“Kiln department was the one no one wanted to work in. The others [I worked with] were one Polish, one Italian, one Indian,” says Shelton. In addition to the temperature being as much as 140 degrees, “once you are on the floor you are there for whole shift. You can’t leave [because] when you are running gas, God forbid that gas would begin to leak, you don’t want that… If the building blows up it would be on the other side of the river in Manhattan.”
In spite of the difficult working conditions, jobs at the refinery remained the best opportunities available for many because of the benefits, which included paid vacation and paid sabbatical every year. Shelton recalls a co-worker who continued to come to the refinery in spite of being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in the hopes of enabling his wife to receive the $20,000 death benefit available to families if workers died on the premises. He got his wish.
Domino Factory jobs, the last large-scale factory work in Brooklyn, enabled its unionized workers the ability to raise and educate their children in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg and other neighboring communities that since 2004 have increasingly priced out working class families. During his time at the factory, Shelton and his wife raised Shelton’s stepdaughter and stepson. His granddaughter is now a psychiatrist and alumnus of Clark Atlanta University. In 1999, his family was able to leave the Roosevelt Housing Projects where “you could get killed in the daylight hours. I had to know how fast I could run up the stairs and lock the door, literally.” The Sheltons purchased a home about one-quarter of a mile away from the refinery and furnished it with discarded furniture they found on the Upper West Side and refinished.
Although strikes were common, the conflict that began in 2002 was especially bitter. "The foremen brought in scabs," remembers Shelton. "I had to throw eggs at the strike and I had to lay in front of the trucks. As the strike went on we began to break. It was hard times…$400 a month unemployment…nothing like the $1000 a week we were making….bills were starting to back up…I crossed the picket line.” Shortly after the strike was settled, the Brooklyn refinery closed but a refinery in Yonkers remained open. Those who had crossed the line in Brooklyn were rewarded with better jobs in Yonkers.
The refinery's closure has been difficult for some of Shelton’s friends, who reunited during the Walker installation’s run. “It was very touching. When some of the workers came back with their wives and families…when the refinery closed some men lost their jobs, they had a pension but they became alcoholics because their wives left them, their kids had to drop out of college. If you’ve never been down and have to scuffle and scrape you don’t know how to survive.”
Although now retired from the refinery for more than 10 years, Shelton continues to have powerful feelings about the building and the men and women he worked with there. These feelings are intensifying as the installation’s closing this Sunday and the refinery building’s demolition draw nearer. “I want to be part of the group of people to take the plant down. I’ll push a wheelbarrow I don’t care. For sentimental reasons, that’s all.”
“As July 6 approaches I get sadder and sadder. I’ll never be able to go back there again. You don’t do something for 20 years and forget.”
Robert Shelton will be available at "A Subtlety" to answer questions this Saturday and Sunday.