Direct action against unpaid wages on a demolition site

Demolition worker Anthony's account of labouring in the New England winter, and taking direct action when his wages were not paid.

Submitted by Steven. on October 16, 2009

The wicked New England winter had set in. There was no more work haying fields or picking apples. There was food from our livestock and from what we could put away from our garden, but no money for anything else. My friends and I drove our beat-up station wagon to the nearby "city," population 5,000. We went to apply for food stamps and possibly general assistance. The case worker wouldn't hear of it: "There's plenty of work in this town. I know for a fact that they're hiring workers across town at the old grain mill."

We bundled ourselves against the bitter cold and went over to the hulking remains of an enormous grain mill that was now in a state of disrepair. We found the boss in his little warming shack relaxing next to his diesel space heater. "Sure I need more men, can't pay the going rate, but it is work. It's paying buck-fifty an hour." This guy was in cahoots with the state and he wasn't even paying minimum wage. We took the job.

Our job was to tear apart the huge grain mill and strip the parts into piles, so he could sell the bits and pieces. The planks from the hardwood floors, the electrical equipment, the I-beams and metal work, the plumbing fixtures -- all this would be resold, plus he would get paid for the demolition itself. He sent us out with crowbars, hammers and little else.

We were working on sub-flooring on the top of a three-story building. The roof had already been removed so we were totally exposed to the snow and howling wind. The floorboards were frozen and difficult to budge with crowbars. We attacked them with hammers and catspaws. We were in danger of freezing to death or slipping on the icy walkways and falling to our deaths. We worked all day while the boss huddled inside with his jet powered space heater. We went home bitter with cold. We returned day after day in search of that elusive paycheck. Some days it wouldn't climb above zero degrees, and we'd be out sawing flooring apart, disassembling metal conduit or cutting I-beams with cutter torches, watching them fall perilously below. At lunch time, we would munch on our cheese sandwiches in the comfort of the warming shack, while the boss would stand by watching the clock. We were perhaps twenty, all young men, most with wives and new babies. The wives would come around at lunchtime to bring sack lunches and show the baby to their freezing husbands. There was a sick, desperate feeling most of the time, as this miserable work was the only way to escape the bitter impoverishment winter brings to small towns.

At the end of the day, on payday, we waited for our checks. The boss looked sheepish. "Look boys, see that pile of hardwood there? I expect to have your checks as soon as I sell that pile. Then there'll be plenty of money. Tomorrow, no doubt." We stood around and stared in disbelief. The next day came and still no money. A week passed with all of us sawing boards, tearing down walls, chainsawing through sub-flooring, sparks flying as we hit nails below. The anger was building.

Finally, one morning, we threw our tools down. Gathering all around, stomping our heavy boots trying to warm our feet, we plotted our retaliation for working several weeks with only promises of a paycheck. We knew he had in fact sold much of the material, and had even bought a new pick-up truck a few days ago. We picked up our crowbars, stomped down the remains of the stairs and barged into his office, the twenty of us prominently displaying our crowbars. We demanded our money. He swore he didn't have any. We said we'd have to pay ourselves then.

We left the warming shack and fanned out over the plant, grabbing anything of value. We brought our vehicles up close to the gate and started filling them with anything we could possibly resell -- the tools, chain saws, materials, electrical equipment, anything and everything. The boss just stood by nervously, not even bothering to call the police as the five or so cops in town wouldn't mess with the twenty of us with crowbars. When we were satisfied with our booty, we waved our bars at him; called him the scumbag he was and drove away. Never heard from him again.

Text taken from Sabotage in the American workplace: anecdotes of dissatisfaction, mischief and revenge from