An interview with James O'Donnell


Material Information

An interview with James O'Donnell
Physical Description:
75 minutes
James O'Donnell
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


General Note:
Interviewed by Matthew White

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
PCM 013 James O'Donnell 7-1-2010
PCM 013
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Full Text


The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix 241 Pugh Hall PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 Phone 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when c onducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview transcripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SP OHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the original oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim document of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interview ee; subjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelling corrections SPOHP transcribers ref er to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


PCM 013 Interviewer: Mathew White Date: July 1, 2010 W: We are recording now. Okay? I say my name is Mathew White on behalf of the Samuel Proctors Oral H istory Program. It is July 1 approximately one o clock with a Mr. Jim Donnell. O : James J Donnell. W: James J. Talking about the Panama Canal Z one on the reunion. So union. O : o t ell you that I was born in the Canal Z one. W: Okay. And what year was that? O : I was born in 1928. W: Okay. O : April 27. I went to the C anal Zone school system until I r eached the age of sixteen. I got a job with the National Maritime U nion [The National Maritime Union was a labor union established in 1937 that aimed to protect seamen from being overworked an d underpaid ] The man in charge that got me the job was Ren Lioeanjie He was a director for the N M U in Panama. What they did was supply se a men on ships W hen they need an employ ee Ren would get to them. I heard that they hired young fellow s for a shipping out on the ships Starting at sixteen years of age I was hired and got the job. That was my first contact with u nions.


PCM 013; White; Page 3 W: Can I just back up a little bit and ask you you were born in the Canal Zone Now how long had your family been there? O : My father came there in 1927. I was born in [19]28. And I had two other brothers that were also born there after that. I went to the Ca nal Zone school system, a ll the way through the college that they have there the junior college. Gradu ated in [19] 49 from the college I applied for a job with the a rmy and there was two men Phil Green and Quin by Smith who arranged for a n apprentic e pro gram that would allow the a rmy, n avy, and air f orce to hire individuals to do apprentice work and then they would have qualified people to fill in at a later date. Well the army pu t out two positions: one was mechanical one was electrical. I go t the ele ctrical job as a power house electrician worked with them with going to school for four more years. Graduated and a Phil Green took me to the I B E W International Brotherhood of Electrical W orkers [The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is a labor union that began in 1891 and supports the rights of workers in the electrical and construction industries] and I became a member. That was in 1954 I believe it was. I then work ed for the union as a secretary treasurer for many years. W: When you w orked for the union were you full time for the union O : No W: Or are you still maintained an elec trician and you worked for them ? O : Yeah. I worked in part in the evenings and on my own time. And through that job I was eventually when I retired was a ble to get social security because I paid


PCM 013; White; Page 3 into social security a t the same time that I was working for the government. The I B E W was formed in 1905, and a lot of workers came from the United States They were members of t he various unions a nd they formed a coalition of all the me tal trades and non metal trades. T hey called themselves the C entra l Labor Union Metal Trades Council They had an organization such as the American Postal Workers, the A P W U the International Brotherhood of Elect rical Workers, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Carpenters Union, Communication Workers of America, National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers like I said, International Association of Firefighters, International Association of Machinists, Ame rican F ederation of Government Employees, the Federation of Teachers, and the Fraternal Order of Police. As an example all of those small unions they were very small joined together in one union called the Central Labor Union and then they b rought in all of the metal trades people. It was the Central Labor Union and Metal Trades C ouncil. So I was in the I B .E. W and t hen I became a delegate to the Central Labor U nion. And after I was in the Central Labor U nion for some time they elected me to be a legislative re presentative and they sent me to Washington. I was in Washington for three months doing legislative work that the union wanted done. I came back and got into a disagreement with the I B E W which they were th e ones that delegated me to the Central Labor U nion. I was removed as a delegate. And at that time the A F G E ., American Federation of Government Empl oyees was also a member of the Central L abor Union and the president of the organization ask me to join


PCM 013; White; Page 4 up with his union in addition to the I B E W H e would make me a delegate back to the Central Labor Union which he did. At that time th ey were ready to work for protection s in the treaty because the treaty was coming down the road. M y wife and I, and John Ulster drew up a labor protection s that would be included in the treaty. The se labor protections were what I would classif y as high school work; i t was not really professional. The a dministration under Phil Steers the comptroller, wanted to make sure that they got good protection and thr ough his work with me we were able to get K. Ritchie to be the speech writer who put the paper into professional presentation. He divided it up into three categories : the workers who w ould be relieved of their job, w aw ay ll see what conditions of work would be when the treaty came a nd all. A nd some of the benefits that we had in that labor paper was that a person who normally could retire with adverse action after twenty fi ve yea rs of service at age fifty w hat we did was we just subtracted two years from everything that was in that personnel manual. So a person would be able to retire at two years less than fifty, so forty eight and two years less than twenty five so twenty three So forty eight and twenty three which was unheard of in the federal system, and many other things like two and a half percent for each year of service after 1979. The two and a half p ercent was only good for [inaudible 7:55] people but it was accepted for us. We worked with Congressman Murphy and Congressman Flood of Con gress and Leonor Sullivan, the chairperson of Panama Canal Zone C ommittee of the Merchant


