“The Harder I Worked Physically, the Less Money I Made”: The Harsh Reality of Life in America

My father after being drafted in 1942
My father after being drafted in 1942

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.

Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes of America

My Mom and Dad
My Mom and Dad

W.J. Astore

On this Super Bowl Sunday of 2014, doubtless we’ll be hearing about the “heroes” of the gridiron.  Whichever team wins will have its “heroes” (Peyton Manning, perhaps?).  Meanwhile, remote feeds will show various military units watching the Big Game, and doubtless these troops will be touted as American heroes.  (They’re indisputably a tad more heroic than a multi-millionaire quarterback who shills everything from pizza to cars.)

But who are the real heroes of America?  I tackled this question on Memorial Day 2011 at Truthout.  For me, it’s loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing people like my parents.  I recall learning in Catholic catechism class that love is all about selfless giving — giving of yourself, freely and generously, without expecting anything in return.  That is assuredly one characteristic of a “hero.”

Here is what I wrote back in 2011.  My thanks to Truthout for publishing it back then.

This Memorial Day [2011], let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.

The Bitter Logic of Capitalism

My Mom and Dad both worked in the candy factory in my hometown.  They knew the demands of hard work and low pay
My Mom and Dad worked in the candy factory in my hometown. They knew the demands of hard work at low pay

A friend of mine knew the big wigs at a leading manufacturer of agricultural equipment back in the late 1960s.  He recalls reading an article back then in the Wall Street Journal about the company being sued for the deaths of farmers.  The gas tanks on some of their tractors were exploding because they were on top of the engine and could overheat.   My friend recalls walking in to the office of the chairman and CEO of the company and asking him if as a result of the case they were relocating the gas tank.  The CEO replied they were not because that would be more expensive than fighting and settling the lawsuits.

That’s the logic of capitalism in a nutshell.  The bottom line has no ethics.  If you can save more money by settling lawsuits rather than reconfiguring an unsafe design, why not do so?  A few maimed or dead farmers is a small price to pay for added profit.  Right?

My father told me a similar story about the lack of empathy the rich have for the little people of the world.  In the 1940s my dad worked grueling shifts in a candy factory, where conditions were as demanding as the pay was low.  Several of the guys got together to demand a raise from the owners.  When the time came to approach the owners, some of the guys lost their nerve, but not my dad.  He told the owners that he deserved a dime per hour pay raise.  The owners agreed to a nickel, followed by another nickel bump in the future.  My dad agreed.

A month later one of the owners told my dad that the nickel pay raise was really stressing the company.

As my dad ruefully observed to me, all of the owners died millionaires.  For my dad, the moral to the story was “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”  That could stand as the moral to both of these stories.

Capitalism may be a great way for a lucky or plucky few to make lots of money, but its calculus is often bitter to those on the receiving end of its flawed products and feeble wages.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask all those fast food workers looking for a fair shake in today’s economy.  Or all those minimum wage workers running hell for leather in huge fulfillment warehouses to meet the needs of Amazon.com.

The rich may have no sympathy or use for the poor, but the rest of us need to hold the big wigs to account, else the legacy of uncontrolled capitalism will continue to be bitter.

W.J. Astore