W.J. and J.A. Astore
My Dad, Julius Anthony Astore, was a child of the Great Depression. Born in 1917, he had to quit high school in 1933 to help support his family. In 1935 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, working in forestry and as a firefighter in Oregon until he left in 1937.
Finding a job after he left the CCC was tough, but eventually Dad got one working at F.B. Washburn’s Candy Company during the Christmas rush.
Here’s how Dad described his job:
I was hired for a five week job starting at 6:00PM and my night shift would be over 6:00AM the next morning. I would have Saturdays and Sundays off. My work hours would add up to sixty hours a week and I would get twenty cents an hour. Total twelve dollars a week. Those days there wasn’t any time-and-a-half after forty hours. It was quite a grind. I had to sugar hard candy that was shaped like a small peach stone. I won’t go into detail but it was a very tiring job.
From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.
Time goes by and I thought I was going to be laid off at the end of five weeks [but] I was put to work on the day shift permanently. That was in 1938, four years before I was drafted into the Army and introduced to World War II.
At Washburn’s candy factory, Dad operated a lollipop machine, candy cookers, and he mixed sugar. His starting salary was $9 a week (working forty-five hours). By 1942 he was making $17 a week. As with most factory jobs, the work was tedious, physically demanding, and unrewarding. Writing ruefully to his brother Gino in 1938, and comparing factory work to his time spent in the CCC, Dad wrote “The CCCs are a helluva lot better than that place [Washburn’s].”
When Dad was drafted into the Army in February 1942, he took a major cut in salary. From making roughly $70 a month at Washburn’s Candy Factory, his salary dropped to $21 a month as an Army private (which was still $9 less than what he had earned in the CCC in 1935!). When he was discharged from the Army in January 1946 as a corporal technician, he was finally making what he had earned at Washburn’s, about $69 a month.
Although it’s true that the American soldier was paid better than his British counterpart, it’s still shocking to hear that U.S. privates were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific for less than $30 a month basic pay.
The truth is simply this: Even the richest, most prosperous country in the world grossly underpaid its frontline troops. While contractors got rich on the homefront, never risking a hair on their precious necks, young Americans fought and died for peanuts.
Hasn’t it always been this way? Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of Marxism and class warfare. Yes, some of the worst abuses of workers have been curbed since my Dad suffered through the Great Depression, but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be “downsized” (i.e., fired); scared that they’ll be replaced by robots. Thus they put up and shut up.
For all the rhetoric about the dignity of work in the USA, Dad’s words still ring true: so-called unskilled labor, or demanding physical work, is still undervalued and disrespected in our country. And for all the talk of “supporting our troops,” those young men and women sent into harm’s way are still paid little when you consider they’re risking their necks.
Which makes me think of another one of my Dad’s sayings: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Especially if we don’t work to change them.