Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘workers’

Image: York Notes.
York Notes, a literature guide, says, “Bob Crachit is Scrooge’s clerk and represents the lower classes. He has to accept poor wages and working conditions because he has a family to support.”

I was thinking about Labor Day and remembering that in many of my favorite novels Dickens wrote with passion about the working conditions of the poor. He had himself worked in a blacking factory as a child when his father was in debt, and few topics were more likely to spark his outrage.

John Broich, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, wrote at Time that Dickens decided Scrooge, his hard-working clerk Bob Crachit, and the half-starved Tiny Tim would have more impact on the big issue of the day than the political pamphlet he’d been planning.

“Published 173 years ago this month,” Broich writes, “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller, followed by countless print, stage and screen productions. … But A Christmas Carol’s seemingly timeless transcendence hides the fact that it was very much the product of a particular moment in history, its author meaning to weigh in on specific issues of the day.

Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.’

“But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to embody his arguments in a story. … So what might have been a polemic to harangue, instead became a story for which audiences hungered.

“Dickens set out to write his pamphlet-turned-book in spring 1843, having just read a government report on child labor in the United Kingdom. The report took the form of a compilation of interviews with children — compiled by a journalist friend of Dickens — that detailed their crushing labors.

“Dickens read the testimony of girls who sewed dresses for the expanding market of middle class consumers; they regularly worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, rooming — like Martha Cratchit — above the factory floor. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday. These were not exceptional stories, but ordinary. Dickens wrote to one of the government investigators that the descriptions left him ‘stricken.’

“This new, brutal reality of child labor was the result of revolutionary changes in British society. The population of England had grown 64% between Dickens’ birth in 1812 and the year of the child labor report. Workers were leaving the countryside to crowd into new manufacturing centers and cities. Meanwhile, there was a revolution in the way goods were manufactured: cottage industry was upended by a trend towards workers serving as unskilled cogs laboring in the pre-cursor of the assembly line, hammering the same nail or gluing the same piece — as an 11-year-old Dickens had to do — hour after hour, day after day.

“More and more, employers thought of their workers as tools as interchangeable as any nail or gluepot. Workers were becoming like commodities: not individual humans, but mere resources, their value measured to the ha-penny by how many nails they could hammer in an hour. But in a time of dearth — the 1840s earned the nickname ‘The Hungry ‘40s’ — the poor took what work they could arrange. And who worked for the lowest wages? Children.

“Popular theories about how — or whether — to help the poor often made things worse. The first was the widespread sense that poor people tended to be so because they were lazy and immoral, and that helping them would only encourage their malingering. If they were to be helped, it should be under conditions so awful as to discouraged people from seeking that help. The new workhouses were seen as the perfect solution — where families were split up, food was minimal and work painful. ‘Those who are badly off,’ says the unreformed Scrooge, ‘must go there.’

“Associated with this concept were the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus, who cautioned against intervening when people were hungry because it would only lead to an untenable population size. Better that the poor should starve and thus ‘decrease the surplus population.’ …

“Friedrich Engels read the same report on child labor that Dickens did and, with his collaborator Karl Marx, envisioned an eventual revolution. Dickens was very much an anti-revolutionary. In fact, he implied that [revolution] was the fearsome consequence of not solving the problem some other way.

“ ‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’ …

“Dickens wasn’t a ‘systems’ thinker, nor was he proto-socialist. Yet what Dickens did propose in A Christmas Carol … was that employers are responsible for the well-being of their employees. Their workers are not of value only to the extent to which they contribute to a product for the cheapest possible labor cost. They are of value as ‘fellow-passengers to the grave,’ in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, ‘and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ Employers owe their employees as human beings — no better, but no worse, than themselves.

“And, yes, that might mean ‘a prize Turkey’ at Christmas … but the real salvation that Scrooge gives to the Cratchit family is a raise.

“As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch Tim, his father holding his [hand], the miser pleads, ‘say he will be spared.’ The ghost reminds readers of Scrooge’s Malthusian quote. ‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’ ” More at Time.

Today we know that most of the labor benefits we have today, including the Monday holiday in America, were not handed down by benevolent company owners but were wrested from them by workers and unions.

You can read that history at Wikipedia, here. Even so, I do think stories help prepare a population to accept change — to recognize that the way things are is not always the best way.

Read Full Post »

I feel especially grateful to essential workers, mail carriers, and delivery people this Labor Day. Workers really make the world go ’round any year, not just during a pandemic, and many get no credit for it.

