Doug Donagal drove his forklift off the high dock at the Bottle & Can at 9:43 PM Thursday May 20, 1982. He died instantly. Three hours later, the union announced the first wildcat strike in the company’s history. It never should have happened.
The first thing you have to understand is that contract negotiations were heating up. The company planned to introduce more mechanization and that meant fewer jobs and the union was fighting it like John Henry and the steam drill. We all figured a strike was inevitable later that summer, but Doug Donagal changed everything.
I didn’t know Dougie all that well. He mostly kept to himself, did his job. Outside of work the only interaction we had was when he asked me to look at an old accordion he was thinking of buying for his kid. It turned out the thing was a tank, barely playable. I made a few calls and found him a pretty good student model. It was an old box, but it was in tune, the waxes were solid, the bellows hardly leaked, and it was pretty responsive. The best thing was I got it for him at half the price of the junker he was looking at. Now, I have to tell you there was a bit of a downside to that story. His ex was all pissed off because Dougie bought the kid an accordion. Said it was too noisy, too this, too that, she didn’t have time to take him for lessons, and so on. She wanted him to take it back, but he wanted his son to play accordion. I respected him for that.
Have you ever worked in a place that was close to a strike? I can tell you there was a serious lot of tension in the air all spring at the Bottle & Can. The union and the company were trading propaganda back and forth, the usual crap. I was pretty sure neither side was being up front with us. Then on the Monday of that week – on the midnight shift – a conveyor collapsed, stopping production for hours. By some kind of miracle nobody was hurt. Management investigated and told the union they suspected sabotage. Jerzy was indignant and accused The Boss of shoddy safety practices. Every time I saw Jerzy, he was red-faced and shouting. It was getting ugly.
I’d taken break on my own that night, trying to work out some arrangements for the band, and I got back to my station on the line a couple minutes early. That’s how I know it happened at 9:43. The sound of the forklift surprised me because the drivers never, ever came back early from break. I looked up and there was Dougie on the fork, running full speed toward the docks. He was waving his ball cap with one hand, steering with the other.
It all happened in a blink of an eye. When Dougie didn’t slow down I realized he was going to drive right off the dock, and that’s just what he did. There was chaos after the crash. Everyone running to the docks. Several of us tried to move the machine but it was too heavy. The ambulance was on its way but would be of no help to Dougie Donagal.
Walt Martin – he was the blow-hard plant manager – showed up and started barking orders. I tried to tell him Dougie did it deliberately but he brushed me off, didn’t have time for me. Listen, he said, we’re going to do a thorough investigation. We’ll talk to all the witnesses. Fine. I saw Jerzy and tried to get his attention.
Listen Lazy, we can talk later. We gotta get some mechanics in to look at this fork. Looks like the brakes failed.
Fine, fine, fine. We were being herded away from the scene by the security people. I left the plant and walked over to Ruby’s, leaving the whole mess for people who didn’t see a damned thing to sort out.
By the time Jerzy walked into the bar, I was half in the bag. He went right over to Ruby and said something to her, and she stopped what she was doing and shut off the music.
OK listen up everybody. We’re on strike as of now. We have evidence the company missed two preventive maintenance checks on Dougie’s forklift. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be alive right now. Picket schedules will be posted on the union hotline. Everybody is expected to get out there and picket. There will be no strike pay unless you log your hours on the line. That’s it.
He waved at Ruby, turned around and walked out of the bar.
You seen Sabina?
No, she hasn’t been here. Maybe she’s down at the union hall.
Yeah, I wish she’d back away from all that union stuff.
You mean Jerzy?
I guess that’s exactly what I mean.
Hey you know Dougie drove off that dock on purpose?
I shit you not. He was waving his hat and I swear to God he was smiling. He looked like goddamned Slim Pickens riding the bomb to Hell in Dr. Strangelove.
Well, fuck. You told Walt Martin that?
I tried to. He wasn’t interested in hearing about what happened. Same with Jerzy. They’re too caught up in this strike crap, they don’t want to know what happened. This poor guy killed himself and both sides are using it to make hay. Bastards.
Hey you figure out those arrangements we talked about?
Oh yeah, no problem. Ready to go for next rehearsal.
Thanks Lazy. You want another?
One more, Staashu. Thanks.