I’ve written a number of posts over the years about working in an underground nickel mine in northern Manitoba in the summer of 1969. It was a formative experience for me in many good ways. About 10 years ago, my late sister, April Henderson, told me that when I came back at the end of the summer and she saw me, it was the first time she thought of me as a man. I was 18.

One story I have never written down is about how a number of the workers came together to help save my job. We all worked for Wescore, which was a subsidiary of Midwest Diamond Drilling, which was, in turn, a contractor to Inco, the large nickel mining company that owned the mine. I was forced to pay union dues to the United Steelworkers of America. I think they negotiated our contract, but I’m not sure. In any case, this story isn’t about the union. It’s about a bunch of workers who turned out to be good guys and who threatened a wildcat strike to save my job.

I started working in the job at around mid-May. The mine was about 40 miles south of the city of Thompson, Manitoba.

The guy I worked under was a 38-year old named Harry Subtelny. He was the driller and I was the helper. He was a decent boss. He was also my roommate in a room that was approximately 12 feet long and 8 feet wide. So we were together a lot.

After only 2 or 3 days, I felt confident in the job. I finally knew what a pipe wrench was and I understood why we were getting core out of the rock. It was so the geologists could look at it and figure out where the nickel was. Once I felt confident, I also felt confident arguing with him.

I started out on night shift. We would have dinner and then walk downhill to the mine at about 7:45 p.m., change into our “slicks,” the rubber uniforms we wore to repel water. I would then put on my boots, helmet, and helmet lights, with a battery on my belt that fed the light. Then at 8:00 p.m., we would go down in the “cage,” their word for the elevator, to the level we worked on. I think the first level I worked on was at 700 feet below the surface, which was relatively shallow. (If memory serves, the deepest “drift,” the word for whatever level we were at, was 2,700 feet.)

Our first big argument was about hours worked. On night shift, we would generally come to the surface at around 4:00 a.m. The first few times, Harry would write down our hours. I didn’t check to see what he wrote; I had no reason to. But about the 4th or 5th time, he told me to write it down and told me to write 10 hours, a number that made sense only if we had come up at about 6:00 a.m. I refused. So he took the pen and wrote down 10.

There was also a provincial election going on at the time and the New Democratic Party, a social democratic party, looked as if it was going to win. (It did.) One of its main promises was to provincialize the auto insurance industry. (It did.) Most of the guys working in the mine were relatively young and they thought, it turns out correctly, that the NDP would cross-subsidize, increasing rates slightly for older people and cutting them substantially for people in their 20s. I argued with them a lot but got nowhere.

I also argued politics with Harry a lot.

After I had been there for a few weeks, I showed up at day shift, expecting to be Harry’s helper. But the foreman, a 60-year old named Emil, handed me a stick with a nail in it and a green garbage bag. He told me to go to 4 levels of the mine and clean up all the garbage. I had no idea why but, hey, he was the boss and so I did it. I got to see a lot of neat machinery I hadn’t seen and had very brief but pleasant chats with the workers on those levels.

By lunchtime, I had finished cleaning the 4 levels and sat down and ate my sandwich. Since I had a whole afternoon ahead of me, I decided that I might as well clean the other 4 levels. So when I came to the surface at about 4 p.m., I had cleaned the whole mine. I got out of my slicks and into my regular clothes, went to the bunkhouse to read for a while, and then went to dinner.

The next day when I showed up for day shift, I was assigned to a younger guy named Phil. I worked with him for a number of weeks and never worked for Harry again.

Weeks later I found out what had happened behind the scenes. Harry had complained to Emil that I was a lousy worker. Emil responded by giving me the job of cleaning the mine, figuring that I would think it was beneath me. (In a mining camp of 300 men, I was, with 2 years of college under my belt, the most formally educated person in the camp.)

It literally never occurred to me that cleaning a mine was “beneath me.” Hell, I had cleaned our outdoor biffy at our cottage. My view was that any job in which I wasn’t stealing or defrauding was not beneath me.

But Dick Timmins, a 30-year old who was being groomed to replace Emil when he retired, saw what was going on. Somehow, he knew that I was a good worker and he attributed Harry’s upset to the fact that I argued about politics. (I argued with everyone that summer and, indeed, had argued with Dick about the NDP and learned a lot from that one argument–but that’s another story. Also, I never told Harry how to do the job; he knew way more than I knew and my arguments were strictly about things I knew.)

So Dick went to Emil and told Emil that if he fired me, he would encourage the other 20 or so workers to walk out for the day and many of them had said they would. Dick told me this weeks later when we were sitting around on a Saturday night drinking. All of the guys but me had booze and I had a Coke; someone surreptitiously spiked it with rye and when I started drinking, I realized it. This was this their way of initiating me, so I grinned and drank. I didn’t drink again until I was 21.

I’ve written in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey about how I got over my air of superiority about “uneducated” people that summer. I’ve never written down this part of the story, though.

I’ve told my daughter the “stick, nail, and garbage bag” story numerous times, although I never told her about the threatened wildcat strike. The reason I told her the garbage story is to get across the idea that you have a lot of say about how you interpret things. I was too dense to know what Emil was doing. But even had I known, I would have done the same thing. I had a great job paying great wages with lots of overtime, and I badly needed that money to pay for my last year of college.

The whole experience, and how I reacted to it, might have been part of what made me a man by the end of the summer.


In the first comment below, Zeke asked a question about Harry. It reminded me that I should point out a bigger context.

When you diamond drill, the thing you hate is hitting mud rather than hard rock. Our core tubes held 10 feet of core. So you would drill 10 feet, pull the pipes out with the core tube at the end, empty the core tube into the core box, and then put the pipes down and drill again. We went as deep as 250 feet, so when you’re that deep and you’re pulling the core tube up, you’re “breaking,” that is, unscrewing, each 10 foot length of pipe. That takes a while.

Imagine that you’re at 200 feet down and you hit mud. You drill and it seems to go nowhere. You pull the pipes up and “break” them and you find that, far from being full, the core tube has, say 6 inches of mud. Then you put the pipes down again. And then you seem to get nowhere and pull them up again and you have–wait for it–6 more inches of mud.

This can go on for most of a shift. In a given 8-hour shift, if you were humming, you could drill at least 40 feet of core. We got a bonus for every foot over 27. The bonus was 20 cents per foot for the driller and 12 cents per foot for the helper.

But when you hit mud a few times in a shift, you knew you weren’t going to get close to 27 feet of core. I vaguely recall that in one such shift, we got less than 10 feet.

Here’s the interesting thing that gave me a more charitable view of Harry’s “cheating” on hours. When we hit mud a few times and had only 10 or 15 feet of core to show for it, we worked 10-hour shifts and then came to the surface and claimed 8 hours. So maybe it balanced out.