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Day Labor Blues

by RON JACOBS

 

When I was younger and financially responsible only for myself, I worked only when I had to. Needless to say, since I had few needs and even fewer bills, I didn’t work more than the equivalent of six or seven months a year. These months of work were intermittent and consisted of a number of temporary jobs. Unlike nowadays, when most temporary work agencies seem to be private ventures, I usually found my work via the state employment agency. When I lived in Berkeley, that office was located off of San Pablo in the part of town known as West Berkeley to the locals. Most of these jobs were not very memorable, unless they were extremely hard or the person who hired me was one of Berkeley’s more colorful eccentrics. Once my buddy R and I were hired by a fellow who owned a number of apartment buildings in Berkeley to do some painting and repair work. The entire time we spent working for him, he regaled us with stories and pictures of the time he spent with Charlie Manson’s minion Squeaky Fromme. Some of the photos were rather disturbing, but turned out to be tame when compared to his stories. How much of his recitation was true is anyone’s guess, but he certainly fit the part he had chosen to play.

One job involved working a week for an older Sioux woman who needed some gardening. Sixty years old and very beautiful. Long black hair and slender build. For lunch she’d invite me into her fancy house in the Oakland hills and fix me a sandwich and a gin and tonic. While we ate and drank she told me stories about her husbands. The last one was a wealthy Spaniard who left his money to her. He died of a heart attack screwing his secretary, like Nelson Rockefeller. Her current husband was away in South America, she said, as she grabbed my knee. I finished my drink, then went back to my gardening. The next time I went to work for her, he met me with a pistol and told me to get the hell out of his yard. She came out the door behind him and told me I could stay. He slapped her with the back of his hand and pointed the pistol at me. I left, my heart beating rapidly and feeling a bit like the proverbial traveling salesman, even though the only thing we shared was lunch. I was watching the news a couple months later and saw she’d been murdered. Her husband was the prime suspect. Poisoned was what the cops told the reporters. With love, I bet.

Another job that sticks in my mind is one, which came up every year right before Christmas. It involved sorting trash from recyclables at the Berkeley city dump. The employer was a company that did surveys for municipal waste operations that were supposed to help the interested cities in determining whether or not they should build a waste incinerator. Of course, the ecological implications of the atmospheric waste generated by the burning of the garbage were not part of the quotient. Every day from 6:00 AM until noon, we waited for the garbage trucks to come in and dump their loads. Then we would don our gloves and pick through the trash, tossing recyclable materials in one pile and garbage in the other. Then the boss would weigh the stuff.

The only reason I remember the job was because of a comment made by one of my fellow workers who, like myself, received this assignment every December. He was a black man perhaps five years my senior who had served in Vietnam and had a bit of bitterness in his heart towards that experience and the folks who had sent him there. It was one morning before the boss man had shown up for the day and all of us day workers were sitting around in the dump drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks at the gulls who feasted off the waste of Berkeley’s humans. The conversation was primarily about the upcoming holiday and the poverty most of us existed in. I started to say something and this fellow looked right at me and the other white guys on the crew and said:

“Hell, you guys could cut off your hair and beards and get right back into the white man’s system. I can’t wash my skin off. Nothing against you guys, but it’s the fuckin’ truth. Hell, they’d rather give a job to an illegal before they give it to a black man. After all, they can pay an illegal anything and they’ll be happy, whereas us brothers know when we being ripped off.”

The thing is, he was (and is) absolutely right. We might not all be management material (or want to be), but chances are that if an employer had to choose between one of us and a black man, that employer would choose one of us. Not always, but most of the time.

Just like then, the workers who seek employment through today’s day labor companies are among the most expendable in the workforce, from a management point of view. The work usually involves heavy labor, food service, and light assembly and is always of a limited duration. The companies that employ them are often small and unable to keep a full staff and make a profit. The transient nature of the workers makes it difficult to unionize them and their disparate backgrounds decreases the likelihood that they will organize themselves even if the majority of them share a similar grievance. Fast forward to 2004. Every morning on my way to work, I walk by a day labor outfit called Labor ready. Their Burlington, Vermont office is but one of over 800 such locations in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Although many states still maintain a casual (or day) labor facility at some of their employment security offices, many others don’t. This is where Labor Ready steps in. Of course, their motive is not to provide a service, but to make a profit. And profit they do. These publicly traded labor pimps showed a net income of $10.1 million in the second quarter of 2004. That in itself was almost double what they made the same quarter in 2003. In a world where cheap labor rules, one can only assume that these numbers will continue to rise.

Unlike my 1970s experience, many of the men and women who use Labor Ready and other such services have much more than themselves to take care of. Indeed, a very likely reason for Labor Ready’s 94% increase in net income can probably be traced to the sorry state of the economy for those who aren’t rich. It is these people and their families who must resort to casual labor and consequently make up a considerable portion of the Labor Ready workforce. Just like many members of the military sign up for economic reasons, people sign up for casual labor because the economy forces them to.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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