Living in Society

Labor Day 2021

Labor Day weekend work: preserving Guajillo chilies.

For the second year in a row I’m not employed on Labor Day. The kinds of events marking the day are not the same as they were.

An announcement on the Iowa Labor News website read, “Most of the Union sponsored Labor Day events around Iowa have been cancelled, for safety reasons.”

“Safety reasons” refers to the coronavirus pandemic, which is not over, which has no end in sight. “The virus is here to stay,” Governor Kim Reynolds said at a Sept. 2 news conference. “Which means we have to find a way to live with it in a responsible, balanced and sustainable way.” There is no going back to the way things were before the coronavirus came along on Labor Day or on any day.

It’s been 48 years since I carried a union card at a meat packing plant. Since then, private business restructured to minimize its exposure to a unionized workforce. I’m not sure what Labor Day represents any longer. It sure isn’t about unions even if they are the groups most likely to plan events during better times.

Locally grown Honeycrisp apples.

This weekend the orchard began its Honeycrisp apple season, the university had a Saturday home football game, and there is a Labor Day Vendors Market in nearby Mount Vernon. It’s not much considering how many people work for a living. This year’s Labor Day Mayor’s Bike Ride in Cedar Rapids has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Suffice it Monday is a holiday and the weekend can be a time to take it easy.

Labor Day weekend is the “unofficial end of summer.” That’s going to have to do. Since I returned from a trip to Florida at the beginning of July the weather has been exceedingly hot and humid. Sunday morning’s ambient temperature was 59 degrees, reminding us of autumn’s approach. Sumac along the state park trail has begun to change color. There are signs of the end of summer all around.

In February I bought a new CPU to replace the one I’ve been using since 2013. This Labor Day weekend I hope to get it up and running, with files transferred. I face the same issue as in the past: what files do I want to keep? Ready or not, change has come and it’s time to decide. Like with the Labor Day holiday I must act like there is no going back. What is hard is deciding whether that means keeping old behavior or developing new. For now, I plan to work at home on Labor Day.

Social Commentary

Thanksgiving Work

Working the Garden
Working the Garden

LAKE MACBRIDE— It became clear the planned Thanksgiving dinner was not going to happen when the well outage persisted into its third hour. We live in a rural subdivision with a public water system managed by volunteers. They took prompt action when the water stopped around 12:15 p.m., but the contractor lives in Toddville, so it took an hour or so for him to arrive once contacted. After the second hour of no water flow, we decided the gallon jug plus a few on-hand containers of water were not enough to finish preparing the menu in yesterday’s post. We rescheduled the vegetarian feast for Saturday, and I made a pizza requiring only a cup of water for the dough. Life is change and adaptation.

The cause du jour this holiday weekend is retail and restaurant workers called in to work on Thursday so people could shop after Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t get it.

Having lost count of the number of holidays I have had to work, I know what it’s like to sacrifice family time for a job. Working holidays included the only Thanksgiving my mother spent with us since our wedding. Even so, it’s hard to share the sense of moral outrage others express about low wage workers having to work on Thanksgiving. And I plan to continue the off and on annual trek to Farm and Fleet with a friend from high school later today, Black Friday or no. But maybe I do get it.

There is a progressive movement to increase the minimum wage, and selected low wage Thanksgiving workers have been used as a prop by unions and progressive organizations to call attention to the issue.  It’s advocacy 101. To the extent low-wage workers support it, I’m with them. I’m not convinced the vast majority do.

There are complicated reasons why a person would accept a low paying job. It’s always partly about the money, and who couldn’t use more of that? But it’s also about social networking, a sense of self-esteem, and the systemic reliability of the paycheck. The latter is almost never discussed, but it is important.

There is a stark difference between working for a small business and a large corporation with an established compensation program, and adequate cash flow. When a person begins work with a large corporation, there is a detailed and consistent process for generating a paycheck, one that is usually well explained during orientation and training. There are hiccups, but over the long haul, having such a process benefits both the employer and the employee. Working for a small business is different, and given a choice, people often choose to accept low wages and work for a large corporation. What you see is what you get, less subject to personality and its inherent inconsistencies, both of which are often found in small businesses.

That said, U.S. workers have a right to organize and form a union. Why is it that so few (6.6 percent in 2012) private sector workers form a union? Why is it private sector unionization efforts so often fall flat? The simple fact is that for low wage workers, union organizers represent one more thing to deal with in an already complex cultural fabric. Because a union can’t make any promises, there is little reason to join an organizing effort unless one is already disposed to do so. Too, the potential fluidity of lowly paid work is such that rather than deal with the drama of a union organizing effort, a person can easily move on to another position. As I have written previously, unions must become more relevant to low wage workers to have a chance to organize them. This is something they have failed to do, at least in my experience.

