Categories
Living in Society Work Life

One More Demolition

Demolition of the Kraft Heinz/Oscar Mayer Plant. Photo Credit – John Blunk

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.

Categories
Living in Society

Is Rural Iowa Different?

Saint John Lutheran Church, Ely, Iowa.

A lot is being made about the differences between voters who live in rural parts of the state compared to those who live in our cities and urban areas.

It’s a false distinction. The same social, economic and political forces are at work no matter where one lives. None of it favors regular people like us.

Why does everything cost more? Why do we have to drive so far for health care? Why is our broadband inconsistent at best if we have it? Why can’t farmers sell milk for at least the cost of production? Why are there patents on seeds? Why does new farm equipment cost so much? Many questions, few answers.

Why do more than half of working people in predominantly rural counties work in another county? The answer to this is easy. Farming does not pay unless one is a big corporation. Someone in most farm families has to work outside the farm to make ends meet and such jobs are mostly urban.

When people say of politicians, “We need someone who understands the rural areas,” it is true. It is also code for something: hard work, poverty, a lack of economic justice, and a type of Christian religious faith. For the most part it is about being a Caucasian farmer.

Of recent writers, Sarah Smarsh came closest to capturing what being rural means in her book Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. The book resonated so closely with how I grew up yet I lived in Iowa’s third largest city. There are differences between the urban county where I grew up and the rural county I know best (Cedar County). Those differences are not significant. Try telling that to someone who lives in a rural area and you’ll find self-righteousness and resentment.

I won’t resolve this false dichotomy. Just as Jack Kerouac’s more conventional first book, The Town and the City gave way to the “spontaneous prose” of On the Road, it is difficult to focus on it for long when so much more about society is engaging.

Suffice it the assertion of ruralness isn’t about being rural. It’s about having dignity, justice and equal treatment under the law. It’s about a return for the hard labor so many farmers invest as part of their lives. At some point labor should be rewarded for its sacrifices instead of return on equity going to the richest people and corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, John Deere, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland.

Iowa’s well-developed road system is partly to blame for the rural-urban divide. Because of inexpensive gasoline it is easy to drive to a metropolis when shopping for food, building products, household goods and clothing. When there are no rural jobs, a commute of less than an hour might produce income far above what farm earnings can be. Americans, rural or urban, are at a distance from producing their own food, shelter and clothing. Let’s face it. Who wants to live like Old Order Amish? I’ve met enough young people trying to escape that life to say not many. Yet we still see horse drawn carriages using Iowa’s rural road systems.

Use of the rural trope drives me a bit crazy. Not crazy enough to call the suicide hotline, yet enough to be a catalyst. The thing about catalysts is they can get us to where we should be going faster, the way iron is a catalyst for making ammonia. If people who live in rural areas want to get ahead, they need to steel themselves against language that would divide them from the rest of us. That includes their own language. We are stronger together and fabricating a rural-urban divide is counterproductive. That is, if we want society to advance toward something positive.

~ A version of this post appeared in the Sept. 13, 2020 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Categories
Living in Society

Revisiting the Yang Gang

Turn around point on the state park trail.

When Andrew Yang visited Iowa during the run up to the 2020 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses he talked about Universal Basic Income and a Freedom Dividend. I thought he must be on crack.

What other politician would go for free money? Yang anticipated my response.

“You may be thinking, This will never happen,” he wrote in his campaign book The War on Normal People: The Truth about America’s Disappearing Jobs and why Universal Basic Income is our Future. “And if it did, wouldn’t it cause runaway inflation? Enable generations of wastrels?”

“In a future without jobs, people will need to be able to provide for themselves and their basic needs,” Yang wrote. “Eventually, the government will need to intervene in order to prevent widespread squalor, despair, and violence. The sooner the government acts, the more high-functioning our society will be.”