PCM 013; White; Page 5 Marine and Fisheries Committee. T hey in turn were very helpful. Then we were told that if we get the union the AF L CIO in Washington to approve this addendum to the treaty, Murphy, who then becam e chairman of the Panama Canal S ubcommittee would allow it to be included as an addendum in the treaty. The the government introduced a proposed treat y themselves the first time and on in the House at all T Murphy produced his own suggestion of a treaty: it would include a protection, if we would pass it, if we could get the AF L CIO to agree with it. So all of these union that I mention ed all have representatives in the United States. All of them backing the people down here, down in the Canal Z one they contacted their organization and they in turn con tacted people in Washington. W e traveled back and forth among the various members of the House tr ying to push this agreement. Murphy did get it included into the treaty, which was terribly beneficial for us. Then I returned to the Canal Zone and worked part time for the A F G E whic h I became President of. W: And what year was that? O: W: Okay. But it was after the treaty was O: Was in making. W: It was [19]70s O: Early [19]80s W: Early [19]80s okay.


PCM 013; White; Page 6 O: As a president of the A F G E ., American Federation of Government Employees the people who worked for the ar my, civilians who lived in the town called Curund were told that they had to get out of their quarters because the a rmy was having troubl e with the riots in Panama. T hey wan ted their people housed in the Canal Zone. So they told all the people in the Curund area that they had to vacate, terribly sad T hey came to the A F G E and we decided to fight the a rmy on it because we believed that money w as used from a certain section of the government to build those houses and they were not intended for military use T dollars from the people who were being vacated and we went t o the court in Balboa and presented our case Betty Olsen was the women and Albert Joyce was the man the two lawyers and the end result was we lost the case completely. We took it to another court in Crist bal because we had people on both sides of the incident who joined. W e lost there also. So we took i t to the district court in the C anal Z one, Judge Crown, s noteworthy of that case he said from the bench : if you could get one thing in our f avor he would rule in our favor. J ust give him one thing thing that said that the housing was for the civilians so we lost the case. So then for the newspaper we said we were goi ng to go to the Fifth Circuit C ourt in New Orleans. Before we got to the court Gener al Maybr y the man that was in charge of all the housing called Joyce and I into a meeting and said that if we did not fight this case any further he could concede and not evict the people. There


PCM 013; White; Page 7 were six people that he was going to evict, we agreed to it, there were six people who were below grade six and he felt that they should be in authorized housing. So we were very pleased to be able to wi n that case and we then a big but it was something. I told you about congressman Murphy and Sullivan they were very good people and the man who really helped out considerab ly was Phil Steers who helped put the paper together that got the protection for the employees in the Canal Zone While in Washington, John McCart, he was the head of the maritime unions, h e offered space in his office and his clerical help for us who wer e trying to get this paper passed in Congress. Then well, I was made president emeritus for L ocal 14, and that brings us up to the present date. I had finished my work with the union in 1991 when I retired. Came to the States and been here in Florida just doing nothing for the l ast nineteen years W: [Laughter] I find that hard to believe t O: Yeah. [L aughter] But it more el aborate than I said. But it was a collective bargaining agreement that pas sed with that treaty. Means that they would have collective bargaining in the Panama Canal Company T o get t he collective bargaining the A F S C M E ., the American Federation of State and County Municipal Empl oyees was one of the largest unions there. They had Panamanians in their union, very few Americans. The other unions I was talking about they had Americans and not Panamanians. W: And which one had both?


PCM 013; White; Page 8 O: The Brotherhood of Post al W orkers, the I B B ., the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Locom Union, Communication Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Association of Firefighters, International Association of Machi nists, American Federation of Government Employees, American Federation of Teachers, and Fraternal Order of Police. The N M U had just Panamanians and the A F S C .M. E had just Panamanians. But when the collective bargaining came A F S C M E was with the Central Labor Union. So the Central Labor Union had all the se unions to try be spokesman; they had won, so they became spokesman. S o we no longer had a voice talking to the governor. W e had monthly meetings with the governor and the unions wo uld be represented there. The N M U got all Panamanians also ; they won them by themselves and pilots that represen ted themselves and they won. B ut until the treaty passed they had spokesmen for N.M.U., spokesme n for A F S C M E and spokesme n for pilots. The Central Labor Union had to go under one of those if th ey wanted to get anything done, w hich the A F S C M E basically represented Panamanians and N M U about the story of the Ca nal Z one and the unions. W: Okay. Well can I back up a little bit? O: Sure. W: And ask you some questions. Well first off even before we get to the union part, you born in the Canal Zone right?


PCM 013; White; Page 9 O: Right. W: And so I would like to hear a little bit more about growing up in the Canal Zone childhood story. So I would like to hear a little about what it is like to grow up in the Canal Zone, what your memories are, what your schooling was like. O: Well the Balboa Elementary School that I attended was good, a new building with all new equipment. As I recall I had a good time, a good raising. I t was less than a block maybe a block away from my house so it was easy walking. It was loca ted at the head of Barnaby Street. And it had three floors and a big patio in the center. W: So you went to Balboa Elementary Sc hool I understand sports were very big in the Canal Zone. O: Yeah. I played football, base ball, softball, basketball. I t might be noteworthy to mention that in the basketball team I was in high school were fast and furi ous and very complicated. I threw the ball in the wrong basket. [laughter] W: A self goal. O: I became very famous. W: Oh good. [laughter] O: Thre w the ball in the wrong basket. I still hear about it today. W: So at the reunion do people remind you of it? O: Yeah.


