Long days in the pack house
In this sixth column, I am speaking to the governor of Burgenland, Austria, and a delegation on the Burgenland heritage in the Lehigh Valley. Many men who immigrated here worked in our cement plants. When they were hired at the plants, the Burgenlanders were working with many nationalities. For example, there were Hungarians, Slovaks, Croatians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and a majority of Pennsylvania Germans. The Atlas even had a group of Portuguese employees, who later moved to Palmerton and became key employees at the New Jersey Zinc complex.
Soon, English became the predominant language, one learned on the job. Many were of the Catholic faith, so if a man ate meat on a Friday, a co-worker would threaten to report him to a priest — all done in good humor. I always called our cement plants “laboratories of democracy,” where Americanization helped one to transition to a new country with new customs.
Boarding houses were found throughout Northampton, Coplay and area communities.
Joseph Marakovits related, “All homes in Northampton and Coplay had boarders. Some had 10 to 15 men.”
Joseph worked at the Atlas for 43 years, followed by his two sons. He started in the stone house, breaking stone with a sledgehammer for 37 cents an hour. He recalled a rare labor dispute. In 1925, there were over 200 packers. There was a three-day dispute. The general manager from the main Atlas office in New York came to the plant to resolve the dispute. It was settled for a two-cent-an-hour raise. Conditions in the pack house were poor compared to present-day plants.
Joe said, “There was so much dust, you could not see the packer next to you. If you had a beard and perspired, cement dust caked on your face.
“After work, men would wash their faces in the horse water trough or dip their zinc bucket in the Atlas dam for some creek water to wash. There were no wash houses.”
Regardless of conditions, Mr. Marakovits enjoyed his work, recalling, “In the 1920s, and for years, packers worked on a special packing rate. The more you packed, the more you earned.”
On some days, they barely ate as working never stopped. Some packers earned $100 in two weeks.
“We were Burgenland millionaires,” Mr. Marakovits said.
Mr. Marakovits, a strong, lean gentlemen, wore his packer cement bag apron during retirement when working at his Washington Avenue home as “a badge of a proud packer.” He provided me with the first artifacts for the Atlas Cement Company Memorial Museum. Many thousands would follow his contribution by our neighbors.
Men remembered when a 12-hour day became a 10-hour day and finally a standard eight-hour day and a 40-hour work week.
Eventually, workers were given pensions and vacations. One of the first pensions was given in 1942. A gentleman was given a pension of $47 for 45 years of service. Conditions have improved, to say the least. The present cement workers pack in clean pack houses, and safety is stressed. Wages and benefits have increased to grant our cement workers a fine standard of living.
My father was always grateful for his job as a cement worker. He retired with pride. He was a proud cement worker.
Hope we have a new column to interest you in two weeks!