As the sun has risen, there is work to do before taking off to meet up with my friend. He’s a union member so I’m sure we won’t cross any picket or protest lines today. We may buy something, but if we do, it will only be something we need. I’m thankful for the working life that put me in this position… and not only on Thanksgiving.

Work Life

Working for Low Wages

At Sunset

LAKE MACBRIDE— 52 days of work for a nearby logistics company was an eye opener. In a world of constant electronic contact with smartphones and computers— via social media applications, on-line corporate media outlets and Internet discussion groups— our perceptions of society lean toward generalities and abstraction. Progressive commentary, about increasing the minimum wage and union organizing, seems disconnected when one works with others for low wages. As a worker, it is obvious there are inequalities in pay for work, and that the disparity between the richest Americans and the majority is widening. Yet people need an income, so they give up part of their freedom to toil in the fields of corporate masters, voluntarily.

In my short span as a warehouse worker, an endless river of people flowed through the building, each finding value, at least enough to attract them to the work, in the manual labor. Whether it was the prestige of having a job, working with friends, or socializing with new people, the monetary compensation was inadequate to have made it the main attraction. Some said they worked there to pay bills, but the compensation alone could not sustain the simplest of lives on the Iowa prairie.

The payday for low paying work is building a social network to help meet basic economic needs— one based in direct human contact, unfiltered by electronic media. A host of services was available because of the work relationship. A tattoo artist offered his ink, people of means offered loans, and gardeners offered to exchange vegetables and baked goods. There was ride-sharing, child care and a network of discovery of ways to escape low paying work for something better. Human society in places like this is like a living coral reef, where everyone’s needs can be met at a certain level.

Part of the learning was that such jobs are available, there is an ample supply of labor to fill them, physical stamina is required to perform the work, and a steady paycheck can play a role in a broader life. When we consider our choices in life— health care, a place to live, food to eat, taxes, loan interest and insurance— sustaining basic living can be problematic at $9.25 per hour without benefits. There is no simple resolution to this deficiency in pay for work.

Two progressive nostrums offer no help: organizing a union and increasing the minimum wage.

When I met Andy Stern, then president of Service Employees International Union, we talked about organizing logistics workers. Stern agreed labor unions lost the battle of maintaining union drivers and dock workers after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated trucking. He suggested there was a new organizing possibility in the logistics workers who are the next layer of employees in a global supply chain. He felt it fit well with what his union was doing organizing janitorial and health services workers. Having worked a career  for a company that made the transition from all union to non-union as deregulation rolled out, I was skeptical.

After my experience at the warehouse, Stern’s hope to organize logistics workers seems unrealistic. Not only is the corporation that was the ultimate customer for our work removed from employees, there were multiple layers of removal. A lengthy probationary period working for a temporary employment service distanced beginning workers from the company. Multiple temporary employment companies were used. Likewise, the logistics company to whom we were leased from the temp agency was a subcontractor for the company, working on successive three-year contracts. Colleagues often did not know for whom they would be working if they successfully made it through the temporary employment agency to the logistics company as employees. On a given day, people doing the same work received paychecks from at least three different entities. When combined with high employee turnover, union organizing would be nearly impossible in such an environment.

The progressive talk about raising the minimum wage is a case of barking up the wrong tree. At two dollars an hour above minimum wage, the warehouse work attracted former box store employees, fast food restaurant employees and other minimum wage earners. The earnings alone were not enough to live, even modestly.

When I heard former labor secretary Robert Reich speak in Iowa City, one topic was the widening inequality in society and concentration of wealth among the richest one percent of the population. He pointed out that the minimum wage was not the correct measure of how wage earners were doing. What matters more is that the median wage keeps up with the overall economy, something it has not done. He recently wrote, “the problem is we haven’t been living nearly as well as our growing economy should have allowed us to live,” and that if wages tracked the economy, the median wage would be over $90,000 per year today ($43.27 per hour for a 40 hour work week). Progressives may feel good about advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, however, an increase would not address the fundamental problem wage earners face on a daily basis. A substantial portion of their economic survival depends on social networking rather than their rate of pay from a single job.

The eye opener for me while working at the warehouse was that in a workplace where no one had ever heard of me, my work was accepted by management and by my colleagues without question. People find value in working a job at any rate of pay because the real value is in the social networking it enables. One doesn’t hear that in the social or corporate media, but maybe we should.

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.