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Carnival Labor Day: Charlie Chants 'Union'

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Setting up at the Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, N.J., life is often lived without a financial safety wire.

"Labour was the first price, the original purchase - money that was paid for all things. It was not paid in gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased."
Adam Smith

Carny John once helped his mother run a carnival but says he gave up ownership because of carnies, who describes as a class of difficult, overlooked people he loves.

Now working for McDaniel Brothers in New Jersey, he's a grandfather and supervisor but he saw both sides of carnival management and chose to be part of the difficult, overlooked class.

Carny quarters at night can be jungles of additions, mental disorders, criminal rap sheets and Jerry Springer love-gone-wrong stories.

Yet, every traveling carnival owner I met this year says - and I believe them - they "love" their crews like, "family."

Like many real families, some carnival families are dysfunctional and need to seek help.

"Ever see Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Remember the Land of Misfit Toys," said Freddie McDaniel, co-owner of McDaniel Brothers in Passaic, New Jersey. "Well, this is like the Land of Misfits and I'm the head Misfit."

Those are clearly the words of someone who has affection for his carnies but Freddie didn't pay me for my last week of work in New Jersey, which included a tear-down and convoy that didn't end until we were in New York at 4 a.m.

Carnies often say they were screwed out of a check by an employer so they quit. I didn't know how much to believe.

A pain in my wallet made me feel the vulnerable side of every carny job.

Adam Smith would say, my labor was stolen.

Pain in the ass wallet

With Labor Day coming, I've been thinking about the lack of unions or government oversight in the "mobile amusements industry," as traveling carnivals are called when their conventions get together.

Recently, I asked the head safety inspector for Illinois carnivals, 'Who inspects carnival worker workplace conditions.' He works for the state's department of labor but he wasn't sure.

The Outdoor Amusement Business Association estimates about 20,000 people work in the industry across the country and its economic impact "in the billions."

Carnival workers provide an estimated 300 million rides a year, according to the association's white paper.

In Illinois alone, the Department of Labor oversees 530 amusement companies, which includes tracks, ski lifts and "bounce houses." It inspects the safety of 2,800 rides.

Still, so little is known about the person locking you into your ride seat. They walk in the middle of fairs, church festivals and annual town parties going unnoticed for their work and skills - hiding in plain sight.

The labor force is difficult to keep tabs on because it is so seasonal and so transient.

I've been paid in cash at every one of my carnivals. In all but one, there was no record of a social security or state and federal taxes being taken out. No wonder the government has difficulty figuring out how many people work in the industry.

Many carnival workers don't report their cash income either, which allows them to get subsidized food cards as homeless persons. The cash payments also allow them to file for unemployment and pay less in yearly taxes, if they bother to file.

Illinois, where traveling carnivals originated in North America, about 20 traveling carnival companies are listed on Web sites but I know from experience there are more off-line.

I use Web sites to find the carnivals I've worked across the country, but McDaniel Brothers wasn't listed by my source Web sites.

Which makes it difficult to hold McDaniel Brothers accountable for my week's pay. I saw vehicles on their lot registered in several states. Online I see different addresses for its headquarters.

I've been to its main Passaic headquarters, it's there, but how would I file a small claims suit against a company so hard to find? How would I prove I ever worked there, I have no pay stubs.

There is no proof I worked there or made any money. No proof I am owed any money.

Yet, because I live on carnival wages, that $275 is missed far more than the $1,000 weekly checks I got as a journalist. I'm broke and in debt, that money would be like an oil geyser to me.

I feel powerless. Abused. Without a hard hat. Without a safety wire. Without gloves against acids. Without resources against employers.

I have labored without all those and worry the cost will get higher.

Charlie dances around truth

Setting up for a carnival at the Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, NJ., a veteran carny named Charlie is a tall, toothpick of a Black man around 30 years old but his arms are strong.

A child of the Bronx, he wears his hair in corn-rolls and typically is the best dressed man in the New Jersey crew. He shows up for shows with new hats and neon shoes. His jeans say, "Dangerous and Ruthless" on the back.

He loves to mouth-off and bounce around on his tip-toes when he mocks fellow carnies and the owners.

Sometimes he's clowning and sometimes he's serious.

A long line of McDaniel Brothers carnies were hauling a long heavy lead line over our shoulders across the grass one afternoon, when Charlie was feeling dirty, hot and miserable.

He started talking about his paycheck. How we put up with too much. How we should make him our union president.

"Union. Union. Union." Charlie began chanting again and again.

Every difficult, overlooked one of us fell silent as we hauled the wire.

Then we all laughed.

Charlie loves to clown.
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Note to reader: I'm on my fifth carnival this year, in California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Alaska. Because I live on carny wages I've been hitching between carnivals, 8,000 miles in all. I'm writing from the road in McDonald's, all-night diners and truck stops in hopes of getting a book deal by year's end.