PCM 013; White; Page 10 W: Oh excellent. Now who did you play th ough? I mean what other high schools were there? Did you play just intramurals or did you play O: I played archery, I played think if anything else. W: That sounds like enough. Now again were thes e interscholastic? Did you play other high schools? O: Cristobal High S chool. W: Cristobal High School O: And the junior college when I was a senior years. The college would have a team and the high school w ould have a team and Cristobal H igh S chool would have a team. We go back and forth d all either ride the bus together over or rid e the train. W hen it was on the schedule of the football team we c ould use we use d the bus. W: And what position did you play on the football team? O: A guard. W: Guard. O: Get beat up W: ughter] O: On the front lines W: The grunt if you will. Yeah. O: Yeah. I was never a star; I was just a reg ular player, which they needed. W: Well how big was your graduating class?


PCM 013; White; Page 11 O: In the junior college it was about one hundred and twenty five I b elieve the figure was when I graduated. And th e high school I think that it was four hundred. W: Uh O: Yeah. Later on I think it grew to about seven hundred. W: Well that is a pretty good size high school then, s ounds like. O: And then we moved into the new high school just after it was built. We had the elementary school and after the sixth grade you went to the seventh, then eighth as junior high then there was ninth, then tenth, eleventh, and twelfth in high s chool. All the teac degree to teach, which was a higher standard than most places. W: Yeah. O: As I recall the statistics eighty five percent of those that graduated went to college. Which was, I think an excellent record for the school. W: Now where did the teachers come from? Where they all recruited within the Canal Zone? O: No. All of them North Americans from up north. At that time the system was split between white and black. They called them silver and gold. The silver people were the non American people they were on the silve r rolls. T he bathrooms were for the silver people W: Now do you know did the signs say that? Silver. O: Y es it said silver and gold. To my knowledge it never said black or white but silver and gold. It started when they paid the people. They paid the locals in


PCM 013; White; Page 12 silver; they paid the U S citizens in gold. T hat was for quite so time, many years. And then, of course th at all went out to the window. T hey were no longer silver or gold but the unions took in just you might say gold people. The A F S C M E took in the s ilver people. The different roll s and the bathrooms were the same way, the drin king fountai ns was the same way. That was in the younger years. I that it went out the window. W: But you remember that it was during your stay that it started to phase out. O: Yes. Another thing that might be interesting when I became an apprentice, a powerhouse electrician, the first job I got when I showed up to the boss Earl Best h e says that to sign me to a man to work with and he assigned me to the janitor and he says you work with the janitor and he will sho w you what to do. I thought at the time that he was joking, and I was going to play along t joking. He was serious so I became very seriou s learning what a janitor does. I was his helper. W: And how old were you then? O: twenty one years of age, and the janitor and I became good friends. And when he was going to the silver bathroom I would go in with him because I stick ed with him W: Uh huh. T O: And the fell ow s that were in the bathroom two o f th em were on the bench and one on the ho p per. And when I showed up they did not want me in there. They were terribly upset that I was us


PCM 013; White; Page 1 3 that they thought the same way about the gold people as the gold p eople thought about the silver people. So anyhow, after two weeks of working with the janitor Earl Best said something different at that time. W: Okay. In what year did you graduate from h igh school? O: 1947. W: 1947 W ow that means cause I am a smart historian you were there for Pearl Harbor and World War II O: Yes. I went t o sea in 1944 like I told you, a board a ship that went up and down the coast of Central America. And because of that by an act of Congr ess later on I became a veteran. T hat gave me veteran service. W: Where you now on a shi p or where you actually in the n avy? O: No. W: Okay, and what did you do on the ship? O: First, I was an ordinary seaman, the second, I was a mess men, because I got so bur nt from the sun that they felt that they were real compassionate T hey had me put in the mess room d elivering the food and stuff like that and cleaning up the kitchen, which w as very good for a sixteen year old boy. W: Sure, sure absolutely. So when you were ther e there a couple of people that I have talked to have said that Pearl Harbor, you know December 7, 1941 w as significant day that marks a mark for the Panama Canal Zone. And I was


PCM 013; White; Page 14 wondering if you noticed the same thing or what your memories of that time period? O: Well, I can remember coming home and my mother was in the rocking chair and I told her that the Japanes e had attacked Pearl Harbor. I was all excited and she knew all about it already. So I remember telling the only real memory that I have of that incident. I remember going to the dry docks later and seeing ships that had been torpedo ed an d had the holes in the side. In the dry docks where repairing t hem for temporary repairs so they c ould go back to the S tates and be seeing t hings of the other nature ; I we used to harass the navy crew. T hey had a crew of about eight navy fellas who manned the one gun we had on the ship. And almost every day they would run out, get the gun ready, bring the shells out, load it up spin the gun around, and then call quits and put the shells away close up the gun. And they practice d that almost every day. O f course the crew that o on you gotta re not doing it right, and all this kind of stuff. Until one day we saw a submarine W those gu ys after that. We respe W: Did y ou ever find out whose sub it was? O: No. W:


