A Hard Boss

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

Old “Hire em fire em” Hughs stood on the sawmill skids in the heat of the afternoon sun, ranting and raving as usual. The mill hands, working with quiet efficiency within the shadowed mill interior furtively watched him through the cracks and holes in the ancient walls. Jeez, but he was in a bad mood today.

“Hire em fire em” reckoned he had good reason to be in a fury. Here he was, managing this worn out, broken down, falling down old mill, and had it running like clockwork, despite that slack mouthed, down at heel, bird brained crew he had working for him, most of them so crusty and old they will probably all die tomorrow anyhow.

Damned if he could figure why at the end of each day the timber cutting tally was so high when all he had to do it with was shagged out machinery and a no hoper crew. And, now he had this new worry, Organized Labour.

For the first time in the mills history a “union” man was coming, to disrupt work by calling a stop work meeting at three o’clock. Stop work. For a meeting! When a man had to look twice to see if that lousy crew had even started work!

“Hire em fire em” glared at the view of the valley from his elevated perch. He could see the tall bracken fern trying to hide the stumps of ancient trees right down to the dusty rutted road, the mill township huddled in a hollow, the rising sides of the valley to the standing green bush behind.

“How did the Union man ever find us hidden away up here, and what did the crew want to have anything to do with him for, anyway? Hadn’t he, old “Hire em fire em”, been a father to all of them, housed their families, paid them regular? There wasn’t one of them he hadn’t hired, and fired, – and hired again.

Just because he had such a short fuse and often fired a man in anger, it didn’t mean he didn’t like the fellow, or need the fellow, or wouldn’t hire him again. All the men knew the score, once they had been fired they needed only to wander around for a couple of hours until the temper cooled down, then he would take them back on with no loss of wages. It happened every week. The union man arrived in a cloud of dust right on time for the meeting. He was thinking.

“Fancy finding a whole mill crew, who had never joined the union, and right in the middle of my patch too!” Well he had to change that, come what may, and then give them some example of how the power of the union could work for their benefit, perhaps he could straighten out that mill boss with his foul reputation of firing men without good reason.

When the mill stopped for the meeting, old “Hire em fire em” was rampant! “That was the rest of the day stuffed. In fact because it was Friday, that was the rest of the week stuffed!” Well, he may as well make the best out of a bad job, he climbed into the battered old mill dump truck and headed for the pub. “May as well buy that useless mob a keg to drink after the meeting, then maybe they will be back at work come Monday!

The union man found his meeting unusual to say the least, and heavy going. His audience just sat and stared vacantly, he could not induce a spark of interest out of them, not that he could see, no reaction at all. Finally he ran out of words, he put it to them. “Join the Union”.

All eyes turned to the breast bench sawyer, the quiet grey headed gentlemanly leader. To his barely perceptible nod, all agreed to join the union. The Union man was surprised, relieved, he had achieved his objective almost too easily, but now to show the good will of the union. “Now that you are members what, can we do to help you?” The quiet man “Nothing”. “But there must be! What about that Boss of yours? I hear he fires workers for no reason at all. Is that true?”.

The quiet man nodded “Yes its true, he fired me last week. “Well, what are you doing here, then?” “He hired me back again. So far, he has fired me seventeen times”. “And you take that! Why do you still work here?”. “Because he has hired me eighteen times, and he’s a hell of a good boss. You just leave him alone, he’s OK. You wanted us to join your union, we have done that. Now just go away and leave us alone. We are happy as we are”. The men all nodded in agreement.

The union man left the sawmill feeling uneasy. He had succeeded in his endeavor, but also he felt he had failed, a feeling he could not quite put his finger on, like unfinished business. About a mile down the road he passed the battered old mill truck, going like a bat out of hell toward the sawmill, the driver mouthing curses as they passed. “What could they see in a boss like that?”.

Old “Hire em fire em” passed the man’s car, cursing him for a wasted afternoon. It would cost that useless crew too, for they were on a production bonus, away and above standard union wages. Serve them right, mucking about with unions. He backed the truck into the shaded mill and the men, perceiving the keg, slunk off to the smoko room, to collect their enamel mugs. It would be a long night, and once the wives got to the mill to find out why the men had not come home, it would be very pleasant.

As he drove the wooden tap into the keg using the axe off the “Breaking Down” carriage, old “Hire em fire em” held forth a tirade about the wasted afternoon, the loss of production, the loss of income to all, which is what they deserved, the bloody fools. The men listened in comfortable silence, grinning a little, they had heard it all before,

“Hear the old rooster crowing tonight, he’s really got his dander up over the union bloke. Wait until he has a few beers under his belt, and his old lady comes up and tells him off for not going home for tea. He will be in a right old rage. Betcha five quid we are all fired by midnight, not to worry, we will all be back on Monday. We will be able to sleep the hangover off tomorrow while old “Hire em, fire em” will be banging and swearing, and clanging and greasing the mill for another week of work. He’s marvelous at that, keeping production up, we have the best wages, the best kept machinery, the best mill houses, and the best boss we have ever worked for.

Old “Hire em fire em” is rough and tough and foul mouthed and abusive, he may have his funny ways’, but underneath he is gentle and kind, he has a heart of gold, a great boss, he’ll do us! But, just listen to him sounding off, we will be fired any minute now, the old devil