Work Mania

W.J. Astore

A good friend sent me Miya Tokumitsu’s recent article, “The United States of Work: Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?” One answer: Americans have been sold on the idea of work as fulfilling and even ennobling, and indeed the more work the better.  Yet if work is so wonderful, why do we pay some people only $7.25 an hour (the minimum wage)?  That’s less than $15K a year if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks.  Try living on that.  Work is so “great” in America that some people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for leisure or for family.

I remember when the “future” (which is now) was sold as a time when mechanization and robots and efficiency would grant us much more leisure time.  The idea was that new machinery and methods would curtail work.  That most people would work 25-30 hours a week at better jobs involving less drudgery, leaving them lots of time to raise families and otherwise to enjoy life away from the tedium and regimentation of the workplace.

work
It’s not so easy keeping up with our machine-driven mania for work

But the future isn’t what it used to be.  There are many reasons for this.  Americans often consume too much, i.e. they keep working to keep up with the Joneses.  Companies want higher and higher profits, driving them to squeeze more and more out of fewer and fewer workers.  And work in the USA isn’t just about work.  It’s often directly connected to health care, life insurance, and other benefits.  If you choose (or are told) to work part-time, you may lose your employer-provided health insurance.  If you’re fired, you lose your health benefits along with your salary and perhaps as well your sense of worth.

So much of our lives, especially in the USA, is tied to work.  After “What’s your name,” the next question most commonly asked of new acquaintances is, “What do you do?  Where do you work?” People’s sense of identity, their sense of worth, is often tied to their job, another big reason why losing one’s job is among the most stressful events in a person’s life.

And now work in America is often 24/7/365 since nearly everyone has electronic leashes, the Smart phones and so on, meaning the boss can always contact you.  And if you choose to unplug, maybe the boss will find someone else to take your place.  France recently passed a law to protect employees who choose to “unplug” after work and on weekends.  No such law in the USA, of course.

From my days in the military, I recall how so many officers put on a great show of looking busy.  “I have 276 emails to answer.”  “I’m wrestling alligators.”  “So busy — need to come up for air.”  When did being swamped by work become a sign of success?  In my view, the more efficient you are, the less grinding work you should need to do.  (Of course, many jobs are all about grinding work: as my dad used to say, the more physically grueling the job, the less he usually got paid.)

Work mania has many pitfalls.  Exhaustion leads to mistakes.  Broken health, either physical or mental.  Estrangement from family and the natural world.  I wonder, for example, whether people are dismissive of global warming and other environmental issues simply because they spend no time outdoors.  They’re always working, or going to and from work.

I used to commute 60+ miles to and from work.  I’d get up about 5:30AM, leave about 6:15AM, get to work by 7:30AM, work until about 4:30PM, then get home about 5:30PM (on a good day).  After that, I was tired.  And I didn’t come home to screaming kids with school and sporting events and so on.  Are we so busy and distracted that we hardly recognize that we live in an ecosystem of great fragility?  In fact, all our commuting, all our busyness, all our consumption, only broadens our carbon footprint.

This is not a rant against work, or a cry to get ourselves back to the garden.  But surely there’s a better way of striking a balance between work and everything else.  I recall watching Michael Moore’s documentary, “Where to Invade Next.”  The segments on Italy and Germany are telling here.  In Italy, workers get much more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, roughly five weeks plus 12 national holidays (watch this segment).  U.S. workers by comparison are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation.  In Germany, Moore asks a bunch of German workers if they have second jobs.  They look at him like he’s crazy.  One job is enough, they say, at which they work about 36-38 hours a week.  What do you do with all the “extra” time, Moore asks.  Hang out at a café, read, and otherwise decompress, they answer.

I recall that Italian workers often get a long break so they can go home and prepare lunch for the family.  U.S. workers may be lucky to get 30 minutes (often unpaid), or even 15 minutes, for lunch, during which they’re fortunate to be able to bolt down some (probably unhealthy) fast food.

Some things in life shouldn’t be “fast,” like food.  And some things shouldn’t dominate our lives, like work.  Sure, some people work long hours at jobs they love, and if that’s the case, go for it.  But America’s work mania has its costs, including an estrangement from ourselves as well as the living world around us.

A Cautionary Tale for Labor Day

My Dad in the Army in 1945
My Dad in the Army in 1945

W.J. Astore

In December 2010, I wrote the article below for Truthout.  Even as the economy was sputtering and jobs were scarce, Congress was seeking to cut unemployment benefits.  Eventually, a compromise was forged to maintain the benefits; the price was more tax cuts for the richest Americans.  Angered by the hypocrisy and greed on display, and inspired by my father’s words and experiences, I penned my very own tale of two cities.  It’s not Dickens, but it has the merit of being far shorter.

