Work Life

From Middle to Working Class

Construction Site
Construction Site

LAKE MACBRIDE— Today’s usage of the phrase “middle class” is meaningless. It is a marker for a world dreamed up while writing talking points for political campaigns. A middle class so created, never existed. It was as if we took the broken theories promulgated during the rise of mass society, and switched things around so that economic means was the determinant of whether one was or was not in the middle class. With the one percent of wealthiest people at the top, and roughly 15 percent of people who live in poverty at the bottom, the 84 percent in between are now dubbed middle class.

In our cultural background is the idea that we were all created equal, and have innate talents, some more so than others, that could and should be developed so that by application of native skills we can rise and fall in society. The so-called American dream is centered around this notion.

To some extent, the story is re-enacted as occasionally a mail room clerk rises to become chief executive officer of a large corporation. Such instances of rise in a workplace are limited in number, increasingly so, as businesses consolidate, on a global scale, under fewer corporate CEOs. In this world, the society of business is better served by increasing the number of people available to become mail room clerks, at the lowest possible wages, than by creating opportunities to get out of the mail room. Such stories are important to keeping people in their place in the economic pecking order, and I suspect that is why they are so popular.

If “middle class” is a meaningless phrase, “working class” is not. The long story of immigration to North America includes countless people who traded work for passage across the Atlantic and a chance for freedom and prosperity. I am thinking of my own ancestors and their cohort, who arrived in the 17th century in what would become the state of Virginia. They came, not as landed gentry, but as working people, delaying start up of their own farms to work for someone else who needed labor, and to secure it would pay travel costs to secure indentured servitude. This story is also part of the American dream— that through individual efforts and sacrifice, a person could become a landowner, and thereby rise in society. There were likely more indentured servants that rose to become landowners than mail room clerks that became CEOs, but their story is told less often.

Indentured servitude doesn’t exist in the same way in the 21st century, but it serves as an example of how people will make deals with the capital class to get ahead. Such deals include working for a labor broker to earn less than a living wage, in some cases, less than minimum wage, so that business can have sufficient low-cost labor to meet its needs. Without a sufficient working class, the capital class would be out of business. Working class rights, not middle class rights, should be the focus of our political leaders. It’s not, at least that I can see.

If one sits in lunchrooms and listens to working class concerns, the conversations are not about the minimum wage, unions, or much at all to do with the relationship between labor and capital. The discussions are about personal relationships, health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder of veterans, and addiction to tobacco, crack and sugary drinks.

While being a member of the working class doesn’t provide a pension, or health insurance, or security of almost any form, it is how a large segment of Americans live. We ought to be hearing more about it from the corporate media, from politicians, and from each other. If we believe in the possibility of social progress, our focus should rightly be on the working class, as it is here that the American dream was born. Neglected, it is where the dream will die.

Work Life Writing

Sustaining a Creative Life

Barn WallLAKE MACBRIDE— Today, the key element in sustaining a creative life in Big Grove Township is magnesium sulfate, or Epsom salt. A thirty minute foot bath provides a form of relief few other things can provide. I recommend it, although for the most part, people already know about it, and for some it works, for others, not so much. Well-cared for feet are something we take for granted, but shouldn’t, because they are an important foundation to creativity.

When I was at university, I shared a house with a constantly changing group of creative people. We had our own rooms, and shared the living room, bathroom, and kitchen. Every once in a while we had a joint clean up activity, although housekeeping was not a priority. My contribution was to attempt to keep the kitchen clean, and recall doing a lot of everyone else’s dishes. I didn’t mind and enjoyed seeing pots and pans my grandmother had given me mixed in with everyone else’s kitchen gear.

Writers, poets, musicians, artists, a drum maker, a publisher, an aquarium builder, a travel guide and emerald seller, an auto mechanic, and guests of all kinds passed through the doors of that place. Some found notoriety in what would later become the city of literature, but mostly, people were not well known, except to each other.

I briefly shared my room with some buddies from Davenport. One went on to become a librarian. Another, who practiced martial arts, moved to California, and eventually got a credit on the Hollywood movie “The Matrix.”

A woman arrived halfway through my stay. She found a part time job, and spent every morning at a table in the entryway writing. As an early riser, I often ran into her, but tried not to interrupt. She hooked up with a poet, and eventually left with him for California, taking one of my grandmother’s saucepans with them on the train. I don’t think we called it hooking up during the early 1970s.

Later, the poet was known to sit at a typewriter with a gallon of cheap wine and write until he finished the bottle. This lifestyle is said to have led to his early death. I don’t know what happened to her.