PCM 013; White; Page 15 O: But the whole ship was on a big alert. But it could have been an American ship or it could have been someone else. W: Sure, sure. O: But they wer e sinking ships in that oc ean and the Caribbean as well. W: Sure. O: You may recall. And one of the things I remember else about that ship is I did not drink coffee never drank coffee in my house ; it was always tea. But when I got on the ship it w d get a break ever y so often and everybody would go up to where the coffee pot is and they get a drink of coffee a twenty minutes and then go back to work. Well I would go with them. W here I was standing was below the bridge w hen the captain on the bridge leaned over a nd he saw me. I never re ally met the captain and he says, when the head man talked to me. W: And knew your name. O: And knew my name. And I said no s ir. And he said well, this coffee break is for t drink coffee get back to work. He was joking. And of course everybody went along with that. They said ll get that son of a get a cup of coffee in your h and and if he leans over, tell him, go get screwed. W: [laughter] The captain?


PCM 013; White; Page 16 O: Yeah. So we went back the next time for coffee and of course I had a cup of coffee standing by the captain again, and he came on the bridge and said yes sir. He said, al more than fif teen minutes there. And of course I was the smallest guy on the ship the least of importance and was getting all that attention. It was comical. When I thi nk back anyhow that was things that I remember about the ship. W: Now in your earlier years, high school or earlier you say you went to junior college before you went to sea or after you came back? O: I went to sea at si xteen, g raduated from college in 1949. W: Okay. During that time did you have hobbies? W hat did you do with your leisure activities? O: made sure six of them boys. And all six boys had to work at the house; th ey had to sow, iron, clean, wash, and do anything else that had to be done at the house. So we were a lways occupied doing something. B special. W: O: We lived in Balboa. W: Okay. Well what type of housing did you have? O: It was a two bedroom house but my father made a third bedroom on the porch of the house. And at one time my brother s Tom, Paul, and I slept in two beds that were put together. T he three of us slept in two beds. And my brother Bob had his


PCM 013; White; Page 17 own bed and my brother s Jack and Dan had their own bed and my mother and father had their bed. So we were kind of crowded and my mother use d to say we want you to get a good educatio n, take care of your teeth and get out of the house [laughter]. W: [laughter] O ops I had a quest ion now it just slipped my mind. O: That happens when you get to be fifty. W: Yeah well O: My father came to the Canal Zone as a boil erma ker. W: Oh O: And then he became a planner and estimator. He retired as a plann er and estimator. But his original job out of Philadelphia was a boilerma ker. At that time they were doing a lo t of boilermaker work. The area needed men like that. They hired from the United States basically all North Americans, all whites W: Yeah. Just as an a side i f you ever want to take a break, get a piece of candy or something I know it can be hard talking constantly so let me know I can stop the t ape O: got plenty of time. W: Okay I just thought I would let you know. These interviews do take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. I was trying to remember if there was anyone coming in here a quick. [Break in interview]


PCM 013; White; Page 18 W: Al l right I just need ed to turn it off real quick. So you pretty much stayed in the Canal Zone except for when you were in Washington your whole life, until you moved out in [19]91, correct? O: T in the Canal Zone W: Right So I understand that the [19]50s were actually a time of importance for the Canal Zone in the s s when they started to see a lot of protests from the Pana manians. O: Well, I can recall one particular incident when my sister came for a visit. W: Uh huh and she had moved out I guess. O: Yeah she was in Philadelphia. She had left long time ago. They were having not exactly a riot but it was close to a riot where they maybe four, five, six thousand Panamanians tog ether chanting and the military was W: And do you remember when this was? O: Yeah Shaler Park W: I mean O: W: Okay, [19]50s, [19]60s ? O: L it W: Okay. O: And I drove my sister up to Ancn to show her the mass o f people that were getting ril ed up and the military was called out to guard the Canal Zone. And I showed her I said, look at that Marie. T


PCM 013; White; Page 19 Zone shortly and cause a lot of problems. She says we have had that in Philadelphia on regular basi s. It took the wind out of my sail, because I though t we were having something big. S he says h ere in the United Sta tes we have that often. In the late [19]50s, I guess they had a lot of trouble up there. W: N ot sure about Philadelphia but I know that starts the start of the civil rights movement and other things in America. Did you keep abreast of things going on in the United States? O: Say that again. W: Did you keep informed about the United States ? H ow connected did you feel? O: Well every two years we had to go back to the United States for vacation. My father had a d go back there every two years. But staying informed as a youngster ? No, as a married man of twenty three twenty five years of age ? A nvolved and how civil rights is being changed. But we were never really effected by the civil rights in the Canal Zone. W: Oka y. You said you read the paper. W hat newspaper s did you read? O: Panama America and the Stock Herald W: Where they produced in the Canal or O: In Panama. W: And they were Engli sh, Spanish? In what language w ere they? O: It was in English, both in English. W: Oh wow both in English.


