A childhood friend posted this photo of the meat packing plant where my maternal grandmother, my father and I worked in Davenport.
This is where Father died in an elevator accident in 1969. I wrote a long post about Oscar Mayer in 2015, here.
Seeing the photo evoked no emotions although memories came to mind. I recalled driving a forklift truck throughout the plant and working in refrigerated and freezer units, lard rendering tanks, the kill floor, and most other places during two summer stints at the plant. I remember the locker rooms, the butcher shop for employees, the clinic where cuts and lacerations were treated, and meeting with a union representative in a human resources conference room the first summer. Working there was some of the hardest physical labor in my lifetime.
The transition of Davenport began while I was still living there. The city went through some pretty rough times in the 1970s. When my cohort of high school friends returned home from college and university the summer of 1971 anyone who wanted a summer job found one in the city’s major businesses. I’m not sure that would be possible today. When the Mayer family sold the business to General Foods Corporation in 1981 it was the beginning of the end.
When Ronald Reagan became president the jobs environment in Davenport got much worse with large-scale businesses closing and moving toward cheaper labor including outside the United States. It is ironic that Reagan got his start in radio at the WOC studios in Davenport given the damage his administration’s policies later did to the city’s industrial base. Reagan lived in Vail Apartments where Grandmother lived in her last working years. He was no favorite son, that’s for sure.
As prominent as the meat packing plant was during my childhood and early 20s I don’t feel anything about the plant’s demolition. Big meat packers displaced the kill floor years ago, consolidating operations in much larger plants and introducing boxed meat products. When Iowa Beef Processors gained prominence, my uncle, who was a union butcher at a grocery store, went to work for them as a sales representative. He was well aware of the shady business practices of the company during and after the 1969 strike in Dakota City. I also remember the strike and what it did to Oscar Mayer.
We knew this year’s plant demolition was coming so the actuality of it is less meaningful. One more demolition in the transition of society into something else, something that favors capital and its wealthy investors. Yet our family made a life out of the meat packing business for a while… until we didn’t when big corporations took over.
No regrets, no feelings, yet a few memories remain. They are memories of growing up in a union household with a sense of fairness about our personal labor and its rewards. Like the building soon will be, those feelings are gone.
I began writing in grade school. The earliest remaining written document is a letter to my parents from YMCA Camp.
I reported having fun.
When reading those handwritten words, forgotten memories emerged. They reside in my brain like fossilized footprints from yesterday’s muddy garden. Such memories mean something. I can say with some certainty camp was fun.
When writing about worklife I seek several things. Partly I want to understand my own work history. It is more than a small chore to write a timeline of a life’s main events. Seeking that will aid telling my story.
More than a timeline I seek to understand why I worked and how it affected me. When I took my first job as a newspaper carrier the work was possible, something boys my age just did. I took a job in high school at a retail store called Turn-Style which was an entry into after school work life. It was possible and common among my classmates to have an after school job. Both of these early jobs funded activities that would have been less likely if I didn’t have income. The most significant activity Turn-Style funded was buying a used car and fuel to keep it going.
During the summer of 1971 I returned home from college. Like most of my male high school classmates I was able to find a summer job in industrial and manufacturing plants in the Quad-Cities. I landed at Oscar Mayer’s slaughterhouse working on the maintenance crew. It was dirty and hard work but in three months I made enough (at $4.04 per hour) to pay the sophomore year college expenses my scholarship didn’t cover. I learned how to clean a lard rendering tank among other valued skills.
After college the employment situation in Davenport seemed dire. Globalization was beginning to take hold, with some jobs moving to Mexico or overseas. It impacted the community with layoffs and those easy to find manufacturing jobs were less easy to secure three years later. I also did not want to get caught up in being a “shoppie,” working a career in manufacturing.
I didn’t have high expectations but after working a couple of low-wage jobs to make ends meet I enlisted in the U.S. Army and was gone for four years. Because of the G.I. Bill, I attended graduate school and got my M.A. in 13 months without other paid work. There were no good or exciting job options in 1981 after graduation so I applied and went to work at the University of Iowa.
After meeting my future spouse at the university, and getting married in 1982, I took a job in transportation and logistics with CRST Inc. in March 1984. I spent more than 25 years doing that type of work. I earned enough money so Jacque could work at home until she was ready to enter the paid workforce again.
