Perspective: Even sucking can be good enough

T.A. Barnhart

Today is Labor Day. I have the day off, but it's no holiday. I'm a temp worker, I haven't worked enough hours with a single firm, so I get to enjoy something I've enjoyed too much of for the past six years: a day without pay.

The NY Times and The Oregonian published a couple of excellent pieces today. First, a Times op-ed from Mark Lange, corporate executive (and former HGW Bush speechwriter) who understands quite well what is going on in today's economy:

It is in our self-interest to support labor mobility, development and advancement. Growth in productivity, fundamentally, is how we raise everyone’s standard of living. It starts with the first rung.

Lange is a conservative, but he sees clearly how the entire economy depends on the skills of those at the bottom. He also understands that not only do all people deserve an opportunity to make a better life for themselves, it's up to society, in its own self-interest, to ensure they get that opportunity:

The guy with the leaf-blower not only can learn English, he — like the unemployed steelworker — should have a chance to learn auto repair or programming. He’ll start with the jobs “ordinary Americans” won’t do. But we impair our economic future if we leave him there, imagining that’s all he or his children will ever do.

Possibly inadvertently, the Oregonian endorsed the need for labor unions to protect vulnerable workers:

But experts who study the labor market say workers recruited by staffing agencies are vulnerable to exploitation. The state and federal regulators who enforce wage and hour laws rely on worker complaints to alert them to potential violations, the experts said. Industrial workers hired by employment agencies — often immigrants — typically do not file complaints because they fear losing their jobs, lack familiarity with the laws and have no union to back them. (emphasis added)

As I said above, I am a temp worker. Unlike some in this sector, I don't want to be a temp. Right now, however, for a variety of reasons, that's how I'm able to earn an income. Not much of an income: it's enough to pay my basics, to cover child support and have a bit extra. It's not enough to afford health care, not enough to replace my 11-year-old glasses, not enough for extras for my kids, not enough to get my bike fixed (it's pretty much beat to hell from years of commuter riding). It's enough and no more.

But I've been working, at least, and that's reason for gratitude. When I lived in Corvallis, I often did not work. I spent the summer of 2004 commuting Monday through Friday — to Portland. That was the only work I could find, and yes, it was a temp job. And I had to get a car first (found a great deal on SE 82nd, and Tom Dwyer's guys made sure it was road-worthy). Wednesday, I'll be heading up to OHSU to do data entry for a few months at $12/hour. Beats minimum wage at McDonald's or a fish processing factory, but there's a chunk of money not coming to me but to the temp firm.

And what if it's a crap job? What if I'm treated badly, or the work is harsh (if you've never done data entry, you don't get to have an opinion on what harsh can mean)? I can ask my agency to intervene, but ultimately I have one way to take care of myself: walk away. Without a union to back me up, I depend on the company making a profit off my work to have my back — and they have plenty of bodies to take my place. They have more of an interest in maintaining good relations with clients than advocating for expendible workers. And I have no misapprehensions abou that: I am a disposable worker.

Now, to be fair, because I work in the white collar sector (well, there was that two-day gig making wart remover, but that was a long time ago), and because I have skills well above average, I'm usually taken pretty good care of. But like everyone not in a union job, I am vulnerable not only to the kind of abuse you ignore to keep your job, I can have my assignment terminated on a moment's notice with no grounds needed. No notice, no explanation. Anyone who thinks that breeds a strong workforce probably also agrees with Scrooge on the efficacy of the poorhouses for dealing with the surplus population.

I am convinced I will never again hold a regular job. It will not be, however, through a lack of personal effort to that end. But I am almost 51, and no one wants to hire some old guy when there are plenty of people much younger; not only would they be expected to stay with the company longer (an assumption no longer valid based on statistics), but potential employers must surely wonder why I'm still unemployed. There must surely be something wrong with me. I frequently think this myself, yet it is a fact that I have both excellent skills and a great attitude at work. Nonetheless, no matter how many jobs I apply for, I don't even get an interview. I haven't had a job interview in years. And I have the skills Mark Lange is saying is necessary for workers to have a chance to advance their opportunities. It's not enough, Mr Lange, not by half.

From the Economic Policy Institute:

On the sixth Labor Day of this economic recovery, the pace of progress ranges from slow to stalled for the nation's middle- and low-wage working people. Even the modest wage gains from the beginning of this recovery period have been fading. Since 2001, real hourly wages rose only 3% for the middle-income worker, with none of this historically small progress occurring after 2003. While most working people remain stuck in the economic slow lane, the better-off among us have avoided the congestion on the ground by flying over it. Since 2001 those with wages higher than 95% of all workers have seen their wage rise by 9%.

And here I was blaming myself. It's hard to accept my role as simply another cog in the wheel, or, in my case, a cog tossed into a heap in the corner because no one has any real use for me. But if I try to make a living in the job market, that's all I will be. I have to make my own living somehow, something I've been working on but something tremendously difficult to do, as anyone who has tried to start their own business knows. No matter how hard it may be, however, I have no other realistic option before me.