PCM 013; White; Page 20 O: Yeah. The papers where printed in Panama but they were basically for the Americans in the Canal Zone. The unions used the papers to their advantag e W hen they wanted to say something, they talked to the reporters who were glad to get the news and were very helpful. W: When you said they used to their advantage would they just spread the word? O: For example one time we wanted to get a point across about what we thought was bad conditions. And so I took an article that we produced and the newspaper had printed in English and I took it to a fellow to have it translated in very good Spanish. I took that back t o Louie Nol an the reporter that did a lot of the stuff for the Canal Zone, a nd gave him the article in Spanish and asked him if he could get it printed in Panama in Spanish which they did. Now there was a lady who worked for the CIA and she told me tha t when the article came out in Spanish, t hey picked it up and wanted to have it translated into English and they reported it. They would report on anything that was said that concerned the Canal Zone if it was in Spanish and not English. W: So, that bring s up a whole lot of questions. O: Yeah. W: Well let me just star t with the basic ones. I mean, in the union was the United States government. O: Everyone who was in the union was a United States W: Everybody worked f or the U nited States government. O: Yes.


PCM 013; White; Page 21 W: How was that situation? I mean t normally think of unioniz ed workers. T hey think of you know the railroad brotherhoods worked for the railroad. O : The Canal Zone had a railroad. W: Right but everybo dy works for the United States government. The United Sta tes t take well to unions. I was wondering how your un ion as an existence went over a nd what your r elations were with the employers, and who did you negotiate with? O: Well for example the I B E W ., the International Brotherhood of Electrical W orkers about once a month they would meet with the governor and they would talk about the fact that health problems were not good or safety problems were not good or should be imp roved. T hey wanted to change various regulations about home leave and stuff like that. But as to actual union problems they never really discussed those because they talked about anything, anything and everything. W: With the governor? O: With the govern or. W: Directly with the governor. O: And he was very good. I mean they were very accommodating. T hey treated us like we were partners and we really had no problems trying to get col t get that until the treaty came around. But up till then we w ould pay our dues to the union; they in turn would


PCM 013; White; Page 22 pay into the national. Like when I joined I became what they call an A member. And being an A member I paid extra money and when I retired I got a pension from th e union. In fact I just got a certificate from the head office in Washington D.C. that said I had si ve been getting a pension for twenty years w hich is very good. W: Yeah excellent. In addition to safety concerns what other concerns O: Health. W: Health okay. O: ed about. We really were just barely a classification of union. T he I B E W would be able to keep up the membership. For example I maintain the fact that I was a powerhouse electrician and I got a card that certified that. I c ould use that same card in the S ta Canal I want ed to leave and go back to the S that I would drop out of the uni t want you to join their union. As a case in point, my father when he retired, he wanted to go to work and his brother in law was the agent for Black Diamond Shipping C ompany which had a pier and dock in Philadelphia When he went to work for the Black Diamond C ompany you had to be a union member. And the union asked my father not to join the union ; they would give him all the benefits because the brother in law was the agent for the company. They did that because if he joined the union all his children six of us would be eligible to join that union. If you


PCM 013; White; Page 2 3 a lot of work and never joined th e union. But if you lost your union status if you go back to the S tates you might not be able to get back to the union. So a lot of these people kept their union membership. W: Now, whe n you w ere bring the health and saf ety grievance to the governor, did it ever reach a point that you were threatening strikes o r any other actions that unions can sometimes take? O: To my knowledge no one ever said that. It was the mat ter of conversation. I would tell you something. If you thought it was good, we did it. I f was good see if you thought that should be changed. It was more or less a partnership. The best governor that I recall was Parfitt He was a two star general, b ut was delegated as a civilian d uring the time he was governor. V ery friendly to the unions, very corporative. For example, my wife got sick had a little cancer, had an operation he was ther e with cards, flowers, saying how sorry he was hope you get w W: No absolutely O: Yeah that was Parfitt. There was several good governors they had, several very good. So we were very lucky to have those type of people running the canal. W: Okay. Now going back to s ometh ing you said about the woman from the CIA. Did the CIA have a presents in the canal? O: In Panama they had a presence t hrough the embassy.


PCM 013; White; Page 24 W: Through the embassy. Were you aware of th em? Were they sort of a presence in your life? O: Yes I was aware that was special that I knew. Everybody knew the same thing. I can recall a particular case that was something similar. I was printing articles in the newspaper. I was ha ving printed in the newspap er a rticles about housing. The people were being kicked out of the ir house s Okay. And I would take photographs, or have p hotographs taken of some fellas who were be ing vacated from their quarters w ho were in the army World War II th e same time that Gener al Maybry was in the a rmy. And I would print these articles up and say this i s what General Maybry is doing to the fellow people who fought in G ermany. And it was a real blast. W: Yeah. O: The man sitting in the chair with his wife with hand on his shoulder W: See now y ou sound something like a rabble r ouser to me. O: [laughter] And what happens was, the young lad t hey wrote down every time you have something lik e that printed in the newspaper. M y job is to cut it ou t and put it in the file. She worked for G 2. And so she actually told me that. So I t hought that was to show that they were interested in what people were saying, especially if it was derogatory. W: Sure. Did you ever see any negative action against you for doing stuff like that?


PCM 013; White; Page 25 O: One time. A lieutenant colonel in his office. You see I was president of the A F G E and I had a rmy people in the union, clerical and o ne time it was reported that a lieutenant colonel said id of that ? And she quickly told me, and I thought well see I worked for the Pan Canal which is not a rmy W: Right. O: And so I was doing t hings for the civilians in the a do anything to me. W: But did they try at all do you know? I mean certainly pressures can be bought e O: [laughter] Yeah. The people that I knew in the Pan Canal often would say it going with that housing fight? Y ou going to go to the courts? H ow are you going to explain that? How are you going to pay for that? We did, and through default we won, not because we were right, which was a strange way t o win. So there were many Pan Canal people like me doing the same thin g in different unions. Th e list that I read off to you each one of them had a leader that did something along that line. W: Now moving ahead just a little bit. You talked about being in Washington O: Yes. W: How long where you in Washington? O: Three months.


