Last week Embry and I volunteered to work at the Capital Area Food Bank, along with several other volunteers from our neighborhood church. We had no idea as to what we were getting ourselves into but showed up on time at the designated spot—a huge warehouse in Northeast DC in a remote, small industrial park, next to a railroad track. A couple of dozen others, mainly younger people (30-somethings), were there as well to help on our three-hour afternoon shift.
Our job was to join an assembly line of about 30 people standing around a conveyor belt, which carried empty boxes at a fairly fast clip, into which you dropped nonperishable food items. When a box came to me, my job was to carefully place a carton of almond milk in the box, which by the time it got to me was about a third full. Embry had the identical task; and when a box had completed the entire loop, probably taking less than 10 minutes, the box was filled and ready to be sealed with enough items to feed a single person (all seniors) for a week. (Larger boxes were available for families.) A spokesperson for the Food Bank said that the current population receiving food from the Food Bank in the District and three surrounding counties numbered more than a half million people.
I had never worked in a factory before or on an assembly line. But let me tell you: This was hard work! We did have a short break in the middle of the shift but were standing for almost three hours trying not to miss a box coming by on the conveyor belt that I swear was moving faster and faster as the afternoon passed. Several times when a box passed by me before I could place my container of almond milk in the box, I had to throw the container at the box before it reached the next worker. It was a near miracle that I got them all in. Others had similar experiences. Talk about stress: If you failed, the belt kept moving. If my throw had not made it into the box that went past me, some poor, old person would be missing a container of almond milk.
I wondered for a moment, could I have done this sort of thing for my entire life, day in and day out?
My first takeaway was how many people living in one of the most affluent metro areas in the nation cannot afford to purchase food. Another indictment of our wealthy but unequal nation. And the food was all in cans, containers, and boxes, nothing fresh, and nothing especially appealing to someone like me, who prepares “Blue Apron” three days a week. The second was just how hard the work is on an assembly line. There is no time for a break until the whistle blows and no room for mistakes. After a while, once you get the hang of it, I can see how it could become boring. Imagine standing up for eight hours a day doing the same small task (but an important task and no room for mistakes) over and over and over again. How could anyone stand this? Yet this is what goes on in factories.
This experience caused to me to think about what we call “blue collar” work in general. This is the work that is essential for human settlements to survive and flourish. Somebody has to grow and harvest food, and somebody has to transport it to stores, where someone will bag your groceries and charge your credit card. Somebody has to build the streets, roads, highways and rail lines that will allow this to happen, and the cars, trucks and trains that will transport it, and the buildings where people live and where people work. Somebody has to take care of sick people and old people. Somebody has to make things that we humans want and need to survive and to enjoy life. Somebody has to fix things that break. Somebody has to enforce the law, put out fires, collect the garbage and protect the country. These jobs are very important. Without them no country could function. These blue collar jobs are what keep our country going. Without them we would be doomed.
So, the question is this: If these blue collar jobs are so important, how come they pay so little? It seems that we pay the most to the people who if their job disappeared, no one would know the difference. I am Exhibit A, a former consultant. When I sold my company in 1998, did the seniors housing industry notice? Hardly. And what about lawyers? Good heavens, especially the Washington lawyer/lobbyist! Sure, these professional and white collar workers do have impact and are important. But essential? Doubtful in most cases. And the heavy lifting is done by people who do the work that no one else wants to do because it is too hard and often does not pay enough to keep body and soul together—yet it is the sine qua non, without which we could not survive. Unions have helped in the past and seem to be trying to come back, but still, the challenge for equity in the work place is staggering.
No wonder there is unrest among the white working class. Why they see Trump as their leader and savior, however, remains a mystery.
“What is wrong with this picture?” of course, is not a question unique to the U.S. It is true in every country. It is the human condition on the planet Earth. Communism was supposed to be the alternative but turned out to be much worse than the capitalism we struggle with today.
My experience of doing “factory work” a few weeks ago, however, gave me pause to reflect upon how hard this kind of work is and how easy so many of us professionals have had it, making a whole lot more money than we would if we were doing the hard, essential work.
Life is not fair. It never has been.
Blogger’s footnote: While I never had the opportunity to work in a job that required a lot more energy than typing on a keyboard hooked up to a computer, as part of a research project, Embry and I had the experience of living in a blue collar neighborhood in 1970-1971 when I “hung out” with blue collar workers for a year. We both joined a bowling league, and I joined a fishing club. We spent hours every day on front porches, living rooms, and back yards talking with neighbors. Through this experience we gained great respect for people struggling to get by in a tough and unforgiving world. Some readers may have read “Hard Living on Clay Street,” a book I wrote, published by Doubleday in 1973, which is still in print, and in 2023 will mark its 50th anniversary.