Beginning in July 2009, I retired from CRST Logistics with a sheet cake and going-away gifts to enter a period of low wage work. In all I logged 24 different jobs and work activities since then — some paid and some volunteer. There was a lot of diverse experience in all that, about which I’ve written in this blog. What I’m left with today is being a blogger, writer, gardener and human.
While frequent blog posts are an important part of my writing, there is more. The coronavirus pandemic has been an opportunity to consider my writing and develop other projects including a memoir. I’m not finished working yet the number of paid jobs is close to zero as we enter the third month of the pandemic. It provides a perspective that might not have been otherwise possible.
As the sun rises on a forecast dry day I plan to work in the garden planting tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. While I do, I will consider what’s next for me and the meaning of my years in the workplace. The pandemic isolation brings this into focus.
I hope what I write next is as meaningful as that letter to my parents written so many years ago. If it isn’t, at least we’ll have vegetables.
My first job in grade school was as a paper boy for the Des Moines Register.
I wanted a paper route. It was what boys my age did. After discussing it with Mother, she arranged the job by calling newspaper circulation desks. The Register route was available.
It was a long, morning route because the Register wasn’t as widely circulated as our home town newspaper, the Times-Democrat. I could ride my bicycle and get the papers delivered with plenty of time to get ready for school.
Before long, I changed to an afternoon Times-Democrat route located on Marquette Street between West Central Park and Locust Street. The Times-Democrat had morning and evening editions at the time. Less walking, more deliveries, and more money for me. I kept the route until high school when I was told it was time paper boys moved on to other things. Having a little money, maybe a couple of bucks a week, made a difference in my life and in the range of activities possible in grade school.
I made weekly collections from subscribers on Fridays. Some subscribers were the worst. They were never home on Friday and when I finally found them on other days they would deny they owed for multiple weeks. My collection pages had a coupon that indicated each week that was due so I knew where each account stood. I gave customers the coupon for a week after they paid. When they got four weeks behind and didn’t pay I called the newspaper to cut them off. My supervisor never wanted to do it because the newspaper had subscription targets. Statistically, the majority of my customers were nice and paid on time. However I do remember the deadbeats. In retrospect, my margins sucked but there was enough money to satisfy my nascent financial needs.
On Saturdays I paid my bill for the bundles of papers dropped on the corner of Marquette and Lombard Streets. I took a city bus from nearby Mercy Hospital to what was then a thriving downtown Davenport. I spent parts of every Saturday morning downtown, beginning at the newspaper office on East Third Street.
One of my favorite downtown places was the automat at the M.L. Parker Department Store where I occasionally bought a pre-made hamburger and warmed it under an infrared light bulb. We didn’t have such a heating device at home. I stopped at W.T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth and occasionally went to Petersen Harned Von Maur, inconveniently located across a busy Second Street. I also stopped at Louis Hanssen Hardware Store where they had a centralized cashier operation connected to the sales floor by a small trolley system. There was a coin shop which was almost never open as early as I was downtown. The idea coins that passed through my hands on the paper route were worth more than face value was fascinating.
In 1964 a friend and I rode the bus downtown. After paying my bill we went to the local Democratic party office and stuffed envelopes for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. Our motivation was to trade labor for an LBJ for the USA button. After finishing with the Democrats we walked a couple of doors down to the Republican party office and did the same thing for a Goldwater button. The idea our families would vote Goldwater for president was ridiculous. Father had worked hard to organize for JFK and was doing the same for LBJ. It felt weird being in the Republican campaign office but I brought home a button which had “Au H2O” printed on it anyway.
My male schoolmates were also shoplifters at the downtown department stores. Having a steady income from my paper route, I never shoplifted. From time to time I met up with my mates at one of the movie theaters for a matinee. They compared the results of their thievery that morning. For a while they stole bottles of men’s cologne which they tried to sell me. What would I do with cologne? Retail managers wised up to what was going on and secured the products in display cases. That apparently ended such thievery.
My interest in meeting my friends was to see movies at a reduced price of 35 cents. Most of what we saw was related to World War II: The Longest Day, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and others. When the cost of a matinee went up to 50 cents, I felt we were being gouged.
