Joseph (“Joe”) J. McNeil retired in 1992 after a career spanning over 35 years with Ashland Oil. A couple of months ago Joe graciously agreed to be interviewed by Lipsitz & Ponterio concerning his memories of working at Ashland Oil. For over an hour, he spoke about his work, his sports activities and his participation in the union. Here are some of the highlights of our discussion:
When were you hired and what was the refinery called at that time? I started in October of 1955. The Tonawanda refinery was owned by Ashland, but it was still called Frontier.
What was the typical assignment for a new hire? Everyone was hired in as a yardman and then worked their way up.
How many people were employed at Ashland when you were hired? About 150 people, but it got bigger and they were always hiring when I first started to work there. I got hired out of a group of 960. There were only 16 who were hired out of that group.
How did people get a job at Ashland? Did you have to know someone to get hired there? No, you didn’t need to know anyone. They gave us an I.Q. test before we were hired. A lot of people failed that test. They hired very good people.
Can you tell me something about how the units were staffed? We had one guy working at a time in each unit, with 4-5 shift supervisors. So, it was one operator and one shift supervisor on a unit at a time.
Let’s discuss sports. Tell me about the softball team at Ashland Oil. Our softball league was called the Tonawanda Industrial League and we would get guys from other plants to play against the Ashland Team. One of the teams I remember was from Linde, I guess now it’s called Praxair.
Can you tell me a little bit about your softball games? Oh yeah! We had some really great guys that played softball for us. Remember Blackie? Well, Blackie played catcher and his nickname was black cat. He was a great athlete and fast. That boy could run. Blackie also played semi-pro football, that is how good an athlete he was.
How about Bowling? Did you have a league? Oh yeah, there were about 16 leagues throughout the plant when I was there. It was called the Inner Plant League. About 16 leagues at once would bowl.
What other clubs did you belong to when you were employed at Ashland? The Eldridge Club. It’s an old establishment and there I played basketball until I was 58. I was 6’3”, but could keep up with the big guys who were 6’5” and 6’8”.
Can you tell me a bit about when they started to shut down the plant? I think it was December 1, 1992 that the plant was fully shut-down. Layoffs started in 1982 and then it was sold to United. It was one of the best refineries that I had ever been to. It was well built. Bob Yancey was the engineer who built it. He knew how to build a refinery and made it wide enough for cranes to get in.
Tell me a bit about the union at Ashland. The union just started in 1955 when the new owner bought the plant, he wanted a union. I became a Shop Steward of the union and then the Vice President.
Was there ever international union involvement? We had what was called a travelling union. We would meet at the VFW in Williamsville.
Were they aggressive in terms of organizing? Oh yeah. I never missed a union meeting. I really enjoyed it. I was Vice President for a while.
Did the union negotiate for health care benefits? Oh yes they did.
Was there a summer picnic? Do you remember where it was held? Yeah, there was a summer picnic. It was held somewhere off of Two Mile Creek Road. I can’t remember the name of the park, but they let it go to heck. It was both the union picnic and the company picnic, but a lot of people didn’t like that. I used to run the picnic until I went into supervision.