-grandpa’s ire, although Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “The UAW would organize Ford over my dead body.” There is also the very well-documented 1937 Battle of the Overpass, wherein UAW organizers were beaten by factory security forces in broad daylight – in the presence of Detroit Free Press photographers.

I’ve been trying to get my head around this inconsistency; the best theory I have so far, bolstered by an aunt, is that Henry Ford treated his workers well as part of a strategy to keep the unions out. We do know that in 1913, he introduced the $5 a day minimum wage, doubling the going rate of the time, stabilizing his workforce, and rankling his competitors.

The aforementioned aunt shared the following story: Grandpa would spout about what they got from the union, money, blah, blah, their house, and grandma would let him go on until he got to the house. Then she’d interject, “Union, bah!” (or some Polish version of ‘bah’) “Union didn’t give us this house. Gott gave us this house!” End of argument.

My father took an oral history of great-grandpa for a college anthropology class, but sadly, I don’t have a copy of it, and since they’ve both gone to the kielbasa buffet in the sky, it’s lost for now. There may well be a copy in a barn in Phoenix, but that’s definitely fodder for a future post.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.