PCM 013; White; Page 26 W: Oh for three months. Talk to me a little about, I think I wrote it down. You did legislative work, right? O: I was a legislative representative for the Central Labor Union and Metal Trades Council representing those unions. W: Right. And talk to me a little more detail o f what it is that you did there. I know that you said your w that was what you were doing, talking to congressmen about O: Actually I filled out a form to be a registered lob byist. W: You were a r egistered lobbyist, okay. Y ou gave me a large picture. Talk to me a little about the smaller picture, about what you did sort of day to day or some of the steps you took. O: Well, for example I meet with Strom Thurmond B efore I m et w ith him the AFL CIO big union in Washington told me that Senator Thurmond was very much against Catholics, v ery much against unionists. Catholics and u nion people, he re going to have a hard time. Well we made the appointment W: May I ask, are you Catholic? O: Yes. W: O: And we made an appointment, and I arrived and he was very gracious very nice. He got up from his desk and came up and shake my hand. Of course I was scared to death. I said out lo ud right at the start that I am a un ion member, and I


PCM 013; White; Page 27 am a Catholic, but I am here for this purpose. And he said told you such a thing that I am agai nst Catholics. It was a big lie; I have many f riends who are Catholic and so forth. He says my trouble is those Panamanians. not representing them are you? I said no m representing the employees in the Canal Zone whoever they are. He says well those Panamanians should get back into the trees where they belong. And I thought that was an earth shaking statement for him to say, but he did. Anyhow, he said he was in favor of t ere there for. I met with several congressmen : Flood Murphy, Sulliva n and they were all supporters T hey would give me tips of what to do, where to go and very helpful. But to be what you call a real lobbyist I was way down in the pole not a very good one W: Well you only did it for three months. O: Yeah. W: [laughter] Do you feel going there was a success? That you got what you wanted? O: Yes, the end result was that paper that we produced. W: Sure. O: T he real credit goes to L. Sear s and K. Ri t chie and to John Ulster and my wife They were the only one s out of the union that really but once it was pr esented, al l these unions jumped on the bandwagon, and got their na tional offices involved. And y ou got a lot of calls going in and consequently AF L CIO supported


PCM 013; White; Page 28 the paper which these people did that and they did it we ll. And we received the benefits of it. W: And now with the benefit of I guess, the treaty was signed in [19]79? O: Yes. W: thirty years D o you feel it was all a success and worthwhile and went well? O: Well we had nothing to do anyth ing other t han labor protection. W: Sure, well just that part. O: That part worked out extremely well. The employees as far as I know were all tickled pink. For example they got two and a half percent for every year beyond [19]79. To get that you had to be a policeman, or hazardous duty of some kind. And they give it to p eople like me who just worked a regular job, or a clerk, or anything else. So they made extra money on their retirement, which made them very happy. W: Oh well, good. You talked about how yo u got along with t he people above you. T he people that you represented, how did you get along with them? Were there people who worked in the Canal Zone ow well did you get along with them? O: Yes, there were many that did not belong to the union. The union was looked upon as a bad thing, troublemakers But when one of the directors of th e company would stop a meeting for example I went to the office of Phil Steers when he was having a board me eting with the various under links. The door was


PCM 013; White; Page 29 opened and I walked to the se cretary. I had to pass by w h ere eye contact was made. He stopped the board meeting told them to take a break while he could talk to me. And I was flattere d that he did such a th ing. H e would go over how far we got along on the paper and what is going on and is K. Ritchie done with his paper and stuff like that. And so I say I got along real well with them. T hey were just re al classy gentlemen. Y ou would ru n across some who were s tuck up. W: Sure. O: But the ones that I met were real good. W: So who thought you were a bad thing then? O: Well, none th at would said it out loud to me. W: Oh okay [laughter]. O: I know of a case I took a co urse in college when I got my ba chelor ee. It was a case in labor law, and the teacher name was Angel last name. And I told him when he met me he got a job at the Panama Canal and he was real happy in a section of lawyers. And I saw him in the cafeteria and I was real happy and I eventually told him that having being seen with me might be bad for him. And he said you mu st be paranoid. And I said yeah? you o well when right. He called me into the of fice and asked me what I was talking about with you. So when you hear things like that you do believe that they have a little you could be a little paranoid. W: Uh huh. Well what made you paranoid to begin with?


PCM 013; White; Page 3 0 O: agement people were not really in favor of the unions and th liable to get your name printed. W : Yeah. How about your neighbors, your friends O : All co workers W : Co workers and were they also in the union or did they O : Some of them, half of them I guess you would say. But not all America ns joined the union. T hey had a union for clerical workers, and they could join easily if they wanted to but many did not. They thought that management was suppose d to be one thing and workers are suppose d to be another. Twain shall not meet. W : Sure. Well, t hat all sounds very interesting. O : Different. W : Yeah different. What was your relationship in term s of the Panamanians? Di d you go out into Panama area for fun and recreation or work? O : My wife was from Panama. Her father was a businessman. American busi nessman who came down from the S tates opened a business in Panama. She never was associated with the Canal Zone. I met her coming out of church one day and felt like that mi ght be a good gal to meet. Ended up marrying her and th is December will be sixty years. W : Oh congratulations. Well I actually really want to go back to that. I heard almost nobody else mention religi ous life in the canal. W ere there churches?