That house was a place to camp out while pursuing other things. For me it was finishing a mandatory, but uninspiring bachelor’s degree. It was there I spent a morning tie-dying T-shirts while listening to my commencement address on the radio. I declined a job offer from the Oscar Mayer Company, which had provided a four year scholarship. When the summer ended, my sparse belongings went into storage, I took what money I had, converted it to American Express traveler’s checks, and went to Europe with my backpack for what began without a plan, but ended being twelve weeks of youth hostels, art museums and train rides. My backpack was stolen when I arrived in France, and that is another story.

There is no defined path to sustaining a creative life. Instead, we secure food, shelter and clothing, protect our health and well-being if we are able, and go on living. If we are creative, it is that spark of interest in society that sustains us, or can, if we recognize it— and Epsom salt and other common elements to help ease the pain of living.

Work Life

Wage Workers in Iowa

NORTH LIBERTY— One of my work mates is an Iraq War veteran. Stationed in Tikrit, his military occupational specialty was fueling, although military contractors did most of the fueling work. He had a lot to say about war profiteers, including members of the Bush-Cheney administration. Locals he met did not like the American presence in Iraq. “Too many car bombs,” he said, something they experienced less when Saddam Hussein was in power.

Our supervisors discourage us from talking while we are in our cells (a.k.a. work stations), but when the computer network went down for about 45 minutes last night, we had a chance to talk. For me, that meant mostly listening.

I have been working as a temp in a warehouse in North Liberty for about two weeks. Not sure I could hack it— repetitive motion, standing and walking except during lunch break— my focus has been on staying healthy, and getting the work done as best I can.  My goal is survive, and beyond that, to learn everyone’s name and a little about them. Employees turnover at a rapid pace, so I haven’t yet done very well on getting to know people. Mostly, it’s nose to the grindstone.

It turned out that the Iraq War veteran found another warehouse where he can work through a temp agency for about two dollars more an hour. He is scheduled to start there on Monday. There was no surprise, as the discussion was overheard in the lunchroom the previous day. I wished him good luck with his new job, in case we didn’t get to speak to each other on Thursday.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck, and working poor was something I had not experienced until now. Measuring each week by the number of checks that will arrive, knowing it is enough to barely make regular expenses, can be a grind. I can see why my work mate took the new job— some might say, it’s a no-brainer. But a different view, is that temp work does not provide the means to earn a living wage in any case, at least temporary warehouse work. It was not designed to do so.

These jobs are part of the American outsourcing movement— clear evidence that the changes in a worker’s life regarding wages, and for whom we work, aren’t only happening when jobs move to Asia or Mexico. They are endemic to the Iowa experience.

My hourly wage costs the company $0.154 per kit I assemble. Add on whatever the temp agency gets for their fees, and it is not much. There are no paid benefits. In the context of the entire operation, the expense includes management, supervisors, equipment, material moving, overhead, supplies and external transportation. Inherent is the idea that there are cost savings to the principal manufacturer by doing business this way. And jobs are created, somewhere between 125 and 150 of them where I work.

My work mate and I worked well together. Probably because of our common military experience. At the end of the day, that may be all we had together, as our logistics process, like any in the transformation of the American workplace, could easily be changed, eliminated or improved. In many ways, logistics is a facilitator of the transformation of business. Wage workers have to take it how they can, and sometimes that means switching jobs for another $80 per week.

Work Life

Working to Live

LAKE MACBRIDE— Let’s face it, we’re not like the Kennedys. We have no progenitor who leveraged a rising mass society in a way that both produced wealth and enabled new generations to focus on life free from financial concerns. That such a family existed, was well known, and equally well documented, influenced my generation in ways that continue to be revealed. There may have been others like them, but the Kennedys were it when it comes to a lifestyle free from financial worry, an algorithm built into the software of the lives of sixty-somethings.

It is not that there haven’t been brief periods of financial independence. While serving in the U.S. Army, there was no time to spend money, and I had almost an entire year’s salary in my savings account upon discharge. This created the financial freedom to attend graduate school full time and receive my masters in 17 months without worry. There have been a few other times like that, and I felt free to enter and exit the work force as it met my short term needs. I still feel that way, but as I aged, options changed.

It is one thing to talk about creating a sustainable life on the prairie, and another to actually do it. The comfort of regular pay, on a predictable schedule, can be addictive, even when it is not sustainable. Sometimes we become crack-heads of routine inside a career, with all the problems addiction brings.

When one breaks from the cocoon of a long career, it is a world of light and uncertainty— part was expected, but everything is brand new in its unique iteration. The hounds are let loose from their leashes.

Part of the breakup with a career is living and working with much younger people than relationships built over decades. It is refreshing. It is scary. There is risk. There are sore feet and chapped hands from doing new things.

