CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every day is Labor Day for the working-class Lincoln County boy who rose to the second highest post in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a success story that amazes even the man who lived it.
A second-generation Teamster with a high school education, 55-year-old Ken Hall grew up in Yawkey and started his union affiliation as a roustabout with Pennzoil.
Fast forward to last March when the union elected him international secretary-treasurer, second in command behind Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.
He spends much of his time working in Washington, but he lives in Alum Creek and remains president of Teamsters Local 175 in South Charleston. First elected in 1990 at the age of 33, he's serving his seventh term as the local's chief.
His constituency includes 250,000 United Parcel Service workers. He earned his stripes after leading a 1997 UPS strike that resulted in a landmark settlement.
A master negotiator, calm and soft-spoken (most of the time), he has a homespun but tenacious manner that clicks at the contract table.
The work is about getting even.
"I grew up in Yawkey, in Lincoln County. I was there about 48 years until I moved to Alum Creek. I can't see Russia from my front porch, but I can see Lincoln County.
"We were a lower middle-class family. I'm a second-generation Teamster. My dad worked for Pennzoil. He was there when they elected the Teamsters in 1970. So I grew up understanding what the Teamsters were.
"My brother worked for Pennzoil also. When the oilfields were booming, they were working Saturdays and Sundays. I thought, I will never work more than 40 hours a week. Now I work more hours than they did.
"Despite the stigma associated with Lincoln County, I had great teachers. When I was older, I thought I might want to be a lawyer, but I don't think my dad would ever have sent me to law school. He was just fundamentally opposed. He used to quote something from the Bible about it being easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.
"I graduated from Duval. I made good grades and was president of the National Honor Society. I loved sports. I was the quarterback of our team. Team sports really help you in life. In the job I do, it's all about getting people together.
"My mom worked in a general store across the hill. I started working there in the evenings when I was 15. Through high school, I stocked, bagged groceries, sorted pop bottles, delivered refrigerators and dryers.
"Then I went to work for Westmoreland Coal. I applied to be a coal miner, but they wanted to send me to school to be a mine engineer. They put me to work as a supply clerk, and I started going to school.
"Just after I enrolled, I had an appendicitis attack, so I missed that semester. I enrolled to go the next year, and my father passed away from lung cancer. They found it on July 12, and he died on Sept. 25. He was 47. I was 18. So my plans changed quickly.
"I went to work at Pennzoil shortly after his death. I couldn't go to college then because I had to take care of my mother. My brother and I started drilling water wells on the side.
"I was a roustabout at Pennzoil, a general laborer. I started out loading pipe. I walked pipelines looking for leaks, repaired them and put in new lines.
"What drove me to unions is, my dad had worked for Pennzoil for 18 years. A provision of ERISA [the Employment Retirement Insurance Security Act] guaranteed that surviving spouses would receive half of their spouse's pension. That law took effect in January 1976. My father died in September of '75, so my mother missed it by three months.
"When my dad first started, Pennzoil was non-union, so workers contributed to their own pensions. After the union came, the company had to provide pensions that the company paid for. Because of that law, my mom got a whopping $2,400, what my father had contributed with a little interest. Eighteen years of his pension was lost.
"My dad never missed a day's work. He had a problem with a nerve in his jaw. He wouldn't have it operated on because he was afraid it would paralyze him. He would sit up night after night in a chair without sleeping and go to work the next morning. For 18 years he did that.
"Shortly before we found he had lung cancer, he fell off a big oil tank and hurt his back and was in traction in the hospital. After he died, the company personnel director came to our house with forms for my mother to sign. Where he had been off because of the injury was under workers' comp. And he had bills associated with that at the hospital. But they checked No Entry on that form and had it for my mom to sign. That put her on the hook for all those bills. I thought, there is a day coming when I will get even with you people.
"After about a year, I became a job steward. In three years, I started sitting in as a rank-and-file member of the negotiating committee.
"After 11 years with Pennzoil, I was offered a job as business agent here at the local. In '89, I was elected vice president with 80 percent of the vote. My boss retired in 1990, and I took over as president of the local. I was 33. A lot of our older members said, 'Who is this kid?'
"I have been elected eight times, the last six with no opposition. I'm very proud of that, particularly our last international election. Members in our local voted for me by 92 percent, one of the highest in the country.
"In '92, I was appointed as an international rep for the Teamsters and became a troubleshooter. When there were problems, a strike coming up, they would send me wherever it was in the country.
"In '95, I was appointed director of the package division. I still am. That primarily covers UPS. You are responsible for negotiating and enforcing the national contract.
"In '97, UPS had the big strike. I was the chief negotiator. We were out for two weeks and came back with a very good settlement that included turning part-time jobs into full-time jobs for the first time. It was considered the biggest victory for labor in 25 years. That was the big break in life for me.
"We struck Coca-Cola in May and had a one-day strike. In 2000, we had a 21-week strike with Coca-Cola. Things got better after that. Now they've got a new management team and started back to some of their old behaviors. That is the most unreasonable company I've ever dealt with.