As Kenya Evelyn noted in the Guardian in April, Amazon the company was doing just great thanks to quarantine; workers not so much.

“The Amazon CEO and entrepreneur, Jeff Bezos, has grown his vast fortune by a further $24bn so far during the coronavirus pandemic, a roughly 20% increase over the last four months to $138b. …

“[Meanwhile] Amazon reported its first warehouse worker death on Tuesday. The man, an operations manager who worked at the company’s Hawthorne, California, warehouse, died on 31 March.

“Several workers have organized strikes and walkouts in protest at lack of worker protections. Chris Smalls, a former manager assistant, was fired by the retailer after leading workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, on a walkout. …

“Memos leaked by Vice News revealed company executives suggested coordinating an attempt to smear Smalls as ‘not smart or articulate’ in response to the backlash over his firing.

“Several Amazon workers have since alleged retaliation for organizing. In an op-Ed for the Guardian, Smalls urged Bezos to spend more time on protecting his workers instead of stifling dissent.

‘Without us working, what are you going to do,’ he asked. ‘You’ll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that.’

Something to think about.

For more on how our society has moved away from appreciation for workers, you might check out a fat book my husband has been fascinated by for months called The Enchantments of Mammon, which suggests that when capitalism has become a religion, it’s gone too far. “Everything in Moderation,” advise the Greeks.

Do you like traditional songs from the labor movement? Nick Noble’s Folk Revival on WICN radio plans to feature them this week and you can stream his show.

Here’s a word on the Folk Revival, in case you’re interested.

“The Folk Revival features the ‘folk of the folk renaissance’ from the second half of the last century right into the millennium. Focusing on the folk boom of the 1950s and the 1960s, this four-hour show also visits recordings from both before and well after that period,  highlighting folk music as a living and ever-changing tradition, connecting listeners and music through an eclectic mix of traditional songs, topical and  protest music, singer-songwriter creations, the blues, folk rock, and more. …

“Do you want to suggest a theme? Request a song? Talk about the music? React to the show? Correct the host (nicely, of course)? Share and/or find out more about the folk music tradition? Feel free to contact the host: nicknoble@wicn.org.”

Workers who matter, and not just in a pandemic.

Read Full Post »

df59b7bbd4c1a071922f705dbbf5f485

Before the rise of unions and child labor laws, it was common to see scenes like the one above showing a young girl working with dangerous textile machines in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The pendulum has swung too far away from workers. Just my view. There was a time that unions had built up power to the point of abuse. That’s not where we are now. We have all benefited from people banding together to fight deadly working conditions, end child labor, and negotiate a living wage.

Ideally, it would be corporate leaders themselves who recognized that everyone is better off when employees have a decent life. How likely are we to see such leaders today? Too many parents work two or three jobs while their children still don’t eat well without the free lunch at school. CEOs’ attitude: Not my problem.

But wait! There’s news.

Ben & Jerry’s leaders may be outliers. Of course, it took worker activism, but a good-faith effort led to positive results for all.

As John Dillon reports at Vermont Public Radio, “Some Vermont dairy workers say their wages and living conditions have improved, thanks to an agreement reached last year between the workers and Ben & Jerry’s, a division of global consumer products company Unilever.

“Times are tough on dairy farms around the country, with milk prices declining for the fourth year in a row. But 72 farms that supply Ben & Jerry’s earn a little more by agreeing to follow labor and housing standards.

“Enrique Balcazar is a former dairy farm worker and an activist with the group Migrant Justice who helped negotiate an agreement last year called Milk with Dignity. …

” ‘There are farmworkers in the state who, in collaboration with their farmers and with support from the Milk With Dignity Standards Council, are now receiving a day off every week when they previously didn’t have one, who are receiving wages to bring their wages up to the Vermont minimum wage,’ he says. …

“Farms enrolled in the Milk with Dignity program also commit to providing five annual paid sick days, five paid vacation days and to meet housing health and safety standards.

“Farmers get a premium for following these standards, but it’s not clear how much. …

” ‘Ben & Jerry’s is paying the premium because we recognize a lot of farmers will need some of the financial support to improve housing conditions or to make up for the vacation days that they’re going to provide workers,’ [Cheryl Pinto, manager of values-led sourcing at Ben & Jerry’s,] says. …

“The Milk with Dignity program covers all farmworkers whose farms are enrolled — and not just undocumented workers who work on many of Vermont’s dairy farms. … Migrant Justice says the program is a model for other dairy processors.”