We can find income to live. It is not even a question. When a friend first suggested temp jobs as an option for extra cash, it took me a month to decide to pursue the idea. Once I did, it took exactly six days from decision to working the new job.

Making money is not the problem. The challenge is creating a process for living focused on something other than our job. We are not the thirty second elevator story about who we are and what we hope to be. When we recognize all work has merit, we have a chance of breaking from the enslavement of careers.

We may work to pay for food, shelter, clothing, communications technology, transportation, insurance, interest and taxes, but until we experience the epiphany that working is living, and such living is fine compensation, a happy life may elude us. We could go on hoping to build a nest egg for retirement, get money ahead so we can take a break, win the lottery— such notions a malware embedded in the stories of Camelot and of summers in Hyannis Port playing touch football.

What else can we do but go on working?

Work Life

Workingman’s Life

Hand Soap
Hand Soap

LAKE MACBRIDE— Sunlight fell into the bedroom, crashing around the blinds to wake me about eight o’clock— the latest I slept in years.  I’ll get through the physical adjustment to my new job— getting off work late and falling asleep later— but sleeping until eight is concerning. Half the day is gone.

Last night I soaked my feet in an Epsom salt bath after work— a workingman’s remedy for sore dogs. Wearing steel toed shoes for a nine hour shift has been like lifting a three-pound weight with each step. A friend posted on Facebook, “who needs a gym? You are multitasking weight training at work.” I don’t know about that, but my feet were less sore after the soaking.

Snow remains on the ground this morning, holding off spring yard and garden work for another day. It’s 16 degrees and a slight breeze is blowing, bringing with it remembrance of my non-office work life.

Working class artifacts surround me today: a beater of a car, steel toed shoes, special work clothes, a brown paper lunch bag, Epsom salt, pumice-based hand soap, bandages for cuts and scrapes, and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (in the event I need one). These are things my dad had when he worked in the meat packing plant— like father, like son… sort of.

A workingman’s standard issue belies inner tensions. One strives to make it through each day without injury. There is risk in production settings, and a dynamic of managing that risk while striving for productivity. If we are paying attention, our humanity is evident to us in each moment as we navigate through a shift’s existential reality.

When work is repetitive, like operating a work station, or loading a truck, the mind tends to wander— to home, to family, to a host of worries of living in modern society. Distractions can be dangerous. To survive, a worker must focus on the task at hand, blocking everything else out. Doing so is a key to achieving productivity targets, and to making sense of why we work as an employee of someone else.

As the sun’s rude awakening recedes, consider its warming influence on the seed trays in the dining room. They are beginning to sprout. My day worker experience confirms long held beliefs. That every kind of work has value, whether it is paid or not.

What I hadn’t considered enough was how performing work requires our attention and an investment of our humanity. Work can inspire us, but mostly, it can be a furtherance of the pursuit of happiness— ours and those around us. That often gets lost while doing the work.

Work Life

Walking the Walk — Wait and See

Sumitomo Quadrant
Sumitomo Quadrant

LAKE MACBRIDE— It was in Oklahoma where I learned about Sumitomo Corporation. Maybe it was in Arkansas, I’m not sure ten years later. We were making a sales call on the U.S. headquarters of one of the hundreds of companies Sumitomo owns. We did not get the business. However, I learned a lot from the company about how to manage my post-transportation career. To be successful, we must live as a scaled down version of the largest of corporations.

Sumitomo Corporation began in the 17th Century with a book and medicine shop in Kyoto, Japan. The history is on the company web site and worth reading. Their corporate mission is to “achieve prosperity and realize dreams through sound business activities.” While corporations are not people, who doesn’t want to achieve prosperity and realize dreams? The notion is at the core of my quest for a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie. How to do it? Follow the chart.

The key element of Sumitomo’s management approach was to assign every business they owned into one of four quadrants on a chart, using the representation on the chart to guide management of their entire business enterprise. To read more, click on the link. However, there are four ideas worth mentioning, one per quadrant, that could be applied to any business or life: reinforce, cash cow, wait and see, and prepare for withdrawal.

We all have things we work on. Family, health, economic activities, avocations, risk management and necessities. I think of each area of work as Sumitomo thinks of each company— having risk, return on investment (tangible and intangible), resources, intellectual capital, and financial investment. The idea for my post-career life is to assemble a portfolio of activities that will facilitate prosperity and realization of dreams. When I consider each of my activities, some are doing better than others, and that is okay.

