Where the Air Tastes Like Copper



By Lee Conrad


Roscoe Griffin, sheltered by the corner of the three-story windowless building, waited for the procession of cars to begin drifting into the parking lot. The morning was just breaking and the autumn sun converted the chemical fumes coming from the stacks on top of the building into a mosaic of colors. Colorful though the fumes were, they held a deadly future. The smell, as the fumes drifted down, made Roscoe’s already nauseated stomach even worse.

His sleepless night and the nervousness of what he was about to do didn’t help matters much.  Roscoe Griffin was an organizer for Local 200 of the Electronics Workers Union, and the building he was standing next to was his employer of 15 years—Citadel Circuit Boards. Even with the backing of the Union, he felt very alone, questioning his career limiting move in the early morning hours.

As car headlights showed up in the distance and the first of his hoped-for converts found their way to their usual parking spots, Roscoe moved away from the building carrying the heavy stack of union flyers to the long walkway leading to the door of building 5.

Positioning at the edge of the sidewalk and the grass Roscoe saw Jack Ehlers, always early, diligently heading towards the door.

“Morning Jack,” said Roscoe. “Here is our union…,” but before he can even finish his pitch Jack whirled away with his hands in the air as if descended upon by the plague.

“I don’t want one of those,” he said in a panicked voice as he hurried past Roscoe into the building.

Roscoe thought, this is going to be a long half hour, when Vickie Morgan arrived. She always reminded him of Janis Joplin.

“Hi ya Roscoe honey. Give me one of those flyers.”

“Hey Jack,” she yelled to the figure fleeing into the building. “You know, some of us with no balls have more than those with,” taunting Jack as she chuckled all the way into the plant.

Rosie Gonsalves walked past Roscoe to catch up with Vickie. She turned back and shouted,

“Trying to change the world, Griffin?”

“Yeah,” said Roscoe smiling. “Want to help!”

He turned back towards the parking lot and came face to face with Stan Linski.

“Hi Stan, how about a look at the union flyer, we really need to build an organizing committee.”

“No need for the hard sell Roscoe,” said Stan. “Give me a couple of those. By the way, turn around and take a look at the guard shack. You caught their attention.”

Sure enough, as Roscoe looked behind him, one of the security guards was on the phone and stared right at him.

The other union organizers at the local told him what to expect—the kind of reception he might receive from his co-workers, the scrutiny by the company and the treatment he might get once he went into work—but reality and going through it is something else all together. He felt like he stepped off a cliff and was waiting for the parachute to open.

A half hour went by. The procession of workers that headed to the plant became a steady stream, with some taking the flyers, others just passing by not even looking at him-even though they had known him for years- and a few who pretty much told him to go screw himself. All in all not a bad morning thought Roscoe.

With 10 minutes left before his shift started, the door to the guard shack opened and 2 security guards flanking the head of Human Resources marched down the sidewalk towards him. A little wave of panic set in but he stood his ground and continued to hand out flyers to employees that began to see their usual boring work day get a whole lot more exciting.

“Good Morning,” said the Human Resources Director Alan Wells in a matter of fact tone. “Can I have one of those flyers?” As the Director spoke the security guards inched closer to Roscoe.

“Good Morning Mr. Wells. I’m here on behalf of the Electronics Workers Union and I am an employee of Citadel,” said Roscoe. He showed the Director his employee badge and was ready to tell the Director that he knew his labor law rights.

“Fine,” said the Director coldly. The Director looked at his watch. “Don’t forget your shift starts in about 8 minutes. You wouldn’t want to be late and break any company rules now would you,” he said with a look of menace in his eyes.

After a few minutes Roscoe walked into the plant, concerned with not only the reception he might receive from his co-workers but also the reception he would get from management.

He badged in and walked up the stairs to his department on the third floor. The smell of chemicals seeped into his lungs. Even the clothes he wore today, although freshly washed, had the lingering smell of a day in this place. New hires couldn’t even pronounce the names of the myriad of chemicals used in this building.

Roscoe opened the door to the third floor and almost walked right into his manager Dick Akers.

“Glad to see you are on time Roscoe,” Akers said as he looked at his watch. “There is a little change in your work assignment today. Go help Rosie on the etcher.” Now it starts, thought Roscoe, as he walked into his department.

His department in building 5 was just a small piece of the process of building circuit boards at Citadel. There were sections: first, the loading and preparing of the copper circuit boards with a chemical called photoresist. Then to the “yellow room” (because the lights were all yellow instead of white to keep from overexposing the circuit boards before their time), where the boards were overlaid with a photographic negative or template and hit with bright lights from the exposure machines. From that section, the circuit boards went into a large vat of sickly sweet smelling trichloroethylene mists by way of a conveyor belt. Finally to the workers who picked the boards off the belt and handed them to those who put the boards through the etcher filled with cupric acid where the boards with a faint circuit design came out.

And that is where Roscoe was today.

“Hi Rosie, I guess I am working with you,” said Roscoe.

“To what do I owe this honor,” smiled Rosie. “No, don’t tell me, you got demoted ‘cause of your outside activities,” she said sarcastically. “Here’s your gloves and don’t forget to start chewing some gum,” Rosie cautioned.