My sons, age 21 and 18, start school in a few weeks, the elder resuming at PCC and the younger starting at PSU. Both have inadvertently chosen excellent strategies, the same as my great-grandfather did over a century ago when he became a barber: mobile skills. My grandmother Stella's father wanted to be able to up-and-go whenever he felt like it; as a barber, all he had to do was grab his scissors, razor, strop and brushes. Alex is going to be a physical trainer, and Jesse will be studying Japanese. Both will have a huge range of job and career options to choose from; and if one door closes on them at some point, the possession of tools within their minds will allow them to get a new start very quickly. They won't need an office, a factory or a major capital investment. I am proud and relieved to see them making these vital, modern choices.

I just wish I could help them more. No matter how hard I work as a temp, it's not going to get me anything more than $15 an hour. I know I'm not going to get a job with good pay and benefits; these are disappearing anyway, and no one's going to waste one on an old loser like me. So I will enjoy my Labor Day skimping on food (fortunately I'm a damn good cook, and you would not believe how well I do skimp), watching a couple of free movies (courtesy of the Clackamas County Library and bittorrent), and going through Craigslist and the Oregonian's want ads. (And, of course, writing for BlueOregon.)

And feeling grateful and rather sad. My situation sucks, and yet I'm actually closer to the elite class in America than to the position millions of other Americans, and billions around the world (including many hiding in fear in our country). I should be near the bottom of the heap in my condition, yet I'm so far away from there I can do nothing but feel good about myself. That's how bad things are in America today. And as the Oregonian pointed out, here on Labor Day, we know why so many millions of legal workers in America are doing so badly: they have no union to back them. I'll let Andy Stern and others make the case for unions; to their words, I'll just say "Amen." How pathetic that my only honest appraisal of my circumstances is that I am in the roses.

  • trollbot9000 (unverified)

    Not to get too real on you or anything, but who is ultimately responsible for your lot in life T.A.? Any chance that the choices you made and paths you walked down have something to do with where you find yourself now? Stop sniveling and grow up old man.

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    TA, you're smart, hardworking, and brave. I salute you.

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    As someone who has come back from living overseas, I can appreciate what your talking about. Being gone for three and a half years. I have few ties like friendships or ex-coworkers to network with (even casual) other then family. I've been struggling to find a job (in fact today may be my lucky day as I'm waiting for a phone call as we speak) and have pondered leaving once again to live overseas (at least for a bit) until the economy gets better.

    Glad to hear you found a decent gig TA, it's certainly better then nothing. I hope you find something a bit more stable before too long.

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    Thanks for the personal profile, especially today. I think a lot of us forget that we're talking about real people when terms like "labor" and "workers," are tossed around.

    You're a human being. You should have access to health care, and you shouldn't have to "skimp" on food. As a wealthy nation, there's no excuse for us to allow anyone to lack either. I think it's quite appropriate on Labor Day to highlight the difficult choices that people who work, especially working people with families, have to make.

    The decline of union strength is one of the reasons that the gap between the rich and poor is widening. We need a new movement that not only addresses the faltering position of workers vis à vis management, but the conditions of working people throughout the world and the consequences of our "Free Trade" policies.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Not to get too real on you or anything, but who is ultimately responsible for your lot in life T.A.? Any chance that the choices you made and paths you walked down have something to do with where you find yourself now? Stop sniveling and grow up old man.

    There but for the grace of God or the gods might have gone trollbot9000. And some of us who were more fortunate but have sense enough to recognize we got some very lucky breaks that others didn't get.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Not to get too real on you or anything, but who is ultimately responsible for your lot in life T.A.? Any chance that the choices you made and paths you walked down have something to do with where you find yourself now? Stop sniveling and grow up old man.

    While giving this comment additional thought I recalled a story printed in newspapers after World War II when there used to be a quaint practice of men giving up their seats on busses to women if other seats were not available. As the story was told a couple of women were left standing while a young man kept his seat. After several snide remarks by the young women about a lack of good manners on the part of the young man, he struggled to get up to give one of the women his seat and revealed that he was a double amputee veteran of World War II. The women did have enough decency to be embarrassed by their remarks.

    The moral of the story is it is not a good idea to jump to conclusions about other people and bad mouth them on the basis of some superficial evidence.

  • Nina (unverified)

    And some people say slavery in America died long ago...

    You are a cog in the wheel as are many, if not most, of us. I work part-time for OSU. (You know the job market in Corvallis--it really does suck--and I took this job because it was the first employer to actually give me an offer). I am a Contract worker. Grossly underpaid (barely above minimum wage). No health insurance. But hey, they can find the cash to pay Coach Riley several million a year, plus I'm sure he gets all sorts of nice little perks, regardless of the number of hours he puts in.

    And oh how it is so easy to point the finger and tell you to grow up, how you "should" have made different choices, how you and you alone are responsible for your life. Bullshit. Those are simply the actions of someone who is uncomfortable with the reality of your situation and doesn't have the heartfelt capability of truly listening. The truth is, we all are connected, our actions have a ripple effect. As I see it, the finger is being pointed in the wrong direction. We need to point it back at those who make the decisions that keep the current system in place, return their homework with a big red "F" on their paper and tell them it's time for a re-do.

