OAKLAND, Calif. – Lee Hamilton wears two buttons. Standing like many other working-class guys, with hands in his jeans’ pockets, sporting a sweatshirt and baseball cap emblazoned with “Meat Cutters Union,” he wore one small United Food and Commercial Workers union button, and a big one of a handsome, blonde-haired boy.

“Tell me about the button,” I said, walking up to him.

“This is my son, Colin. He would have been 18 years old last November. He committed suicide,” Hamilton told me. “I wear his picture over my heart.”

Hamilton tells his moving story to everyone – from the picket lines to rallies. Hamilton and his wife, Veronica, are two of the 70,000 grocery workers forced out on strike or locked out of their jobs on Oct. 11, 2003, by the corporate food chain giants Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger. Hamilton has 22 years as a meat cutter at Ralphs, which is Kroger-operated.

After his son’s suicide in September 2003, Hamilton had taken time off work. He was set to return on his 50th birthday – Oct. 11 – the day Ralphs locked out the union workers.

“Without strength and prayer I couldn’t have gotten through all of this,” Hamilton said. “I guess I was meant to bear this pain.”

Hamilton then tells about meeting a woman on the picket line. “One day I was on the picket line and a woman came up to me and said, ‘Tell me about your button.’ I told her and she immediately burst out into uncontrollable tears. I knew something more was going on so I asked her what was wrong.”

She said she had been planning to kill herself that day, but God or something told her to come over and ask me about the pin. “I just told her she has to bear the pain, because suicide is not an option. There is no greater pain for your loved ones,” he said. “She told me I saved her life.” He pulled out a silver and turquoise ring this woman had given him, telling him to give it to his oldest son.

During any labor battle, workers go on a roller coaster ride of emotions, from having to deal with economic and health care hardships to harassment by the bosses and the insecurity of being forced off your job. But the pain of going through such a struggle with the crushing grief of losing a child is immeasurable.

“I’ve always tried to teach my kids to stand up and fight for what you believe is right. My son Colin is with me. My other two sons, 17 and 11, are also with me,” he said. “After 22 years, I refuse to let [Safeway CEO] Steve Burd or any CEO take my pension or health benefits.”

Speaking about his family’s tragedy at union and community events over the last five months has been, in some ways, therapeutic, Hamilton said. His grief counseling was abruptly halted when the bosses cut off his family’s health care in December. The family was forced to combine dealing with their pain, fighting for their union and protecting the family’s economic well-being. He found empathy and support with his fellow union brothers and sisters, and in the great big working-class family of humankind.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.

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