One time we saw an ad for a movie in Rock Island about the Batman. Someone had compiled all 15 episodes of a Batman serial made in 1943 by Columbia Pictures. The Batman television show became a popular topic on the school playground, so we wanted to see the serials. We took the bus downtown and walked across the Centennial Bridge for the matinee. I told Mom what we were doing so she wouldn’t be surprised when I was gone for so long. I remember it was a very long walk across the Mississippi River although worth it because I now knew something others didn’t about the Batman.
In the mid-1960s working as a newspaper carrier expanded my horizons. I got to see how my customers lived and had a chance to explore a world outside the confines of our neighborhood. I found there was a broader world where everyone did not share the same values we did at home.
I felt the relationship with my manager was good, although my daily work was disconnected from him. I was always the last to know about sales promotions and newspaper policy that pertained to me. It led to an attitude that I would do my job as I saw best without worries about my supervisor or whether I was right or wrong in what I did. That proved to be a defining aspect of my character at the beginning of my work life. Being able to work on my own without regular, direct supervision became part of who I was and remained so for the duration of my work life.
My first work experience was positive and that made a difference as I progressed through life. Adapting to work in a positive manner was an important part of the working class home in which I came up. It prepared me for the challenges of a career yet to come.
It has been two months since the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory in Coralville reported the first positive test results for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
We look forward to returning to a semblance of our pre-pandemic lives. We also know our lives won’t be the same as the pandemic could continue until there is a cure a year or two from now.
I could have continued to work at the home, farm and auto supply store. Because of my age I chose a voluntary COVID-19 leave of absence, then retired after the first thirty days ended. Not everyone has these choices.
One hopes a better society emerges from the chaos the virus and its inseparable economic depression have wrought. Our president’s reaction to the pandemic cost us the strong economy he inherited and caused preventable mass death. It is delusional to believe informed people will accept his work and re-elect him for another four years. We have to work to make sure someone else, presumably Joe Biden, is elected to stop the destruction caused by the current response to the pandemic.
There is also more to life than politics.
In a series of posts I plan to write about the worklife I have known and how it may change after the pandemic. There is a clear delineation of my personal work timeline into several periods.
When I began outside work in grade school as a newspaper carrier there were expectations of knowing what types of jobs were available and then securing them. After college graduation the workplace had changed, offering few positions in which I found interest. This led to frustration and then entering the military.
After returning from overseas I went to graduate school. When finished I found even less desirable opportunity than five years previously. When I eventually found work in the transportation and logistics field it was a compromise between what I wanted to do and producing enough income to support our young family. It was never the best, but it accomplished a degree of financial security.
When I took early retirement in 2009 I wasn’t sure what the future would hold. I used part of our retirement savings and entered a series of low-paying jobs that helped pay bills but did little else to advance us financially. I’ve written often about this and hope to bring a new perspective to it. During and after the pandemic there will be another phase of worklife. In some ways it is a journey home to being the person I was when this all began.
The president and governor say it’s time to reopen the economy and our lives. From my perch in Big Grove Township the economy never fully closed and the first wave of the pandemic is not finished. To understand how we can restructure our lives in society we must understand from where we are coming. That’s the hope of the next series of posts.
I decided not to return to the home, farm and auto supply store after my voluntary COVID-19 leave of absence.
Whatever the cultural resonance of the word “retirement,” I’ll take my leave from the workforce without fanfare, without the customary sheet cake, and fade into the background of our life in Big Grove Township.
It’s been a good run. Whatever uncertainty lies ahead, I’m fortified by decades of experience in business and in living — the latter making the difference.
More than anything, our Social Security pensions make retirement possible. I made my first contribution to Social Security in 1968, thinking retirement was in the distant future. All along the way, in every job I held, I paid in. I paid in on my last paycheck on March 17. Of all the government programs that exist, Social Security, and its methodology of enabling even the lowest paid worker to save for retirement has been there. I hope it endures not only for my lifetime but for every American into a future as distant from today as is the teenage boy I was when I started.
Career guidance for many workers is to become an asset to their employer or organization rather than a commodity. Each plays its role in life and on the job, and has for me.
A commodity worker is someone who plays a specific, interchangeable role in a business or organization. For example, a dishwasher is an essential part of restaurant operations yet the people who play that role are completely fungible. The restaurant is the less if the dishwasher doesn’t do their job. If they don’t do their job they can easily be replaced. We rarely know the names of dishwashers.