PCM 013; White; Page 3 1 O : Oh the re we re loads of churches. I think there was almost as many churches as there was places you could buy beer and wine. W : [laughter] All denominations? O : They had one church called the U n ion C hurch was all those who did not fit into some other church. And then they had the Baptists, the Mormons, the Frie nds, the Catholics, Protestants. I think they had everything. W : Sounds like it. O: Seventh d ay Adventist. W: Uh huh. So who went to the U nion one? O: Who went to the Union one? W: re all covered. Is there Muslims, was there Buddhists? O: No. lieve there was any Buddhists. I Muslims l chur ch going people there. W: And those were all on the Canal Zone property. O: Yes. W: So your wife who was coming to church, she would come onto the Canal Zone property for church? O: Yes, there was no border, no fence. You just go back and forth without any problems. And she was a senior in high school and they allowed you to go your church on holy days. S o she went to church on a particular holy day when I saw her and picked her up, and next thing I knew we were married.


PCM 013; White; Page 3 2 W: Know where did she go to high sc hool? O: Same high school, Balboa High S chool. W: Same high school as you, e O: Yeah, her father had to pay to go. I went for free All my education except for college was free. At the time I think I paid twenty five dollars credit hour while I was in college. W: Wow. O: s what it was. W: You went to college right there in the Canal Zone as well. O: S government college, w hich is strange U many U S government colle ges. W: many. O: No, on the Indian reservation you will find them. W: Indian reservation and the name escapes me, but the deaf one in D.C. I think is r an odd thing. O: Us ually there twice; I got two degree out of them. An A A degree and an A S degree and then I went on to get a B achelor of Science degree and a B achelor of A rts w to spell degree. [laughter] T W: Now what where your degrees in? O: Industrial technology. I became a chief power dispenser for the commission eventually. Worked my way up through the electrical fie ld until I became the chief


PCM 013; White; Page 3 3 of the section. And it was a good job, generation and transmission and distribution. And let W: Now Balboa was on the Pacific side right? O: Right. W: Okay I am getting good at this. O: Coln, Cristbal was on the Atlantic side. The tide in Balboa could rise as much as twenty two feet. And on the Atlantic side at the same time it could rise three or four inches. That wa s one of the problems with the c anal. To build a sea level canal the difference in the t ide would cause the water to flow on e direction. And it would be too strong of a current, and the only way they could build the canal was to do lo cks. So it was a marvelously fea t that they did. W: Absolutely. N ow in your specific job what was your bigges t challenge? O: See the generati on was being done properly, economically, b ecause somebody was always checking you right to make sure. W: about the time that people start to g etting a little tir d ask you, not to bring this to an arti ficial end but just to ask you: w hat story would you like to tell that you think people should know about the Canal Zone? O: I think it was a paradise. Was an excellent p lace to raise children. It was purely socialistic w ith a totalitarian governor but a good one. The system owned all the property: a ll the fire stations, all the hospitals, all the schools, everything


PCM 013; White; Page 3 4 belonged to the government. Therefore they had complete c ontrol of everything. W: Now you say it was a great place to raise children. Why is that? O: a depe ndent of a person who did work there you yed people, you two they had to retire, mandatory retirement at sixty have old and decrepit people since the government ran everything they mad e sure that you were healthy, anything ; they took care of you. W: Now how many children did you raise there? O: How many what? W: Children did you raise? O: I raised three boys, and one girl. W: Okay. And what was their experiences like? They might have been different than yours. O: Three of the boys did a lot of fishing a lot of hunting. And basic ally that was their main sports, and s urfing. I took two of my boys for a trip from Panama to San Francis co t hen down to New Orleans. I t took si xty two days to make the trip, a nd we visited all the counties in between. And it was note worthy I wrote a pap er on it, t elling people how to do it, where to do it, when to do it, how to get your car out of Panama, what is required all the stamp ing that you had to get. Y ou get one


PCM 013; White; Page 3 5 paper and have to take it to that sec tion over there and buy a stamp. T hey put it in, then they have to take that paper over to another section to sign it W: And this is in the Canal Zone? O: No, in Panama. W: Oh okay. Oh in Panama okay. O: So I wrote a paper about how t o take your car out of Panama a nd how to get out of P anama by yourself, back and forth across the border. And it was very helpful. I wrote a journal on how to travel from Pan ama to San Francisco and then down to New Orleans and then put the c ar on the ship in New Orleans a nd ship the car back to Panama. There is a lot of little tricks that you have to do. W: Oh I bet. Where was it published? O: Never was published. W: Oh it was never published. Oh sorry about that. O: The one that wa s on how to take your car out a nd how to get out yourself, I print em out to different people. And I had it on the front what it was and my name and the date that it was done. And the man in charge of transportation George Viet o took the first page and ripped it off and put on in place of it a paper that was from the transportation division put facts that you should know about taking your car out of Panama. And they left it to give to people who were leaving their car. The front page listed who did it and my name was thrown away. W: Oh. Su re helps them.


