Categories
Work Life

Becoming an Asset

At Sunset

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.

Categories
Work Life Writing

Two-Day Work Week

Soft shell taco, Spanish Rice, and refried beans. Midwestern staples.

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.

Spring isn’t here, but it won’t be long.

Categories
Work Life Writing

Frozen Iowa

Seed Organizer

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.

Categories
Work Life

Apple Season Seven in the Books

Showcasing 22 varieties of apples at Wilson’s Orchard, Oct. 27, 2019

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.

Rows of apple trees at Wilson’s Orchard Oct. 25, 2019

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.

Home storage apples. My Red Delicious on the left, Wilson’s Orchard variety on the right.

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.

Categories
Local Food Politics Work Life

Third Month of Apple Season

Apple Crisp, Oct. 4, 2019

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.

Categories
Politics Work Life Writing

Pushing Age’s Envelope and the Debate

Apple Tree June 25, 2019.

Wednesday I worked outside for five hours at the home, farm and auto supply store.

As temperatures reached toward 85 degrees, a colleague and I consolidated the remaining plants and supplies and opened up traffic flow where the garden center had been. I used a lift truck although there was plenty of physical labor. Our permit with the city expires soon and it’s time to make the parking lot a parking lot again.

Lifting numerous bags of mulch, soil and garden products took a toll. I was tired when I clocked out at 4:30 p.m.

Stopping to pick up provisions at the warehouse club, the trip home took an hour and 40 minutes. I followed a large sprayer from North Liberty to Solon and it drove really slowly. There was no way I could make the trip to the county seat for a meeting where a group is coordinating a presidential candidate debate on our issues: nuclear abolition and climate change.

Aware of the televised and webcast first presidential candidate debate, I skipped it for complicated reasons, but mostly because I couldn’t stay awake until it ended at 10 p.m. With a large glass of milk and an appetizer plate for dinner, I retired early and slept through the night.

I woke around 2:45 a.m. and picked up my mobile device without turning on the lights. A friend from one of the farms where I work participated in a CNN discussion panel after the debate and sent me video. She represented our community well in the brief amount of air time.

My main conventional news sources, Associated Press and the Washington Post each had their spin about what was most significant. AP framed health care and immigration as the top issues debated. The Washington Post headlined economic policy, although they presented multiple articles on several topics.

My social media scroll showed partisans supporting their candidate and little else new. What stood out was broad support for Elizabeth Warren’s performance and a breakout for Julián Castro. In the honorable mention category, de Blasio was not as bad as expected and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar came across as knowledgeable and presidential. Of the ten in the first debate, it is time for Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Beto O’Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and John Delaney to make their way to the exits and find other Democratic work needing to be done. If we have too many presidential candidates, there is no shortage of work to regain a Democratic majority in the legislature.

No regrets about missing the debate as I feel rested and ready to start another day. When you get to be a certain age, physical limits are familiar. One hopes to keep our powder dry and live to fight when it really matters. I can’t honestly say sifting through dozens of announced presidential candidates matters that much.

Editor’s Note about June 27 debate: Survivors of the second debate, according to accounts I read similar to those mentioned, and not from watching the debates, are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (only for their high ranking in the polls), Kamala Harris (for her discussion of the importance of race relations in 2019), and Pete Buttigieg for his millennial status and as a reminder of the promise of youth. As U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Kirsten Gillibrand get honorable mention, they should make their exits from the presidential race to work on electing additional Democratic U.S. Senators to secure a majority. Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper should recognize the exit music and gracefully seek other important work in the Democratic Party to improve our chances of securing majorities in both federal legislative chambers.

Based on this analysis, there are few choices for me: We need to turn the page on Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders even though their current standing in polls is evidence many like them both. That leaves Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Julián Castro. I’d like to hear more from each of these candidates in the next debate. The field needs to reduce by half again after that process is completed. Of everyone that is running, on June 28 I’m more likely to support Elizabeth Warren than I was. My willingness to listen will decrease as summer continues. Making a decision of who to support should be doable by Labor Day.

Categories
Work Life

Low Wage Work, the South Side and Me

At Sunset

The benefit of working in a low wage job is exposure to lives I wouldn’t otherwise know exist.

Every work day someone’s car has been repossessed, an abusive spouse called an associate at work, or someone lost their apartment with no ability to pay for a new one.

This a part of society people don’t see much unless one is living it. Government is not involved unless a trip to the courthouse or prison is part of the package.

