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Local view: This Labor Day, U.S. workers are at risk

The beefy drunk refused to step onto the escalator, and I felt for the handle of the billy club hanging from my belt.

I was working as a security guard at Arlington Park Race Track in suburban Chicago in the late ‘70s, a job I think about whenever Labor Day rolls around. While others have ambivalent feelings about the American labor movement and its so-called decline, there is no question for me that the first Monday in September is one of our most important holidays. In fact, it is on par with the Fourth of July since both commemorate freedom, security and the restoration of human dignity — all of whose absence I never felt more keenly than while working at Arlington Park.

The job did not start out that way. On the contrary, the prospect of enforcing the law in an entertainment venue was exciting. Magnificent thoroughbreds, huge sums of money, festive crowds. Add jockeys, grooms, touts, trainers and a host of colorful characters that I had only read about in stories by Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway. The job even paid better than minimum wage and involved neither sweat nor heavy lifting, unlike the back-breaking landscaping and construction jobs I had also been employed at as a young man.

What could go wrong?

As is often the case in youth, reality did not match expectations. The first indication came on day one when the lieutenant lined us up for inspection. He reprimanded several men for cigarettes in their shirt pockets or for unbuttoned collars. I was scolded for scuffed shoes. But I did not mind. I welcomed, in fact, military-style discipline.

But then he told us that the biggest mistake to avoid was “roughing up the wrong guy.” He explained how our jobs — which had no health care, overtime pay, sick days or vacation — did not protect us against lawsuits. One of the other rookie guards asked him how we were supposed to deal with troublemakers.

“Find a wall phone and call the security office,” said the lieutenant. “We’ll handle it.”

That was it. No training. No role-playing. We were uniformed props spaced throughout the arena as deterrents.

The next revelation was more deflating: Patrons had zero respect for us. I grew to recognize a signature look in people’s eyes, as if they perceived the police costume but not the human being inside. We were a joke, like scarecrows you could learn to ignore.

It’s why no one wanted to direct traffic when racing ended. Customers ignored hand signals, often nearly running over the cops. Eventually, they were left to crisscross to the exits on their own.

The weekday crowd included hundreds of regulars, gambling addicts with minimal interest in the horses or even the sport. And when their horse lost, they saw us as soldiers of the establishment that robbed them. But since there was little advantage in attacking us, they attacked elsewhere. Between races, people approached often to report purses stolen, pockets picked or their cars “keyed.” I discovered bathroom fixtures busted and tables and chairs vandalized. Once, immediately after a winner was announced in a photo finish, a glass door just out of my sight was kicked in, exploding into a thousand pieces.

Vandals and thieves had the edge, always knowing our whereabouts. It drove me crazy that I could never catch one, especially the pickpockets who left bewildered victims in tears.

“Security!” a teller shouted one afternoon. I was working in the upper clubhouse, an enclosed, air-conditioned section with pricier admission. An obviously inebriated 40-year-old male customer was leaning against the betting window, cursing the teller for “stealing” his winning ticket. The teller demanded I throw him out. But the guy wouldn’t budge until I assured him he could appeal his case to a higher authority if he accompanied me downstairs.

When I touched his shoulder to guide him onto the escalator, he elbowed me away.

I was not surprised that he redirected his wrath toward me. To him I was no public servant. Not performing anything useful or making an honest living. Invisible to him except for the uniform, I had all the nobility of a guard in a prison camp, with none of the power. This smelly, slurring drunk who’d lost his money ranked higher here than I did.

I never got physical, guiding him instead down to the office, like herding a mule through a maze.

I’ve worked many jobs since Arlington, and it was no accident I aligned with unions at every opportunity. Unionizing could have helped make Arlington security guards more prepared, committed and fulfilled back then. The park’s customers might have been safer and the track a more inviting attraction for families.

Today, with the American worker under attack in Wisconsin and in other states whose legislatures have weakened or eliminated the influence of organized labor, the result is not simply the decline of unions. Rather, the larger danger may be the loss of principles that make up our work ethic: the respect, pride and dignity in what we do.

David McGrath of Hayward is a retired English professor, author of “The Territory” and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion pages. Contact him at profmcgrath2004@