    It is indeed a crime when we claim to be the richest nation on the planet and yet we are unwilling to ensure health care for all, affordable housing for all, healthy, abundant food for all and most importantly, LIVING WAGES FOR ALL WORKERS that keep up with the cost of living.

    It's such a no-brainer to me, always will be. And yet I understand why things stay the same. Fear. Obsession with money, power and control. Misusing the concepts of competition.

    It sounds fluffy foo-foo, idealistic, naive and hippy'esque, but who cares: Love in action will solve everything.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Great post, T.A. As I read, I cringed at the expectation that some child of Ayn Rand would suggest the T.A.'s work situation is his own fault. Didn't take very long, eh? The radical libertarian mindset is so uninformed by easily observed reality, I am beginning to believe it is symptomatic of mental illness.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)

    Wednesday, I'll be heading up to OHSU to do data entry for a few months at $12/hour.

    I did data entry in the old Hollerith card days, good way to die from boredom. But OHSU has a unionized staff, and an enterprising soul who makes contacts has a very good chance of finding a permanent position there. I wrote an article in our retiree newsletter about my experience up there on "The Hill" and a friend who has recently passed ("Labor loses a friend").

    But I wonder if that's what you really want. Your admiration of your son's choices suggests that a more mobile worklife is your real ambition. Skills in this avenue of work definately have to be much higher than your usual rank-'n-file worker. A person has to be more skilled than the average in finding adequate employment.

    Until labor can be as free as money to move across borders, labor will not be as powerful as capital. Plus workers will need to be skilled at passing legislation that enhances the power of a mobile workforce. It will be interesting to see this develop if your sons are any indication of what's to come.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Bill Gates has proved that sucking can be worth billions if you leave folks no choice.

    Amen, labor mobility is the key. But we're not talking about shutting the barn door a bit late; that horse isn't just out of the barn, he's taken up with a mare in a far away land and is quite long in the tooth!

    Jimmy Carter and the EEOC initiatives of the late '70s were going to bring 100%, verifiable, rational selection to every American job.

    Ronald Reagan made it one of his administration's fundamental policies to never allow competency testing, but to encourage litmus testing. His test of choice was the urine sample. This has led to the current executive compensation schemes and lack of accountability with organizations' dealings with IT and contractors.

    Later, Dick Thornburg dedicated his term as AG to making sure that business implemented the Reagan administration's principles. He tirelessly went around to every Kiwanis Club and Rotary luncheon he could get invited to, reminding business leaders, "The Constitution moderates the government's behavior, not yours. You can implement many 'unconstitutional' employment practices which the government can not. In the pre-employment phase, you can do practically anything if you are consistent. Let employees know that urine testing is as much a normal part of the process as taking entrance exams for college. And just as important."

    25 years later this is the world we live in. I was going to spend my life as a statistician, before Reagan, instead of writing software for damnable computers. Yeah, would have been great to have had someone write this back then. Now, not only is the opportunity lost, the executives have a vested interest in not changing the system and there's a generation of people that have grown up in Thornburg's world and do believe it's normal. Mourning in America, indeed.

    I think there's nothing left to boomers but self-employment. We're the bulk of the population; we should be able to carve out a niche.

  • raul (unverified)

    Sadly, Boomers have created a lot of this mess- that doesn't mean that they should suffer for it, but they do.

    My mother used to tell me to find a good job with benefits, and stay there. I have the good job, but staying here has been the challenge. My trick is to never turn down training, regardless, and to continue to think like a contract employee- always trying to expand my skill base as opposed to digging into a niche.

    Thus said, many Boomers have the same philosophy as my Mom did. Getting the job is only half the battle. Keeping your edge also plays a part, as does luck.

    Trying to look forward skill wise is smart ( I have had 3 different professions as an adult ) and not putting your eggs in one basket. Also, stop buying toys on credit when you are near retirement age, or you'll never be able to afford your retirement.

    Oh, and Liberal Arts degrees aren't worth the paper they are printed on-

    Rant finished. Thanks for your tolerance.

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    It is in our self-interest to support labor mobility, development and advancement.

    The slow dismemberment of the blue collar middle class began in the early '70s and was pretty much accomplished by the end of the Clinton Administration. The first to go were the textile and manufacturing sectors in the northern midwest and in the east.

    The jobs were shipped to the South where labor was much cheaper........but not as cheap as Mexico.........which in turn was a good place to assemble both cars and consumer electronics.........Of course by the late '80s it just made sense to go on down to El Salvador and from across the Pacific.

    Ayup. Labor is mobile like never before in history.....and so is Capital.......

    For the new millenium we are use the same combination of offshoring and importation of cheap labor that worked so well on the laboring classes to destroy the techies.

    After all, if TA had applied himself, he could have become a purveyor of dubious mortgage instruments or learned to jigger the volatile energy markets, or some other form of legal rape of the consumer/worker/citizens of The Greatest Nation In The World.

    That's what Real Men do........


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