For example, my work as a proof reader for the weekly newspapers takes 4-6 hours per week, and the financial return is steady and predictable. It goes in the wait and see quadrant. Is there more work available at the paper? What is the risk of holding this job, in lieu of using the time to search for a better one? Can I find additional, similar work with other area employers that would increase my compensation and standing as a proof reader? Should I cut bait and find another, better paying position? From time to time, the newspaper work, and each endeavor in which I participate requires some reflection, analysis and attention. The Sumitomo approach provides the paradigm.

One of the precepts of sustainability is diversity of effort. With a one-paycheck career, the risks were too many. My transportation career was a cash cow, in which I prospered while advancing into middle age. I left a low risk situation, producing substantial results for the company, in order to realize the maximum value of more than 25 years of work.

What is next is uncertain, or in Sumitomo’s lingo, we’ll wait and see. I am prepared for the challenges— but more— prepared to realize my dreams.

Work Life

Drama in Society

Parking Space
Parking Space

LAKE MACBRIDE— The conventional wisdom is that people leave a job because of the relationship with their manager. At my temporary job across the lake, people almost never talk about their manager. They talk about drama.

“I don’t need the drama,” said a colleague who started the same day I did. He was frustrated by someone with whom he shared a work station. Wage earners come to work, perform their job, and seek to leave workplace worries when they punch out. Unless conflict is directly related to the work, who needs it? We all have our reasons for taking a job, and workplace drama is not usually one of them. It is also a sorry substitute for the real thing.

My trainer said, “I work on first shift, so I don’t know the drama on second.” It is a focus on colleagues, their attitudes and personality projections. The usage is a derivative of reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother. As if the whole world was watching as petty problems, ambitions and peccadilloes play out in real time. Society mimicking the media.

We are forced to deal with popular culture as it influences our interaction with others. Should we participate in the drama, or observe? The media reinforces our role as an observer.

If life in society is a construct, then we hold the power to make it how we would. Emphasis on “we.” Going forward, I’ll take my drama from actors treading the boards, and not based on a perspective influenced by answering the question, “who will be the biggest loser?” Society may be better off if I do.

Work Life

Getting Wheels

MOUNT VERNON— While test driving a 1997 Subaru Legacy Outback along the Cedar River Road, the river looked ready to jump its banks and flood the pavement. With the ground still frozen from winter, the recent rain had nowhere to go, and a river that was near empty a few weeks ago was now flowing strong with the runoff. The soil needs moisture, but so do the arterial waterways of North America. With a sense of new hope, I bought the car.

One never knows about a used car. Will it last? Will it break down? Will parts be available? How much more should be invested in repairs when needed? My decision to buy a used car was based less on these questions— given my budget, a new car was not an option. The local car dealer web sites had little in the price range I wanted to spend, so for convenience sake, I upped the budget rather than spending time to find a cheaper alternative. The trade-in Outback was well used, but everything appeared to work, and the wagon space will prove to be useful.  The dealership delivered it to our home last night around 5 p.m.

This car is a beater. It is not intended for long trips, but for getting around the community to run errands. A reliable vehicle is essential to finding and getting to work, and easing some of the challenges of being a one-car family when both of us are still active. To the extent a car represents one’s personality, it will take me some time to getting used to a red vehicle. But I can already imagine myself as an Outback kind of guy.

Work Life

Day Laborer

CEDAR RAPIDS— The temp agency takes applications from 8 until 11 a.m., Tuesday through Thursday, so today was the day to show up. From the calls the person at the counter took while doing my paperwork, they seem to have work. It’s a reason for being there. I brought my citizenship papers and spent the hour filling out forms. For the effort, I received a new hire booklet.

I had no idea what to expect. My last job search was in 1984. Based on the questions asked during the application process, the fact that I have good work habits, don’t do drugs, don’t want to get into a fight over my manhood, haven’t been injured on the job and generally follow the rules in someone else’s world, will give me an edge. She said three times or more they opened at 6 a.m. and it was important to sign in in person until they got to know me. I’ll be there tomorrow at 5:55 a.m. to see what happens.

There are a lot of questions that could be asked, but when a person needs paying work, those get pushed into the background. I agreed to a background check, to release my medical records, to arbitration in some disputes, but not all, in lieu of litigation. I completed forms on a Palm device, on paper, and into a computer. I signed my name more than a dozen times. When we are not doing paid work and need it, there is a lot to which we might agree.

What is a person worth? I decided at least $9 per hour. Partly because while my mother believes me to be special, most other people don’t put extra value on another day laborer. Also because that’s what they pay for the job I saw on the Workforce Development web site. I may be worth more, but I have no bargaining position yet.

Over the coming days and weeks, I should have fresh insight into the phrase “all in a day’s work.” I am looking forward to this experience.