My mother, who was also my middle school English teacher at the time, introduced me to Studs Terkel’s Working, a classic oral history of the lives of working class people published in 1974. In my first year of editing Common Ground, I have found myself drawn increasingly to Terkel’s approach in that book -- trying to stay out of the way and letting people tell their own stories in their own voice. With this issue, we begin a new series of short oral history vignettes from working people, some talking about their past, other “histories” of experiences being lived today. Exploring both the “only in Rhode Island” tales of mill work and the jewelry trade, and the backstories more recent arrivals bring to the Ocean State.
Starting this series is the first in a two part interview with Paul MacDonald, President of the Providence Central Federated Council and Legislative Director of Teamsters Local 251. For many labor leaders in Rhode Island, their work is a family affair, passed down from their parents and grandparents. For Paul, as you will read, that was not the case. He has led one of what Utah Phillips called “those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again.” --Tom Hoffman
Part 1 covers the period up to when Paul began working at the Gorham Manufacturing Company in Elmwood.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity, length and sequence.
Paul MacDonald: I grew up in Providence. I grew up very poor. That's why I love the union. Everything I have today I owe it to the union, believe you me. I'm a die hard union man. I grew up in the city.
I learned how to swim in Mashapaug Pond. I lived off Huntington Avenue on Noyes Avenue, before my father died. I used to walk over there, before there used to be a train crossing there in front of the pond on Huntington Avenue. We'd go down through there. There used to be a big hill on Calhoun Avenue; they hauled everything away from there. I know that whole area very well. I learned how to play hockey over there, we played hockey when there was enough ice.
I lost my parents when I was eleven. I went to the Angel Guardian Home for Orphaned Catholic Boys in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I was there for about a year and a half, almost two years maybe. I had an aunt here who was my father's sister. She came and got me. Her problem was that they were elderly then. Her husband was a shell shocked World War I veteran -- we call it different things today. But he was very, very ill. Not with it at all half the time. So she had her hands full taking care of him, but I guess she just felt that somebody had to come and help me, and she did. She was wonderful; she was my mother in every way. I'll never forget her.
All they had was the veterans pension from World War I. It was a nightmare trying to live. A lot of people today go to bed planning lifestyles; we went to bed planning survival. The knock on the door was the landlord, looking for money. Or the lights would be shut off.
We used to move at night. I thought that everybody moved at night. We moved then because we didn't want anybody seeing us leaving. In most of the city I lived at one time or another, different sections. You know how you have roots? I don't have any roots, I have acquaintances in a neighborhood here, a neighborhood there. We were always on the run. It was a terrible, terrible time.
I learned how to work when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. I used to shine shoes down in Providence. The navy used to be big here at that time, so I used to shine shoes down there to make a couple bucks. We did pretty good because they used to call me "No Change" Mac. We used to have the regulars down there in the different bars, and I'd be shining shoes, and a guy would give me ten cents a shine in those days. If I guy gave me a quarter I'd say "I ain't got no change," because I knew that guy'd be half drunk, "Oh, keep it." But that was a huge tip, and I ended up getting the name down there as "No Change" Mac.
You didn't know you were poor though then. That was the way it was. I only learned about being poor was when I went to a school dance, maybe close to 16 years old, I'd never been to a dance in my life. I went to Roger Williams Junior High School at the time. I used to go to Gilbert Stuart, but I was tossed out of Gilbert Stuart for being a fresh bastard, and I probably was.
I went to the school dance; everybody had a sport jacket and a tie, and I didn't have neither. It was quite a shock. My buddy talked me into it "Oh, they're gonna have a dance you have to go see the girls..." I said "Yeah, I'll go." I walked in there, and I looked around. Nobody said nothing, but I had whatever I had on, I don't know, but I didn't have a jacket, and I didn't have a tie. So my friend, he lived in a housing project and had like four or five brothers. They lived in the Roger Williams housing project and believe you me, they were better off than I was. One of the guys had a used jacket, so they gave me a jacket.