PCM 013; White; Page 3 6 O: So I went to see him. I confronted him He said, I thought you just did that to give out to people. And I said I did George but it was suppose d to be with my name on it. And he said oh I did not realize that. I thought he did. W: Did he put your name back on it? O: No. They stopped giving it out. The library had a copy. I did get some recognition. W: Okay good. So I want to go back to a question Y ou grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, and your kids grew up in the Panama Canal Zone. I wonder if there are any differences that you saw in their childhoods, either better or for worse from your childhood any changes in the Panama Canal Zone that had an effect. O: had the same opportunities I had. In fact they utilized fishing more than I di d I concentrated a little bit more on hunting. But they were more outdoors than I was much difference. They were not the best students in the world, like I was I think they were about the same. I think they had the same oppor tunities that I had. W: I nterest ing. Now what did they go into? How did their careers work out? O: My son Joe started out going to junior college. And my wife is a teacher there. And they notified my wife that Joe should t ake a withdraw before they give hi m not doing too well. So Joe withdrew because he was too much wine, women and song. Went back next year tried again, more wine, women, and song. Took a withdraw again, went off to Vietnam, Cambodia, came back and wanted to go to scho ol again, stay home and go to school And so my e was down on him but we


PCM 013; White; Page 3 7 agreed that he should go back again if he wants to go back. And he went fr om there he went on to get his m So he did real well. But the beginning part was a lot of wine, women, and song. The second son went off and took an apprenticeship, air condition did well. W: In the Canal Zone. O: In the Canal Zone with the military. M y other son went to two years of co llege and then went to work with the blind to help them. W: In the Canal Zone? O: Bradenton. Where there is a dog school. W: That sounds right. O: Eastern dog school. And my daughter Miriam w ent off to Berkeley and got her m public health. My wife got her m science. W: Oh okay. Excellent. O: And I could barely get through college, four years. W: ? [laughter] O: [laughter] ean diddly! [laughter]. But I did, a nd it was maximum for me. Some people they can float right through eas il y. W: Well yeah. But could they kept power fl owing through Panama Canal? O: Yeah, well that worked out well. W: Sure.


PCM 013; White; Page 3 8 O: I coordinated with Pana manian Fuerza y Luz to supply them power. Went to Costa Rica to look at the company in Cost a Rica to see how their seamen at Costa Rica geared up and we were coordinating with them. They did the work; I just got to hear it about selling power to Nicaragu a and try to ship power back and forth. T he power systems were a little bit different and made it very difficult. But we would sell and buy power from each other and keep tabs of who owed what and how much. That was the responsibility of the government of Panama. It just that we were at the time I think we did a good job. In fact the boss that I relieved he felt I was going to have a hell of a time because I would not be able to fill his shoes. I did. When I left I felt that the next guy W: And he did [laughter]. And w hen was that again, remind me? When was that that he filled your shoes? O : I left I been gone since 1991. W: 1991. Okay. O: H e filled my shoes in [19 ]91. W: Okay. And how do you feel things have been going since then? O: Very well. They reduced the amount of generation that the Canal Zone is doing b ecause they concentrate on keeping the units running bas ically for the locks. In case a power failure hap pens they want to make sure they have back up power to kept the locomotives running in operation. So the Panamanian government reduced the amount of customers that we used to serve. We served the whole


PCM 013; White; Page 3 9 Canal Zone and supplied power to them. When they took over they took over all the machinery and they decided to do it a little differently. Where the north and the south districts w ere all under one person when they took over they wanted to divide it up into three perso ns: north, central, and south which m y opinion was the wrong thing to do as much control. This man has all this have to have somebody over them who tells what and when to do it. working well em. They did a good job, but they do it under a different philosophy which is probably very good. I n case they have a power outage they still will be able to supply the locks. They do have a lot of power outages too. W: Do you return to Panama at all? O: Well we own property in the hills, next to Costa Rica. S o we did return and we eventually sold it. Then I had a son that s tayed there, the air condition one and we went back there to visit with him. And then he died and we had to sell his property. W e went back then been back in the last five years. W: Any plans on returning to sort of go home again? O: though I spent sixty four years down there. I think I wa s to go back there to look for it. W:


PCM 013; White; Page 40 O: I first went to San Fr And it was very good, w e had a good time. Went all over visiting enjoying ourselves. W e rented a house in Alameda on the small island wh ich was very good. We li ked it very much. But we started to l ook for a house to buy; the prices were terrible. W: that. O: In [19]91 they were very bad. They say some peop le were paying as high as fif d borrowed. Hard to believe. T hen for a one room apartment they wanted your eye and your teeth. W: Yeah O: So we sa that so we can to St. Petersburg We have a very nice three bedr ve been there for eighteen years Canal Zone and it was a wo nderful life. W: let me just go back to my little question sheet I kind o f got away from it because you we questions or things to talk about I usually like to save a little bit of t im e at the end again for you. If share. O: W: Okay.


PCM 013; White; Page 41 O : I wanted to tell you that the shak voice is affected, the shaking is affect ed. I causing. W: Well, I hope you m going ahead and s top this. [End of interview] Trans cribed by: Amanda Tomlin, 9/27/2012 Audit edited by: Jessica Taylor, 1/5/2014