The Bone Fleck & the Butcher’s Union

Angeline Passavant Nagy worked as a butcher at a grocery market in downtown Elyria, Ohio, back in the 1950s. She was my grandmother.

Angie didn’t have a high school diploma, but she supported her family. They lived in a large house with several renting tenants who sometimes paid rent, and sometimes didn’t, though Angie managed the apartments and cooked and cleaned for them either way. Although not poor, the Nagy family often had a hard time making ends meet. Kids at school teased my mother because her clothes were home-made, and if she got just one gift for Christmas, it was a good year.

The butcher job at the market was a great opportunity; Angie was an excellent cook and certainly knew how to prepare meat. But as the only woman on a team of butchers, she had to work hard to prove herself. When they asked her to join the Butcher’s Union, it seemed like a rite of passage to help her fit in with the guys, so she agreed without much thought.

But it would be that Union would later save her job — and her eyesight.

One day, while Angie was chopping meat, she hit a bone with her cleaver at just the wrong angle and a tiny bone fleck — smaller than a grain of rice — flew up and hit her directly in her eye. She tried to brush it out and finish her work, but the tiny fragment had gone in deep, and the pain was severe.

The next day, the injured eye swelled up “like a golf ball,” my mother recalled, and there was no way Angie could go to work. She could barely see. Eventually, she went to the local emergency room, and they removed the bone chip in a painful operation. But Angie’s vision didn’t recover, even days later. She struggled with normal household tasks, and certainly couldn’t see well enough to return to butchering or waiting on customers.

Eventually, Angie got a call from her boss, who threatened to fire her if she didn’t come back to work immediately. Her eye kept getting worse, and faced with losing her job and her vision, she despaired. What would become of her family if she couldn’t work?

But then Angie got another call. It was her Union representative, Charlie. She explained the situation, and he said, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of this.”

She didn’t believe him.

But Charlie had the power of the Union to protect and take care of Angie. He informed her boss that if she fired Angie for an on-the-job accident, the rest of the butchers on her staff would strike, and no other Union butchers would work for her. Since all the butchers in the area were in the Union, the threat carried weight. She would have to close her meat department, and it could be the end of her grocery business. So the boss grudgingly agreed to let the other butchers cover Angie’s hours until she recovered.

And Charlie didn’t stop there. He found an eye specialist and made an appointment for Angie the next day, and the Union not only paid for it, but also sent someone to pick Angie up and drive her there and back home later. The doctor was able to treat Angie’s eye properly, and after a good week of healing and recovery, she returned to her job.

Even after Grandma retired from the market, the Butcher’s Union still checked in with her every so often. Because caring about and looking out for people is what Unions do — and why I am committed to supporting and employing Union labor as an Ingham County Commissioner.

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