One day a guy was painting a house during the summer, I was hanging around with a couple of kids, and he said, "Hey kid, you want to make some money." I said "Yeah, doing what? All the houses back then had radiators, big radiators. When you painted a house the radiators had to be silvered, but there weren't many that weren't either chipping or dirty. You had to clean them inside, years and years of dust and crap collecting on the radiators. So my first real job was painting radiators and cleaning up after the painter and wallpaper guy. He liked me, I worked, I did a pretty good job, and I ended up working for the guy for quite a few years, became a painter, paper hanger. I still do my own today. We did pretty good because we got out from under this not being able to pay the rent stuff all the time, which was a real big step forward for me and my aunt and my uncle.
I've been working ever since, I never stopped working. I said I'd never be poor again, and and I'm not poor. Never will I taste that damn thing again, until the day I die, I said, I'd find a way. I can honestly say that even though I've lost jobs over the years, gotten fired for probably good reason on a couple things. I wasn't a bad kid, but I wasn't a good kid. I was probably an angry kid. You might see some of that even today. But I didn't like what happened to me. Didn't like it at all. So I caused trouble for myself, I cost myself my education because I wouldn't pay any attention. I'm an 8th grade dropout. I never finished the 8th grade. I liked working. They couldn't get me in school. I'm making big time bucks now. I'm making 25 cents an hour with this painter. And I've never been bashful about saying that I was an 8th grade dropout. I like other people to understand that it isn't easy for everybody.
There was a slow time during the winter, and I had a girlfriend who was looking for a job. She went into a textile mill, Berkshire Hathaway up in Anthony, up in Coventry, Rhode Island. She went up for a job, and I wasn't doing anything, I was out of work. It was November, December, the painter didn't have anything going on. I said "What the hell," so I go in there and applied for a job and got a job. That was my first experience with a union. I joined the United Textile Workers of America, because Berkshire Hathaway was a union shop. I'd say within about, not more than three or four months, I was the shop steward. I was young, tough. That was the way to go. Tough was good to be in the union in those days. Today they're a little more mature. It is different.
I became the shop steward there, and I was heavily involved in the textile workers union. A great textile labor union leader, whose son is over at the State House as a state rep, Sam Azzinaro, his father was head of the textile workers union. He mentored me a little bit. I learned how to focus on problems in the mill, how to treat the worker. The workers weren't treated very well even when we had the union. I stayed there until the place closed. All of a sudden King Cotton was dead. Everything went south. I was there was probably about eight years.
In those days every big textile company generally had a good maintenance workforce. This particular plant had an entire machine shop, because in those days a lot of the equipment was made right there. They had this big maintenance shop, and this fellow, George, the head of the maintenance department, bought the building off of Berkshire Hathaway and opened up a millwright operation.
I had been what they called a section hand. I took care of the spooling and did minor maintenance work, keeping the machines running, fixing them when they broke down. George said to me, "Paul, I'm opening up a machine shop, would you like to go to work for me?" And I said, "Yeah, I need a job anyway, but I don't know anything." "No, no," he says, "I can teach you a lot and I'd like to have you, I like you." He'd come through the plant fixing things, and we'd talk. So I went to work for him.
And out of that I became a machinist, and a welder, and a plumber and pipefitter. I did it all. He taught me all of that. So I worked for him for a few years, and then I got married and had a baby. He wasn't paying me a lot though, although I learned everything I know. We would be working all over the state, Cranston Print Works, they had their own maintenance department, they were pretty good guys. We all drank, at night we'd go have some beers at the Connecticut Bar on Hartford Avenue.
I'd meet these guys from different places, and I met a guy from the Gorham company, which was a premier silver company. One of the most prestigious silver companies in the world. He worked at the Gorham company; he was the general foreman. So we got to talking; I'm struggling, got a baby, the money ain't there. At the Gorham they paid about a buck and a half an hour more than I was making. He said "Why don't you come to work for us? I know you can do it. You've got all the tools that you need to do it." I said, "A buck and a half an hour, holy mother of god, that's like hitting the jackpot,” so I did. Even though I liked my friend, I left him. I said "A buck and a half an hour, I'm outta here." And I went to work for the Gorham company, and that's where I really established my labor career.