The Labor Shift

Work defines who we are in America. When I was born, the models for work were General Motors, IBM, and Xerox among many. These large corporations were built on a tacit understanding that once you made your way through their doors, you were taken care of for life—or at least until you retired. Of course, there were pensions back then, so you were taken care of during retirement, too.

My dad didn’t work for any of those Fortune 500 companies. He worked for Pejepscot Paper Company. He was a boiler engineer. He was in the union and made union-scale wages. My sister and I had braces to straighten our crooked teeth. My mother was a stay-at-home mom.

We weren’t rich by any means. In fact, I remember my dad always out hustling up other work when he wasn’t working at “the mill,” which is how we always referred to Pejepscot. “Where’s Dad? “ “He’s at the mill.”

One time, he and Pete Fitzgerald painted the Marchak house on Plummer Street in Lisbon Falls. I think Pete couldn’t make it that day. Something was definitely up because my father took me along. I was no help. He had me scraping and bringing him things to hand to him on the ladders; I remember that I was always bringing him a hammer when he needed a screwdriver.

I’m sure that my father learned how to work from his father, my Opa. Opa came over to America from Germany with my Nana on a steamship. He had a job lined up by his brother, Joseph, working at the Worumbo Mill in Lisbon Falls. Back in 1925, the Worumbo was world-renowned for their textiles and Vicuna coats.

In 2013, the Worumbo sits idle and empty,  a silent sentry at the head of Main Street. The leaders in town are proposing that the mill be torn down, as it’s been on the market for years with nary a buyer. The other mill down the road, the old U.S. Gypsum, where my father actually retired from, is in the final stages of being dismantled by a salvage company from South Carolina. Work in 2013 is remarkably different than it was back in 1968, when it wasn’t too much different than it had been 40 years prior for my Opa at the Worumbo.

There is a belief rooted in Protestantism (and certainly embraced by most Catholics) that work has inherent dignity. Henry Ford and the other captains of industry offered wages that helped make America great, or at least a nation of families with enough disposable income to buy stuff—made in America for most of the 20th century—and up until a structural shift in the 1970s that narrative of work and America varied little.

When Americans stopped making stuff, and our shores were flooded with cheaper (and arguably, shoddier) merchandise from somewhere else, jobs began disappearing, and mills like Pejepscot and the Worumbo no longer were as vibrant. Main Street shops, once filled with shoppers, were shuttered and people drove out to the strip malls and shopping centers for their goods.

When I drive through the old hometown of Lisbon Falls, I can’t help noticing these changes. I know many that live in town still think it’s a wonderful place. It probably is. For me, it seems shabbier, and a lot less busy with work. Most of its residents work somewhere else, in jobs that don’t require union membership. Their wages in real terms haven’t moved much since the early 1970s.

Success in 21st century America has a different hue than it did even 25 years ago. Back then, I was a member of IBEW Local 1837, served a term as shop steward, and working at CMP. Anything over 40 meant extra pay. We took several vacations from those extended hours worked late into the night and the extra wages banked away.

Now, it’s constant hustle and work six and even seven days a week. Technology, the great labor-saver, allows us to work whenever and wherever we want, even around-the-clock. There are no pensions anymore, at least for those of us not working for the government. If the Republicans have their way, even those will be gone. If you still work for a corporation, it’s likely performing customer service work, as the call center is now viewed favorably by economic developers, like smokestacks were 50 years ago.

I’m not complaining. It wouldn’t do a bit of good anyways. I get up every day and hit it hard, often before daylight. I’m committed to 10-12 hour days. I’ve been doing this for the past year and I don’t expect it to change. That’s life in free agent nation, a place of not one job or income stream, but many.  These jobs, all accompanied by a stack of 1099s, are contingent on me and my toolkit, and someone willing to hire an independent contractor with skills to plug into a project, or a short-term hole. That’s the labor model of the 21st century. There are no unions for most free agents.

There’s a great deal of noise about how to be successful in 2013. A cottage industry of writers and gurus promoting busyness and activity exists, pumping out books and now videos, asking everyone to embrace the new model of work and success. It works for those with the savvy and guile to hustle and pitch their services and even then, it’ll never offer the security that my dad knew in 1968 at Pejepscot, or Opa at the Worumbo.