Becoming an asset to an organization means bringing a special skill and value. I worked as director of legal affairs for a logistics company. My knowledge of existing contracts and contract law enabled me to evaluate new agreements as we grew our business. I knew when to consult with our attorneys and when it wasn’t necessary. I interacted with sales staff, operations, and the president of the company. The expense savings over having a lawyer on staff were considerable, and my contribution during negotiations with customers was tangible and effective. It helped close new business and retain business where the contract was reaching the end of its term. It wasn’t a plug and play role and was important when growing new business.
After my first retirement in 2009, I sought commodity roles to generate income. It’s a tough row to hoe. Pay is low, there are physical risks in the form of a changing work environment, and almost no job security. I will be forever grateful for this part of my life because it provided first-hand insight to the lives of low wage workers.
Extended periods of standing on concrete floors led to foot problems after which I gave up running for exercise. Commodity jobs externalize the costs on worker lives, seeking the lowest possible cost to make assembly line kits, serve food, or provide retail sales customer service. The underlying assumption by workers and management is these jobs won’t persist and people will come and go in them. With short tenure, companies avoid long-term costs of maintaining a workforce, including workers compensation claims, retirement contributions, and health insurance. When employee costs are externalized, other, more controlled aspects of an expense ledger receive focus. It works great for companies who outsource labor particularly, and for any business with low gross margins.
In my transportation and logistics career I became an asset although I didn’t understand it at the time. While we lived in Indiana I became dissatisfied with work managing a trucking terminal with 600 drivers, a maintenance facility, and a driver recruiting team. I sought to leverage my assets somewhere else. The result was taking a job with a Fortune 10 oil company that had an irregular route truckload fleet which was bleeding expenses. The salary was good, although a daily commute from Northwest Indiana to the Chicago Loop was challenging.
I hoped to get into the oil side of the business after I proved myself as an asset for the fledgling business unit. It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t a viable career expectation. I was hired for my specific knowledge of truckload transportation operations as an asset, and while I was uniquely qualified, a path to something else materialized only after I resigned from the job to return to my trucking terminal in Indiana. The business unit folded shortly after I left it.
In a time of professional human resources consultants large companies develop methods to control costs with elaborate pay schedules and organization charts. People perceived as assets command a higher salary than commodity workers, even if the HR consultants have defined a market rate for such positions. One’s value to a large company comes to light if a person can transcend the position for which they were hired. I found that challenging in my career with more failures than successes. On the positive side, I was in a position to leave the business at an early age to pursue other interests.
The difference between asset and commodity workers is a useful paradigm. The business environment in the United States has few guarantees for longevity in employment. If one wants longevity, they should find work owning a small business or in commodity work as a specialist with professional skills. With a growing population, society will need more medical professionals, plumbers, auto technicians, social workers, insurance and car sales people, government office workers and the like.
If the conventional wisdom is to become an asset in an organization, I disagree. The best option is to become your own best asset and live that life at work and at home. It’s something I work at everyday.
Yesterday was my Monday and today is my Friday at the home, farm and auto supply store.
A two-day work week suits me.
I’m ready to call it quits from an operational standpoint. Spring is coming with its multitude of outdoors work. The two days could readily be used for more productive endeavors. It’s the paycheck that keeps me there. There is always a use for the income.
The Iowa precinct caucuses are Monday, which leaves four days to prepare for my role as temporary chair. I’m pretty well along but little else will get done in the run up to Feb. 3. After that I can focus on pruning fruit trees, getting our income taxes prepared, spring gardening, and everything else that has been delayed by winter.
Reducing speed, I turned on the flashers to descend the ice-packed road leading to the Coralville Lake. One car was already in the ditch.
Frozen rain covered everything Wednesday morning. The city where I was bound cancelled bus service for “safety reasons.” I’m from here and knew how to make it safely into work on time.
I spent part of my shift at the home, farm and auto supply store loading pallets of granulated salt on flatbed trucks and trailers for contractors that extract a living from the frozen landscape. These guys, and they were all men, don’t work for big companies or government. As one secured his load with well-used straps he asked me how many pallets we had left. I told him and expected him back if he needed more.
The margin is thin on salt sales. Even so, with customer traffic light because of the weather, the store would take any sales we could get.
Some special projects fell into my lap. Tonight I’m scheduled to interview one of Iowa’s U.S. Senate candidates for Blog for Iowa, and next week I do a phone interview with Thom Hartmann whose last two books I reviewed. I had no intention of spending my time this way but the opportunities presented and I took them. In addition, our daughter is making a rare trip home the last weekend of the month.