The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Poorer (Posted originally at Truthout on 12/7/2010)

William Astore

More tax breaks for the rich in exchange for another year’s worth of unemployment benefits for the desperate: Now there’s a compromise that makes me proud to be an American. My father wouldn’t have been surprised. He grew up during the Great Depression and worked in factories before he was drafted and served in the Army during World War II. Dad told me that the harder he worked (physically), the less he got paid. And he told me there was nothing like repetitive and physically-grueling factory work to make you want to improve yourself. By becoming a civil servant (a firefighter), he escaped the factory and its dismal pay for a job that paid enough to provide five children with a lower middle class existence.

Today’s political elites seem to think that the proper way to stimulate economic growth is to empower the exploiters. That way, some of their enormous wealth will trickle down on the little people. My father knew from experience that it usually wasn’t money that trickled down from the high heights of the rich.

In the spirit of the holiday season, here’s a story from my Dad that recounts his attempt to get a dime pay raise at the local factory. Consider it a parable for the realities our working classes face day in and day out in this country:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise and he was refused. Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group. In our group he got ten men to approach Harry C. for a raise. But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry. Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise. I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise. Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?” So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise. So Harry said, “How much?” and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise. So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel. We agreed. So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires. No other truer saying than, That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.

Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of class warfare or even Marxism. It’s true that some of the worst abuses have been curbed (for example, my father worked from 6PM to 6AM without the benefit of overtime pay or time-and-a-half), but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be fired; scared that they’ll be replaced by automated robots. Thus they put up and shut up.

So, what’s the moral to the story? Our president promised hope and change. “Hope” has come in the form of more tax breaks for the rich. And “change”? To paraphrase my father: No truer saying than that politicians have no sympathy or use for the poor. 

“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.

Everything is a Commodity

rainbow pie

It’s Joe Bageant week at The Contrary Perspective.  Bageant is best know for writing Deer Hunting with Jesus, but his second (and sadly his last) book, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, is equally good.  Bageant, a self-confessed “redneck,” worked his way into the middle class as an editor.  But he never forgot his roots in Appalachia and the subsistence farming of his Scots-Irish family. Bageant had a brutally honest and unadorned way of speaking and writing, and also a great affection and respect for traditional communal values in America.

The theme of Rainbow Pie is loss: the loss of down homey (even homely) values and their replacement by a “monstrous fetish of commodities, their acquisition and their production through an insane scale of work and round-the-clock commerce and busyness” in America (Rainbow Pie, 68-69).

Joe Bageant in Belize
Joe Bageant in Belize

Here is an extended selection from Rainbow Pie, pp. 69-70.  I for one have never read a better description of what ails us as a country:

Is it at all possible to regain a meaningful, positive, and satisfying expression of character while working in such a monolithic, non-human scale of “production”? Anybody else feel like America is just one big workhouse, with time off to shit, shower, and shop? Or is it just me? Must our jobs necessarily be the most important thing in our lives?

Yeah, yeah, I know, them ain’t jobs. In America we don’t have jobs–we have careers. I’ve read the national script, and am quite aware that all those human assets writing computer code and advertising copy, or staring at screen monitors in the “human services” industry, are “performing meaningful and important work in a positive workplace environment.” “Performing?” Is this brain surgery? Or a stage act? If we are performing, then for whom? Exactly who is watching?

Proof abounds of the unending joy and importance of work and production in our wealth-based economy. Just read the job-recruitment ads. Or ask any of the people clinging fearfully by their fingernails to those four remaining jobs in America. But is a job–hopefully, a good one–and workplace striving really everything? Most of us would say, “Well, of course not.” But in a nation that now sends police to break up tent camps and car camps of homeless unemployed citizens who once belonged to the middle class, it might very well be everything …

But you won’t hear anyone complaining. America doesn’t like whiners. A whiner or a cynic is about the worst thing you can be here in the land of gunpoint optimism. Foreigners often remark on the upbeat American personality. I assure them that our American corpocracy has its ways of pistol-whipping or sedating its human assets into appropriate levels of cheerfulness.

Rainbow Pie is a searing memoir on the loss of community in the U.S. and its replacement by commodities.  Bageant shows how we came to embrace the lurid appeals of Pottersville at the expense of the humble values of Bedford Falls.  The result: it’s no longer a wonderful life.

W.J. Astore

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