During my transportation career I spent more than my share of time on the South Side of Chicago. Some folks decided to break into a trailer dropped in a neighborhood and attempted to take a refrigerator. The refrigerators were large and awkward to handle, and the Chicago police stopped the theft and pursued the would-be thieves through the neighborhood. A call from our corporate staff in Cedar Rapids resulted in my spending most of a day in arraignment court. The time there was life-changing. I knew Chicago experienced a lot of crime, but was in no way prepared for the endless procession of victims and their aggressors.

When our case came up on the docket, the prosecutor began by pointing at me, saying “a representative of the company” was present at the arraignment. If I hadn’t been there, the charges would have been dropped. While enjoying the narratives of the culprit chase and questioning about their identification the night of the crime, I had other responsibilities to pursue, such as finding drivers who would comply with company policy and park their trailers at our nearby secure terminal across the Indiana line.

I worked three months for a subcontractor of a subcontractor to the Whirlpool Corporation in North Liberty the spring of 2013. It was hard work and I found something better. There was constant employee turnover and I got to meet and spend breaks with a lot of transients during my tenure. There were no permanent employees of the temp service who wrote my paycheck, not even in our Cedar Rapids office.

A group from Chicago had set up shop off Penn Street in North Liberty, renting an apartment where friends, relatives and neighbors from Chicago stayed and rotated through. They had heard of job opportunities and cheap living in the Cedar Rapids – Iowa City Corridor and some of them worked at the temp service I did trying to find a permanent arrangement in Cedar Rapids. My informant was someone who participated in this operation. In addition to the work building kits for Whirlpool, he was a low-level loan shark and two-bit hustler trying to get ahead. He didn’t last long at the plant.

I started referring to the “Chicago contingent” with these folks specifically in mind. Unbeknownst to me my experience and others like it became the stuff of urban legends. So much so that Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker addressed it in a presentation last week to Cedar Rapids’ First Presbyterian Church, titled, Dispelling the Myth of Chicago “Trouble-Makers.” The YouTube video is an hour long and Walker does a great job framing the issues.

As Walker explains, the phrase “Chicago trouble-makers” is dog-whistle for racism. Since my experience with the Chicago contingent was born out of personal experience, I hadn’t thought of it that way. The fellow employees at the temp service were trying to get ahead, and I don’t blame them for wanting to get out of Chicago. I didn’t know many of them as well as my informant, and it’s likely some of them had a recent criminal background, based on conversations in the break area. What I called their “operation” could not help but be noticed by others and civic attitudes toward it followed.

Our politics cultivates urban myths like the “Chicago trouble-makers” as a primary function. We’ve become so disconnected from our neighbors that rumor and innuendo displace human interaction and its role in society. My solution is to write about what I know from personal experience and challenge my own perspective as much as that’s possible. Once one engages in society it is possible to effect change. In fact, that may be the only way to do it.

Categories
Work Life

Long Goodbye to Workforce

Embers

By July 3, the tenth anniversary of my departure from the logistics company, I hope to have my exit from the workforce defined.

I continue to work for pay and barter and am concerned with a loss of income those five jobs currently provide, although, not that much.

I’m ready to focus on work closer to home which pays in ways other then monetarily. Our needs have changed and so have I.

The reason our household is in this position is Social Security and Medicare. At 50 years into the workforce I continue to contribute to both, and the benefits provide a livable financial structure. The fact we’ve been responsible citizens helps as well.

It is time to move on.

That said, I enjoy my five jobs and the people I meet. The home, farm and auto supply store provides insight into low wage workers and the challenges of retail. The two farms where I soil block are quite different if my work is the same in both. I enjoy the farmers, workers and volunteers in each setting for different reasons. Work at the apple orchard has changed since my friend Jack first referred me there. The operation has gotten bigger, the number of revenue streams expanded. I’ve learned a lot about apple culture and the work appears to have run its course for me. My summer coverage of Blog for Iowa has been a time where I am required to put a post up five days a week. It has always provided a chance to think more about contemporary affairs and what it means to be a progressive Democrat.

The long goodbye from all of these jobs is already in process.

What will I do besides slow down my work outside home? That’s an open question, the answer to which depends on continued good health. For now, I am mentally active and undamaged by life’s stresses. Another human working to sustain a life in a turbulent world.