How about you consider Ben & Jerry’s if you are buying ice cream or frozen yogurt for your Labor Day party? Cherries Garcia, Moo-phoria, anyone?

More at Vermont Public Radio, here.

Read Full Post »

980x

Photo: Amitava Sarkar/Forklift
The cast of
Served performs a dance phrase based on the five key movements of mopping. Forklift Danceworks makes choreography from everyday life, revealing the beauty and majesty of what you thought was mundane.

From childhood, I was always one for fantasy and found it easy to relate to imaginary worlds in the arts. Lately, though, I find myself more interested in art that feels relevant, art that uncovers wonder in everyday life. So it’s not surprising that this Dance Magazine article about discovering the dancelike moves of ordinary occupations appealed to me.

Nancy Wozny writes, “Austin renegade Allison Orr doesn’t use traditional performers. With her Forklift Danceworks, she has created dances featuring everyone from sanitation workers (The Trash Project) to power linemen (PowerUP), urban forestry department members (The Trees of Govalle) and food service employees (Served).

“Orr has a BA in anthropology and calls her process ‘ethnographic choreography.’ Using the movements of everyday workers, she crafts large-scale extravaganzas that have included more than 75 performers (and sometimes trucks), audiences of 2,000, and a deep research process that may involve her learning how to scale a power-line distribution pole or riding with a sanitation worker at 4 am.

“She recently spoke to Dance Magazine about her unique creative process.

” ‘When I start a new piece, I listen for the story the workers want told. What do they want people to know about what they do? I usually do about 50 to 100 interviews. Then I watch people doing their expert movement, looking for that seed. ,,, Usually there’s an all-staff meeting where I am introduced. Then I start job shadowing, working alongside them when I can. …

” ‘We don’t actually get people to agree to perform until very late in the process. I usually don’t ask for what we want until that person is likely to say yes. We put out a question, like “How do you cook an omelet in three minutes or less?” and they start choreographing it. Then they want to be in it, because they are the ones who can do it.

” ‘For the actual piece we organize sequences based on their movements, expanding it in space and time. For Served I watched one gentleman mop the floor and observed five different movements he does, including this beautiful turn. …

” ‘Because participants are asked to collaborate across different work groups to make the dance together, they build trust with people they might have worked with for years but never had the chance to really get to know.

” ‘The act of performing changes how collaborators see themselves. Being witnessed in one’s everyday work, particularly doing what might be thought of as mundane or ordinary, is transformational.’ ”

More at Dance Magazine, here.

Photo: Jonica Moore/Forklift Danceworks
A worker from Austin’s Urban Forestry Division performs in the dance
The Trees of Govanelle.

980x1

Read Full Post »

122617-dirndl-on-VT-hospitality-worker

Dressing in Austrian dirndl at Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont.

Nearly five years ago, when I was an editor, I solicited an article on Latino dairy workers from Daniel Baker at the University of Vermont. Dairy farms are practically synonymous with Vermont, where cows dot the mountainous landscape. The article summarized Dr. Baker’s research showing how essential immigrants were to the Vermont dairy industry’s survival. (Read the piece here.)

Of late, however, Vermont dairy farmers are anxious about their industry’s viability as walls both figurative and solid threaten the labor supply.

Visiting the state this week, I did note that there seemed to be a good supply of immigrants or former immigrants working in the hospitality industry at least.

I try not to ask people where they are “from” since friends in my Race in America group at the Fed have convinced me it’s a question that can make people feel unwelcome. But I was interested when someone whose way of speaking suggested Africa came to fix the hotel shower and when I noted the dirndl-garbed young lady above working the breakfast shift.

According to 2015 data from Migration Policy, Vermont has 2,619 residents born in Africa (9.3 % of the state’s foreign-born population in 2015), 8,199 born in Asia (29%), 9,113 born in Europe (32.3%), 3,038 born in Latin America (10.8%), 4, 875 born in North America, with small places like Greenland added to that mix (17.3%), and 403 born in Oceana (1.4%). By far the largest group is from Canada, which borders Vermont on the north. Vermont would be a more empty state than it is and nearly devoid of workers without all the foreign born.

If you’re interested in more, take a look at American Migration Council’s Vermont data, too. It’s here.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: