Work Life

On Manual Labor

LAKE MACBRIDE— A priest used to joke with me about doing manual labor. It was a pun comparing working with your hands to the common Spanish name Manuel. The context was work we were doing with undocumented immigrants, many of whom were from Mexico and countries further south. When one explains the pun, it loses something, and all that is left is hard work that someone has to do— and the living people make while doing it.

The kind of labor new immigrants perform, farm work, landscaping, roofing, housekeeping, restaurant work and others, is a basic component of society’s economic model, including in Eastern Iowa. From reading Peter Kwong’s book The New Chinatown, the propensity for immigrants, documented and non-documented, is to take any kind of paying work to pay for their passage, which sometimes included coyotes or snakeheads, and secure the possibility of American-style freedom. Some of my more cynical friends might say that America offers the freedom to work for less.

During my career as a manager, I performed little physical labor. Sure, we hauled groceries collected for the local food bank to the trucks, and after the 2008 flood hit Cedar Rapids, we helped employees muck out their homes, but the main work we did was office work. That I would now include manual labor in the mix of a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie is indicative of three things.

Manual labor jobs are available. In my case, from the conception of the job opportunity until hiring was less than a week. Once I began work, conversations with others revealed many job opportunities in a variety of settings. On some days it seems like every one of us is on the move from this job to a better job, and the manual work we perform is a compromise to bring in some cash now.

A certain level of fitness is required. Endurance, use of the extremities and normal musculoskeletal development are all important. My life has been blessed with good health, and relevant to manual labor, has been free of back injury. I can do the work.

When jobs pay below a living wage, the presumption, often unrealized by the worker, is that a broader social support network is needed to take care of the rest of life not covered by wages. Those that have such a social support network are more likely to get what they want out of working with their hands.

The sustainability model I described previously wouldn’t make sense unless there were some activities dotting the matrix. Manual work serves the need to prime the pump, enabling the model and allowing for entry into a progressive path to prosperity.

One comment. The literature on immigration and how people get started on a path toward the American dream is well documented by others with much better credentials than mine. What is different, and why I write about it here, is the transformational effect of having the experience, rather than living it vicariously, filtered by other writers and the media. This may be the only way to fully understand what manual labor means to economic progress. It may be the only way to sustain economic progress.