Categories
Politics Work Life

Potluck Luncheon

Hay Bale

It runs counter to the Western Christian tradition but employees at the home, farm and auto supply store held a potluck luncheon on Ash Wednesday.

While others were submitting to dust from a priest’s thumb, my co-workers were feasting on loose meat sandwiches, deviled eggs and Amish Wedding fare in the form of pickled green beans and jalapeno-stuffed mushrooms. Tater tots revolved under the heating element of a shared pizza-cooking appliance.

One person brought red checkered tablecloths for our industrial tables in the break room, providing a festive look to the event.

The only penitence among my colleagues was related to over-eating.

The last Chevy Cruze rolled off an assembly line at the Lordstown, Ohio GM plant yesterday. I looked at photos of workers standing around the vehicle and had to look away. Too many memories of heartbreak among factory workers I’ve known. I conducted thousands of interviews with laid off workers when we lived in Indiana. Enough to understand the look in their eyes. Another sad day in the evolution of American manufacturing in the rust belt.

After work I stopped to secure provisions at the warehouse club, comme d’habitude. A farmer called me while I was contemplating the value of pre-cut aluminum foil sheets to be used wrapping root vegetables before baking. The issue was whether I needed a restaurant-sized box of 500 sheets rather than an inexpensive roll of aluminum foil to be replaced from the grocery store as needed. The farmer and I talked about legislation before the first funnel of the Iowa legislature. After 10 minutes we hung up and I decided to wait on the foil squares. I’ve been thinking about this for over a year.

Our county political party is re-organizing tonight. The meeting starts a little earlier than normal and word is the current party chair will seek another term. He’s the mayor of a small city near our border with Linn County. If he wants another term, I’ll vote for him. In our liberal county we tend to find a new chair each cycle, whereas counties with less Democrats in them tend to keep their party chairs for much longer periods of time. The chair has done a good job including old timers like me. The main work of the county party this year is preparing for the 2020 Iowa caucus. I know the drill, and since no one stepped up in 2018, I’m planning to run it again next February.

On my way home from work I noticed a number of homes along the route displayed political yard signs for the same candidate for city council in North Liberty’s March 12 special election. Placement is on or near property where signs saying “Lock Her Up” and “Trump-Pence” continue to be displayed more than two years after the 2016 general election. A reminder that even in the state’s most liberal county the overall political color continues to be red.

The best news this week was after my initial soil-blocking efforts at the farms I feel better with no soreness to report. Now if the frozen ice-pack that is our yard would thaw, I’d be ready for spring. It won’t be long.

Categories
Environment Farming Work Life

Wind Howled All Day

Squirrels Dining on Sunflower Seeds

The store manager from the home, farm and auto supply store phoned Sunday afternoon to ask me to work on Monday. The colleague who assumed my full time job last spring was visiting family in Nebraska and bad weather closed roads across the state, including Interstate 80. She couldn’t make it back in time for her shift.

In Iowa, helping out is part of our culture. I said yes I’d work and rearranged my plans so I could.

In addition, the farmer decided the weather was bad enough she didn’t want people venturing out to the farm. The roads were iced over and the wind howled at 30 miles per hour all day. Her sister, the shepherdess, posted social media photos of installing a new anemometer and weather station. Its LED panel displayed the digital message, “hold onto your hat!”

As I was settling in last night, the Washington Post put up an article about White House plans to form an “ad hoc group of select federal scientists to reassess the government’s analysis of climate science and counter conclusions that the continued burning of fossil fuels is harming the planet.”

In other words, the Fourth National Climate Assessment told the story of how dire our future could be without climate action. Rather than doing something, the administration is arguing with their own scientists that global warming is not caused by burning fossil fuels. These are times that will fry men’s souls.

Which part of yesterday’s howling wind was an amplification caused by global warming? The answer doesn’t matter because it’s the wrong question. We know the deleterious effect of burning fossil fuels. We also know thawing permafrost, agriculture, methane releases during oil production, building construction, manufacturing processes, air transport, deforestation, landfill decomposition and other human activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. We can’t get bogged down in details when the bigger picture is we have an obstructionist government led by Republicans and their conservative, dark-moneyed think tanks who would interpret the howling wind as something else. The better question is when will voters do something to fix this?

Yesterday’s wind was the kind that calls for hunkering down until it ends. Eventually we will have a calm, sunny day and the opportunity to work as normal. Or maybe it is something else, as Bob Dylan sang in the 1970s,

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.