The new year is bringing too much stuff to do. Part of me welcomes it, and part struggles to keep up. It is great to feel alive and engaged in this frozen Iowa.
On a brilliant Autumn day I finished my seventh season at Wilson’s Orchard where I work in the sales barn.
It has been a positive experience with my friends and co-workers Barb, Sara, Paul, Jack, Alex, Karen, and Kyle, as well as with the rest of our seasonal staff.
When I began work in 2013 it was for the money. Over the years weekly consultations with our chief apple officer about fruit growing have become the most valuable part of the experience. Socialization one experiences on a fall weekend with thousands of visitors seeking a recurring, positive activity is unique and needed as we age.
I spent more time walking among the trees this year. It is important to view where each week’s apples were and their picking conditions. It’s helpful to customers and kept me grounded in the reality of the orchard. Feedback when a customer using my directions returned from picking made the extra hour most weeks rewarding.
We grow more than 100 varieties of apples and 2019 was a great year for our crop. We finished the season with an abundant variety of apples available for customers, including some that don’t produce every year.
The operation has gotten better at managing apples. I recall years when all we had on the last weekend was Gold Rush and Enterprise. This year 25 varieties were available in the sales barn. If you’re going to manage an orchard having such a variety is an acquired and important skill.
I spent more time discussing apple selection and usage this year. As I talked about which fruit to use for applesauce, crisp and pies, I found myself tending toward traditional usage. The ways people use apples are traditional for a reason and some of the old varieties like Cortland, Jonathan and McIntosh continue to be in demand. Not every orchard grows them.
It has been tough giving up every weekend from Aug. 1 until Oct. 31 to maintain this job. When it rains on Saturday or Sunday I don’t work and this year it rained a lot. Inclement weather translated into a 32 percent decrease in income in August and September compared to last year.
With seasonal work done I’ll return to get some Gold Rush apples for storage before the Oct. 31 final day of the season. Next weekend is our post-season potluck, one of the best in terms of food quality I attend. When the entire staff gathers one realizes it takes a lot of talented people to put on the show each year.
I was asked to return next year, and most likely will.
I picked low-hanging fruit from the Red Delicious apple tree last week. All that’s left is dangling red orbs high above the reach of my 20-foot ladder plus 10-foot picker.
Most of those apples will fall to the ground for deer and wildlife food.
I blame the nursery person who grafted this supposed “semi-dwarf” cultivar on the root stock. Either something was wrong from the git-go or the cultivar grew around the root stock and made it’s own roots in its 24 years since planting. The tree has produced in abundance — an investment that repaid itself many times over. I’m happy with the hundreds of pounds of apples I was able to harvest this year, even if I couldn’t reach every one of them.
It rained all day Saturday so I stayed home from the orchard. When touching base with my supervisor mid-morning, more staff than customers were in the sales barn. I used the day for house work, cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, organizing recycling, processing the last batch of tomato sauce, cooking reading and writing. I also took a nap.
The rain is suppressing my orchard paycheck with take home pay down 30 percent compared to last year. Nonetheless, with good health, Social Security, and my spouse’s small pension we are doing alright financially. I can spend some of the apple money on books and political work.
Friday a copy of What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017 arrived via letter carrier. It will make excellent winter reading.
This week I purchased some items for our political organizing office in the county seat: paper towels, trash bags, paper cups and the like. I baked a large apple crisp which was used at yesterday’s volunteer training. I also contributed to Brad Kunkel’s campaign. He’s running for Johnson County Sheriff in a contested primary next June and is purchasing his “cowboy cards” this week. These are reasons we work an extra job even if the weather keeps the amount down.
A neighbor is hosting 2020 presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard next week, so I offered baked goods with apples for the event. I noticed one of the school board candidates will be in attendance. I support Elizabeth Warren, but I’m going because that’s what neighboring means.
With cooler overnight temperatures, the season is turning to fall in earnest. Soon I’ll glean the garden and prepare a bed for garlic planting. If it ever dries out I’ll collect grass clippings for mulch next year. I see a brush fire in the works to return the dead fuel of plants and trees to minerals for next year’s garden.
October is looking to be busy so I have to be organized, which is no hill for a climber. If only I could climb up and get those last dangling apples. The third month of apple season is another part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.