DORCHESTER (BOSTON), Mass. It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Monday, and most young men in their mid-to-late twenties would rather be anywhere than sitting at a desk in summer school, but not Pete Crannels. “My dad was in the union, and my grand-dad before him,” he says as he takes a seat at a rectangular table with seven other apprentices for a night course in the tricks of his chosen trade. “It gave them a good life, and with my girlfriend pregnant I need some security.”
“Some of youse is not even tryin’!”
Instructor Al DeMasio, who has attained the rank of “Master” in Local 213, enters the room with an armload of instructional materials that might strike an observer as curious if he didn’t know that the class is being held at the Paperstuffers Union Hall in this blue collar-neighborhood, where a place in an apprentice program is viewed as both a birthright and a ticket to a comfortable future with good wages and benefits.
Syllabus of course materials.
“Paperstuffers will never run out of work,” says Professor Marlon Grace of the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk Center for Obscure Labor Studies. “Like basket-weaving, nobody has figured out a way to automate the process, and they can’t off-shore the job because America needs napkins and paper towels twenty-four hours a day.”
DeMasio puts the young men through their paces, showing them how to jam the subject matter of his instruction into spaces too small to hold them, forcing restaurant patrons and users of public washrooms to stick their hands up narrow metal chutes. “Your goal is to get between 1.5 to 2 times as many sheets into the receptacle as you’re supposed to,” he says as Crannels finishes off a napkin holder that one might find sitting on a table at Marge’s Diner just across Dorchester Avenue, or “Dot Ave” as it is known to locals.
DeMasio eyes the product of the young tyro’s efforts, purses his lips in an effort to remain diplomatic, but finally can’t contain himself. “Did you use to play T-ball over in Savin Hill?” he asks innocently.
“Okay, tough guy. We’ll fix your aperture so’s you don’t dispose so easily no more.”
“Yeah, in like third grade.”
“Well, this is different, because there ain’t no participation trophies in paper-stuffing,” DeMasio says to a few stifled laughs, then grabs a handful of napkins and jams them into the metal container until it looks like a kernel of silver popcorn about to burst.
“There–that’s the way it’s supposed to be done,” DeMasio says. “See?”
A young man with a wispy goatee and a Harley-Davidson t-shirt raises his hand.
“But doesn’t that make it harder for the customers to get them out?” he asks.
“Well, sure it does. And when they pull them out, they ruin a lot of ’em, so then the owner has to buy more.”
“So basically, you’re making everybody unhappy?” the young man asks, incredulous at the waste built into the business model.
“Well,” DeMasio says, “You don’t want to be out of work–do you?”
“No, but . . .”
“Okay, well there’s another party involved here that’s quite happy about the situation.”
“The napkin and paper towel industry. They like things the way they are.”
“But how does that help . . . us?” Crannels asks, genuinely mystified.
DeMasio takes a roll of bills out of his back pocket as a sly smile creeps across his face. “Let’s just say it pays for Big Paper to keep the status quo.”