In memory of Joe Dvorak

This is a short story and one of three people that come to mind.  Joe Dvorak was an immigrant who suffered through and escaped the Hungarian revolution around 1957.  He came to Canada with many of his brethren to find a new life and was soon thrust into the workforce.

Just like me, he was new to the trades and rough around the edges but a hard worker.  No one took him aside and taught him how to elevate himself from a rough tradesperson to someone with refined skills.  And every job he did his best but it was never top shelf.

I remember him very well.  In my early years I knew what discrimination was all about.  However, I was english speaking so I worked my way through the obstacles.  Joe on the other hand, had a limited vocabulary and really could not handle an antagonist, never mind a whole crew.

During the mid sixties to about the mid seventies, Alberta was in a construction boom.  The oil and gas industry was flourishing and we were busy building all types of processing and transmission systems.  When we tired of the work or found a new opportunity, it was usually next door in British Columbia.  There the boom was not oil and gas but forestry.  Many Alberta tradespeople went back and forth on travel cards to work in the pulp and paper industry in BC.

Joe Dvorak was a journeyman by this time.  He had put in his time but I believe he was still paid at a fourth year rate.  This is how the union worked.  If you were not friends of the Business Agent and the controlling cronies, you were often overlooked. In any case, Joe always had a problem with workmanship and there were some jobs that he could not do well.   He always did his best but his downfall was always speed.  To prove his worth, Joe never slowed down to be particular enough for the finite work.  In the end, others would see the rough finishes and berate him mercilessly.

We must remember that from day one, the rank and file would pick on him.  I remember this because when he came on the same job as myself, the focus would switch to Joe and not me.  But I always felt guilty watching and listening to the workers pound on him and once or twice I spoke to him as a friend.  I tried to explain to the man that quality of workmanship was as much a part of being accepted into the crew as was his desire to out work everyone.  He just could not bring himself to that view and just kept taking the abuse.  About the time he had ten or more years in the union, he started to become more verbal in response to the attacks he was receiving but could never achieve a finishing punch line.  This brought on yet another onslaught of verbal abuse.  Much of this banter was in our communal lunchroom, so everyone got in the act.  But Joe lacked the truly colourful language of a construction worker and the heart to fight back. I often think a lot had to do with the hardships he endured in his past life.

I reminisce about this man and two others who I met in my working career and who suffered in this way.  Joe took a travel card out to work in Quesnel BC where a Calgary company had secured a contract to insulate and clad a pulp mill.  He was able to get the travel card as a fourth year because there were not enough journeymen and helpers to fill the job call out.  To Joe, this was an opportunity for some extra money.  To others, this was their opportunity to harass and discriminate a person outside of his home local and in front of a new group of onlookers.

About a month after Joe arrived, we were walking down the main road from camp to our construction trailers.  I was walking amongst friends and workers from other trades.  As we approached the main gate, we could see a commotion in front of us and a number of workers huddled in a crowd.  Before I got to the crowd, I knew what had happened.  I could tell that everyone was looking at Joe Dvorak.  Joe Dvorak had hung himself from a landing handrail, in plain sight of everyone who walked in to work that day.  I never got to read the sign he had hanging from his lifeless body but I know it was directed at all those who persecuted him.

In his memory and the memory of so many who had to endure work site harassment and discrimination, I write this story for you.