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How my Grandpa failed to organize a union

September 22, 2023

I’m a union man all the way, thanks to my Grandpa. Lemme tell you a story about him.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

This is a story about how workers refused to organize a union in a cosmetics factory, despite the pleas of their boss, who founded, owned and ran the place. That was my Opa. Let me be clear: Opa was the line boss as well as the company owner. And he told the workers they should form a union.

This was back in the 1940s and ‘50s, into the ‘60s and beyond. Once a year or so, Opa called a meeting to tell the workers they should form a union. And the workers responded, year after year: “Why? If we’ve got a problem we can come talk to you.”

One of Opa’s few rules was to always keep his door open.

Of course, millions of workers can’t talk to their boss today. The boss is far away, up in an imaginary cloud, with a real whip in his hand.

The workers’ only recourse is to put up with it, and put up with it, and then, finally, when they can’t take it no more, to go on strike.

But a better story than how Opa failed to persuade his employees to unionize is how he came to set up his cosmetics factory in the first place. Here is that story.

In the days of the First World War, there was one cure for syphilis that did not involve mercury — which could kill you dead, even if it cured the syphilis. It was called arsphenamine 606.

This chemical was discovered/invented/named in 1909 by German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich. It was called arsphenamine 606 because it was the 606th extract of arsenic that Ehrlich had concocted in search of a cure for syphilis. And it worked. It could cure you of syphilis without killing you.

However …

Come 1917, as the United States entered The War to End All Wars (right?), U.S. companies could no longer buy German chemicals. So my Opa, a chemist, got a gig from a drug company that told him to make arsphenamine 606.

It shoulda been easy, because he had Ehrlich’s patent. All Opa had to do was follow the patent. But the patent didn’t work. The reason it didn’t work is that Ehrlich — big Nobel Prize winner — had lied in the patent.

Opa and his partner spent weeks and months trying to make arsphenamine 606. But at a certain point in the process everything went to hell.

“Then one day we tossed another batch of useless chemicals into the sink, and there was the white precipitate we’d been looking for,” Opa said.

Turns out that Ehrlich had described the drug-making process correctly in his patent — with one lie. The lie in the patent was “concentrate 10 times.” The true formula was “dilute 10 times.”

So by hard work and chance, my Opa rediscovered the cure for syphilis.

However …

In the course of his months of experiments with arsenic, Opa and his partner (I have no idea who he was, and I’d like to know — this happened 100 years ago) Opa and his partner, I say, were suffering from rashes all over their bodies. This got Opa interested in allergies.

The first rule of allergies is, if you’re allergic to it, stay away from it.

Everyone is allergic to arsenic.

So Opa and his partner got away from arsenic.

This ordeal inspired Opa to wonder how many other people suffered from allergies. And it turned out that millions of women were allergic to cosmetics — mostly, Opa found out, because of lanolin, a “moisturizing wax” derived from grease scraped off the wool of shorn sheep.

(Old-timers like me might remember the old “77 Sunset Strip” TV commercials for Wildroot Cream-Oil, “with lanolin!” Or, god help us, “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)".

So Opa decided to make cosmetics without lanolin, figuring there was a ready-made market for it. (Somewhere between 1% and 7% of people in the United States are allergic to lanolin, according to the National Institutes of Health.)

And justlikethat, Opa invented hypoallergenic cosmetics. He founded Ar-Ex cosmetics in 1935, naming it after the Rx symbol that decorated drugstores, and he ran the company for 40 years, and made enough money to send me and my brothers and sister to college, after our father died.

I’ve got another true story about Opa and Ar-Ex, involving headhunters, cannibals and another Nobel Prize-winning scientist. I’ll tell that one next week.

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