(This essay was published in the now defunct Speakeasy magazine in March/April 2003. Because of space constraints, it was printed as though it were a narrative rather than a set of short vignettes. It appears below as I conceived it.)
How do we know whether our work is of any value?
The wages my dad earned in his thirty-two years as a meatpacking plant millwright were negotiated to a fraction of a cent and secured by union contract. His basic hourly wage was calculated in “bracket points,” matched to the skill and danger of the tasks he performed. Beyond eight hours a day, he earned time-and-a-half, 150% of his hourly wage. On Sundays and holidays, the rate doubled. Having known this security as a child, how did I get lured into an artistic vocation with no immediate wage and no monetary rewards, ever, in proportion to hours expended? My dad wonders, too. “You’ll have to sell about a million books to get your time back,” he figures.
As a retail clerk in the 1960s my mother earned the standard female wage: an even dollar-an-hour. One day the owner of the fabric store where she worked came charging in after lunch ranting about the poor service he’d received at Woolworth’s. “If they’d pay a decent wage they’d get better quality help,” he bellowed. By blessed coincidence, the local paper reported that day on a wage dispute at Woolworth’s: The dime store paid its employees a dime-an-hour more than my mom was getting. Mom’s next paycheck showed a fifteen per cent raise. No more words were spoken.
“How’s that book coming?” my ninety-year-old dad asks as he calls yet again in the middle of my workday. “You can take it easy today,” he assumes, since it’s neither Tuesday nor Friday, the days I report to a classroom to teach in exchange for a paycheck. Work doesn’t happen at home, I guess, unless I have taken on someone else’s project, editing a book manuscript for an hourly fee. Then Dad boasts to his friends that I make good money “auditing books.”
Rewards are no clue. Wages have little to do with, for example, effort or utility.
When my husband took a job with a law firm immediately after law school graduation, his starting salary was more than half again what my dad was earning at 57, and more than double the wage of packinghouse common labor. This made no sense. My husband had enjoyed the privilege of higher education. His work excited him, stirred his brain, and left his body unharmed. I still puzzle about this: Why isn’t the toughest, most gruesome, most essential work the most highly rewarded?
J.P. Morgan is said to have believed that a fair distribution of wealth would allot to the head of a company a salary twenty times the average pay of its workers. Today, American CEOs are paid nearly 500 times as well as the average worker. Morgan’s era was the Gilded Age. Our age is gilded, diamond-studded, and brushed with blinding stardust.
Years ago I heard my toddler daughter admonishing her doll to stop making demands because she had to get to work. “What kind of work do you do?” I asked. “Push buttons, fall out paper,” she responsed. It was the day of dot matrix printers and long chains of paper with perforated edges. Having my largely unpaid work perceived as manual labor didn’t diminish it at all, but seized it out of the lofty realm of the intellectual and metaphysical and grounded it in the concrete and familiar: time expended in physical activity toward some productive end.
One measure of labor justice is whether workers can enjoy the products they manufacture. Even super-magnate Henry Ford took pride in selling Model-Ts to his employees. I think of this when I recall what a Maryknoll Father told me about his social justice mission in Taiwan. The people he lived among worked at a factory that produced plastic lawn bags for the U.S. market. They lived in huge, crowded apartment blocks with neither the need, leisure, nor inclination to bundle leaves and grass clippings in plastic.
“The wages of sin” would be a fitting term for money acquired through greed and idleness. “The wages of sin” is the extra profit earned when a manufacturing plant is moved from a good union town in Minnesota or Ohio or New Jersey to an “offshore” site solely for the purpose of “reducing labor costs.” “Labor costs” aren’t reduced at all, but borne by a new set of bodies working longer hours at faster speeds in more hazardous conditions.
Undervalued work has to be honored in other ways.
My Grandpa Register built the Al-Can highway to Alaska. This is a typical working-class boast, and its meaning is different from, say, “James J. Hill built the Great Northern Railroad.”
You might not expect poetry in a noisy, grimy blue-collar workplace, but it’s there. It’s there in the names that people give each other: The alliterative trio of Booger, Bozo, and Buckshot worked with my dad. It’s there in the names people give to their jobs: mucker, knocker, gutsnatcher, splinterbelly, dino, diesel dummy, flyboy, roustabout, mudhopper, stumpjumper, gandy dancer, cinderdick, car toad, rivethead, wood butcher, timberbeast.
The last job my aunt Mary Jean held before retirement was boning chickens for Banquet pot pies, a product enjoyed only by the working-class, I’m guessing. I was active in women’s liberation at the time, and Mary Jean became my reality check. When other feminists argued that being a housewife was “just a matter of choice,” or urged women to aspire to executive positions, I imagined Mary Jean’s hands cramping around a cold chicken carcass. Of course my imagination never came close to the reality. I would have had to stand in the refrigerator all day, at least.
I was flattered when the New York publisher himself phoned to welcome my manuscript. “A top-of-the-line book,” he called it, though page 17 in the catalog hardly fulfilled that promise. When the return address on my royalty statements began changing, to Gulf & Western, to Viacom, I figured I had better treasure the memory of that seductive phone call.
Hang on to honor. Everything else is fleeting.
The fabric shop and clothing stores where my mother worked closed up years ago. Today Mom would be a Wal-Mart “associate,” working for the world’s largest employer at a six-dollar wage rate, the equivalent of 1960′s dollar-an-hour. There’s no Woolworth’s to offer a competitive wage. Wal-Mart IS the dime store and the fabric store and the clothing store.
In July of 2001 the packinghouse where my dad had worked was severely damaged by fire. Six hundred people, down from 1,500 in Dad’s day, were left unemployed. Fifty per cent of them—80 per cent of the production line—were Latino, mostly recent immigrants. And the rest? Local 6 of the United Food and Commercial Workers was about to translate its contract into Bosnian. Wages had fallen so low that the -sons and -sens, the -ruds and -rups whose families had settled in Albert Lea by 1920 would rather move away or commute to other towns for work. What’s left of the plant is to be demolished. Some rosy-eyed citizens envision a casino or a conference center or a water park in its place. [2011 note: It was demolished, and the empty lot where it once stood has been named "Blazing Star Landing."]
“Do they pay you for that?” Dad asks whenever I tell him about an upcoming speaking engagement. I used to regard book club visits as book promotion, offered gratis. That changed the night it gradually came clear that the professional women who had invited me to speak to them about Packinghouse Daughter had read library copies or shared the hardcover that one of them had purchased. Their enthusiasm for my tale of economic justice had earned me a fat $2.49. Now I charge $10 per person for book club visits. “This is my work,” I explain.
© Cheri Register, 2003
In memory of Gordon Register (1912-2004) and Ardis Petersen Register (1917-2003).