HADDONFIELD, N.J. -- When I was a teen-ager, I got a summer job working the docks on Hoboken's Hudson River piers, where longshoremen emptied the holds of rusty freighters.
They were laborers who'd fought for decent wages in the 1930s only to overthrow corrupt union officials in the 1940s. But when I was there in the 1960s they were embroiled in a different kind of conflict that would change their world forever. The freight handling industry was being mechanized. Stevedores were moving freight in huge pre-packaged containers with forklifts, placing them directly onto trucks for rapid transit off the docks.
No longer would pallets of sugar be manhandled ashore by brawny men swinging hooks. Containerization also rang the death knell for ship chandlers, railroaders, hotel workers and saloonkeepers, too. Surrounding tenements filled with generations of immigrants who'd clung to the waterfront in anticipation of an honest day's wage would also disappear.
The longshoremen fought back with strikes, slowdowns and negotiations, but they couldn't stop relentless mechanization. Some, like latter-day Luddites, went into the ports at night and sabotaged equipment hoping to stall industrialization by sticking their bodies into the very cogs of the great port. All to no avail.
The port transmogrified, changed into something new and vital.
With the death of the finger piers, container ports sprouted up overnight in the back-bays outside the cities where ships were unloaded at lightning speed as long lines of trucks waited by the roadside for turtle-like containers.
My dad told me that when he was young, at the turn of the 20th century, the Morris Canal ran past his house in Jersey City. Back then canals were the quickest ways to get freight inland.
The canals, too, harbored their own unique labor force, now extinct: mule drivers and their families, who all lived and worked together pulling barges upstream carrying luxuries into the foothills, where hard-scrabble farmers scraped a living. The Morris Canal is now filled in.
The only thing that seems constant is the labor. The specific skills change as society evolves, moving from back-breaking to mechanized to computer-based specialties that move tons of freight that once took an army of men to accomplish.
Many of us are now unaffiliated laborers, not represented by any union, for organized labor is different in this century. The days when the AFL-CIO could boast that it could elect a president are gone, but organized labor is not out for the count.
Like Marlon Brando's longshoreman and prizefighting character in the Hoboken-based movie On the Waterfront, there will always be tough young Turks who want to be a contender and not deaf and dumb and who will stand up to labor injustices that surround them.
So today on Labor Day, as we reflect on the labor movement in the United States, some will talk about the labor organizers, the Communists, the Wobblies, the strikers, the robber barons and we, the hoi polloi, who changed a nation.
Labor Day is when we can honor the uniqueness of the American worker: a tough junkyard dog, as flexible as titanium steel yet as compassionate as a midwife to a co-worker in need.
Our birth as a labor force has to be reckoned with by the world and ultimately seen as the iron bones in the American juggernaut. And for those of us who work -- whether with hands or heads -- we should all appreciate the beautiful phoenix that is the American laborer -- ever rising from the flames into something new and vital.
Thomas Belton lives in Haddonfield, N.J.