Today is the start of the Labor Day weekend. It’s a tradition to turn Monday’s holiday into an extended weekend and mini-vacation. If you’re still fortunate enough to work at a place that offers vacation pay and paid holidays, extended weekends are great—my wife has one of those jobs. Thankfully she does, because I don’t—for me, it’s no work, no pay.

Happy Labor Day!

3 thoughts on “The Labor Shift

  1. The myth of Henry Ford is deep. Detroit already had many car builders when he started, but they were essentially all custom shops, each car built by hand and unique. The men who built them were master craftsmen. When Ford first started his assembly line, he tried to recruit them. They came, but in short order, less than a few months, they left. Men used to building things with all their heart and skill, fully engaged with it, literally went mad after a few months of turning wrenches on the same five nuts over and over and over and over. They would rather be paupers building their own cars than wage slaves turning a wrench. Ford did not raise his wages to the point where his employees could buy their own Model Ts by choice. He did it because he could not keep sharp and talented men on the line any other way.

    Men working in mills and factories often came to feel ownership in them, as Carnegie found out the hard way (although it was harder for the strikers and the Pinkerton men). Perhaps your father felt that way about his boilers, your grandfather about his dye vats. But what they did, though hard labor, was not the same as being a cog on an assembly line. They were paid well in part for their ability to act independently, to solve the problem on the spot, and they took pride in that. For the man on the assembly line, no matter how experienced he was, he didn’t own it, and the problems belonged to management to fix.

    What I would ask is: if Americans were so well-educated, so independent and skilled in their craft, that Ford had to buy them off with what was at that time pay equivalent to a doctor’s earnings, what happened? We see that all American laborers got to benefit from the rise in wages and availability of goods, but the mixed blessing was that they became wage slaves to another class of Americans, and when that class found that they could make more money with cheaper foreign wage slaves, the laborers had no craft, no skills, no imagination or wills to remake themselves.

    There is a reason our schooling was built by industrial magnates, by foundations like Ford, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Rockefeller. There is a reason we have been so dumbed down. There is a reason we have no craftsmen. Now the day is coming when we need them again, and even the memory that there once was this whole way of life in America is missing.

    Mills and factories preceded Ford, but few worked in them their whole lives. They were sources of cash for people living in an economy that had a lot of wealth, but not a lot of money. Ford and his ilk changed that for all of us, in a mixed blessing that we can’t seem to cut our way through; so long as the stuff keeps coming, cheap commodities needed or unneeded (ah, but that’s marketing, to convince us we need the unnecessary), we can continue to humor ourselves that it’s all okay, that “someone else,” some new magnate or union or government incentive or scientist, will fix it for us. Always someone else, because it’s too damned hard to rebuild our own lost craftmanship.

  2. When we had Dad’s “Big 80” one of his former co-workers from International Paper (who owned the Gypsum when Dad retired) told me a story about how Dad would never put the boiler on “auto pilot.” This man explained how Dad would adjust all the valves and mechanisms by “hand.” He was a “fire whisperer” of sorts who could “feel” and “sense” when he was getting the right amount of “fire.” Fire, of course, is a triangulation of oxygen, heat, and fuel. If you ever stop by the house in the winter and see Dad tending the wood stove, you get an idea of how he must have operated the boilers he was so proud of and still dreams about in his retirement.

  3. Loved the comment about Dad. No, he was never an “auto pilot” kind of guy. The “fire whisperer” visual is so good.

    The times when I was quite young, and I got to spend it with Dad, Bob, and Pa, on the farm, cutting wood; I remember their routine of setting up the saw, driven by the belt, attached to the flywheel of the old John Deere Pa owned. The work was hard, but there was a rhythm, beauty, and precision that made it seem so different than what I’d later perform for a salary–which I mostly hated.

    I think this is similar to what you’re talking about @LP. The subsequent boredom I felt in school, with it’s intended purpose being to socialize any intellectual curiosity and a thirst for learning from students in the K-12 system, it’s no wonder we’ve created a culture of dolts (dolts is a favorite term of Morris Berman) that know little about anything else but consumin’.

    Of course, the new paradigm of work requires creativity, which the schools have “taught” out of students, and it’s no wonder there’s this so-called skills gap.

    Malcolm Gladwell’s supposed to be coming out with a provocative new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. about heroism and I think he’ll touch on some of this cultural decay. Anxious to see how it reads.

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