It was a well known practice to chew gum while working on the etching machines. The fumes of cupric acid and the toxic soup of the other chemicals, never adequately ventilated from the room, tended to irritate the throat. The workers would joke as they went outside for lunch that they would choke on the fresh air. Back inside the air tasted like copper—and copper tastes like blood.

Roscoe looked up at the clock, where the plastic face of it was pitted from repeated exposure to the fumes in the room.  God it is going to be a long day, he thought as the first of the etched panels and a wave of fumes hit him in the face.

The morning progressed fairly uneventful as Roscoe kept to his work under the watchful eye of Dick Akers who seemed to hover around him more than usual.

It was about 10:30 am when all hell broke loose.

Vickie burst through the door of the etch room and ran over to Rosie.

“Rosie, come with me quick. It’s Ellen,” Vickie said with a touch of panic in her voice.

Rosie left the etch room, turned around and called back to Roscoe. “Hey union man, try not to mess anything up while I’m gone.”

Roscoe noticed a few more of the women had left their work stations and had headed to the woman’s bathroom.

By now the whole department had stopped work and his manager no longer peered over his shoulder.

Roscoe left the etch room and walked over to a crowd of workers near the women’s’ bathroom as the plant medical team wheeled a stretcher with Ellen on it towards the elevator.

Roscoe spotted Rosie and walked over to her. “What the hell happened?”

“Ellen had a miscarriage in the bathroom, damn it,” said Rosie. “She’s not the first one to go through this and with all these damn chemical fumes hitting us in the face she sure as hell won’t be the last. At least 8 women have gone through what Ellen just did, but they had it happen at home, out of sight…..and out of mind. We don’t talk about it much but when it does happen and we take a few sick days off these damn managers try to tell us it is our own problem, nuthin’ to do with these chemicals they say. Oh and don’t forget to bring in a note from your Doctor, they say like we’re kids! Hell, a couple of the women in this building thought they were lucky when they didn’t get miscarriages, only to have babies born with fingers missing—or worse. And don’t think you might not have problems yourself some day,” said Rosie poking her figure into Roscoe’s chest.

Roscoe knew that was true. Years ago one of his friends who cleaned out the trichlor vat complained to the boss that he felt a burning sensation in his legs when he got a heavy dose of residue mist. 5 years later he is out of work and being treated for testicular cancer.

After the medical team left the floor the plant manager made his appearance. Jimmy Stockwell was not just the plant manager; he was also the son of one of the richest families in the town.  In his forties, but the good life had left him flabby, and arrogant.

The crowd of workers who gave Ellen their get well wishes stood around and talked as Stockwell strode over.

“Don’t you all think you should get back to work now?” he said sharply. He looked over at Dick Akers as if to say—get them moving already.

The crowd of workers grumbled at his total lack of compassion for what happened to Ellen.

Stockwell told the workers “You know I don’t need this job and my family certainly doesn’t need you. We can ship this plant right off to China in a heartbeat and then where will you be? And I can pay them a fraction what I pay you and they will be grateful and buy an extra pound of rice,” he said with a laugh. “You can bet they won’t complain about a few chemicals or some fumes in their eyes.”

That was too much for some.

From the back of the crowd, Sharon, one of the chemical techs, had listened intently. Her anger built slowly but Stockwell pushed her over the edge. She went to her work station grabbed a beaker, put a chemical label on it and filled it up.

As Jimmy Stockwell stood in front of the workers waiting for them to go back to work, Sharon walked purposely through the crowd, strolled up to Stockwell and threw the liquid at his crotch.

Stockwell yelled as the liquid hit him. “What the hell did you throw at me,” he said in a panic as he started to take his pants off.

Sharon calmly told him “We don’t need no show, Mr. Stockwell. The label says Cupric Acid but it’s just water. Now you know how we feel.  Ellen went out of here because this place isn’t safe. And you know I went through the same thing she did and I ain’t gonna see another woman go through that,” Sharon said with defiance.

The crowd of workers cheered.

From the back of the crowd Stan Linski shouted “you tell him Sharon!”

It was Rosie who spoke up next. “Mr. Stockwell if you’re thinking of firing Sharon here you better think again because if you do we are going to raise holy hell. But the first thing we are going to do right now is sign some union cards.”

“Hey union man where are you,” Rosie called out.

The crowd of workers went to the break room and all signed up for the union. Roscoe collected them all.

The shift ended but the mood was certainly different then when it started.  Roscoe headed to the door.  Rosie yelled at him. “Hey, Roscoe wait up.”

With a grin on her face, she said: “this could be the start of a…ah hell how does that line go?” “A wonderful friendship or something like that right? I guess we have to rent Casablanca,” said Roscoe.

“What next union man? Things got shook up today. Ain’t going to be the same tomorrow,” said Rosie with apprehension.

Roscoe turned to Rosie, “Well first thing we do is go to the union office and tell them what happened.”

As they walked down the sidewalk to their cars, Jimmy Stockwell and Alan Wells, the Human Resources Director, entered the guard shack and watched as Roscoe and Rosie left.

Stockwell, with darkness in his eyes turned to Wells, “make the call.”

The HR director picked up the phone and dialed. Stockwell said coldly, “tomorrow will not be the same as today.”


The end