Along came the coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic brings into focus what scientists and others have been pointing out for a while: humanity is due for a new way of life. Any job or profession that interacts directly with people was devastated by the economic downturn as the virus spread throughout the world. People in the arts were hit particularly hard: live theatrical performers, dancers, musicians, amusement park operators, and people who support the arts were suddenly without work. Large corporations were hit as people used less shampoo and deodorant, less gasoline and diesel fuel, and reduced restaurant meals dramatically. When we add the impact of technology, automation and robotics to the mix, the number of jobs is expected to contract as global population increases. It seems unlikely these kinds of jobs will return to the way they were prior to the pandemic.

Much has been written about the global explosion of population and its consequences. This from Wikipedia is typical:

“The United Nations Population Division expects world population, currently at 7.8 billion, to level out at or soon after the end of the 21st Century at 10.9 billion, assuming a continuing decrease in the global average fertility rate from 2.5 births per woman during the 2015–2020 period to 1.9 in 2095–2100.”

How will all these people live? The society we adopted during the rise of agriculture and industrialization provided for humanity. It is also wrecking the planet to the extent we have entered a new geological era.

In their book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, authors Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin suggest coping with human-made changes in society and our environment will lead us to a new way of life. How we will work in the near future is an open question highlighted by the massive unemployment resulting from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Longer term, things have to change.

This has implications for capitalism particularly. Owners of capital have been on a consistent pursuit of investment opportunities that serve to increase capital. Where labor is part of the business, it serves the profitability of the owners.

When I worked in transportation and logistics I knew some Pennsylvania-based capitalists who sold gasoline at truck stops and convenience stores. When a new housing development appeared, they noticed, and believed if they built a nearby convenience store it would be successful. “A lot of rooftops there,” they would say. Their analysis was not wrong. They had facilities all over the northeast United States. At issue was creating a return on investment based on assumptions about cost of gasoline, labor, environmental compliance and consumer habits. Creating jobs wasn’t the priority and whatever they paid, it was at or slightly above the market labor rates.

“Most people don’t own very much,” wrote Lewis and Maslin. “In today’s world they are required to sell their labor in order to obtain what they need to live.” This has given rise to labor unions, structured pay and benefits packages, and working conditions conducive to profitability. “The owners of resources live on the profits they extract from the labor-sellers, and reinvest some of those profits in order to further increase productivity to produce more goods and services.” It’s a simple expression of the capitalism.

I don’t know what the future holds although some form of Universal Basic Income would address how we might get along with many more people and fewer of the kind of jobs to which we have become accustomed. Yang wasn’t wrong. Whatever today’s politics are, they must adapt to a future where human needs are cared for and wealth is more equitably distributed.

How we get there is an open question.

Categories
Sustainability

Fall Work

Bee pollinating a sunflower.

Social fallout continues with a disruption of fall work.

Sunday I told the chief apple officer I would not be back to work at the orchard this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Our county has been doing a poor job of preventing spread of the virus. The orchard is near the University of Iowa where students return this week. I’m hearing concern from local epidemiologists about the behavior of returning students: they ignore basic guidelines for preventing spread of the virus.

University students find the orchard a cool place to hang out and it is. This year I don’t want the virus to spread to me so I won’t be working. Maybe next year.

This week is the virtual Democratic National Convention. It has been structured for public consumption from 8 until 10 p.m. local time, although I’m not that interested in hearing most of it. Political conventions are not what they used to be and as such pretty dull. I plan to listen to speeches by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

I made progress with cleanup from the derecho yesterday. I am getting to know my chainsaw well. The locust tree rests across a garden plot making it impossible to harvest some of the vegetables. There are a lot of other branches to process first. I’ll lose part of the crop.

I don’t relish writing about the coronavirus pandemic and the derecho recovery but they are here and part of every day. Yesterday afternoon Chef José Andrés World Central Kitchen arrived in Cedar Rapids and by evening had served more than 6,000 meals: a sign that today Iowa is a disaster.

Categories
Work Life Writing

Writing About Work

Story Board

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.

Categories
Work Life Writing

A 1960s Newspaper Boy

M.L. Parker Department Store

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.

Categories
Living in Society Social Commentary Work Life Writing

New Chances after a Pandemic

Apple blossoms ready for pollination.

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.

Categories
Work Life

Retirement in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Detail of Garden Plot #4

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.

What’s next? Subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram to find out.

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.