A Progressive Thinking Blind Spot: Paying Workers for Enduring and Risking

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2011


This essay was inspired by a Facebook friend of mine's linking to a July/August 2011 issue Mother Jones page, Harrowing, Heartbreaking Tales of Overworked Americans by Kiera Butler, Dave Gilson, Josh Harkinson, Andy Kroll, and Laura McClure. It is a series of sad tales told by ordinary working people complaining about their working conditions -- specifically, about speedups that have come over time. My friend's comment was that if these people were in a union the speedups would not have happened and their working conditions would be better.

I read the article and thought about this... And while the stories seemed heart wrenching on first read, there were some contrary thoughts that kept tugging on my mind... and those are what you will see next.


Being Paid for Enduring and Risking

As I read these stories of people unhappy with their workplaces, I recalled a work experience of mine in 1970. I was fresh out of the army, in my mid-twenties, and spending a year at Dixie College in St. George, Utah to get a set of good grades that would get me into MIT.

It was an interesting year on many levels, and one of those was engaging in the most unusual job I've ever undertaken: for several weeks I was part of a team working on a turkey farm that artificially inseminated turkeys -- hundreds of turkeys and their progeny owed their lives to my efforts that year. The team herded turkey hens into the corner of a pen, caught them, and gave them to a turkey artificial inseminator who serviced them, and once that was complete we let them get back to their daily routine.

It was difficult, dirty and dangerous. The hens were not excited about this. Well... not in the pleasant way, anyway. When we came for them they ran away and beat us hard with their wings when we closed on them. We caught them by herding them into a tight crowd, getting down on our hands and knees in the dust, snaking our hands under all the flailing wings to grab feet, then yanking them out and holding them upside down, at which point they got a bit docile. One time, one managed to poke a feather in my ear, which drew blood. I thought about seeing the doctor, and the farm would have paid for it, but after a few minutes the bleeding stopped and nothing else seemed wrong. I continued my work.

A: Why did I take this 3D job? (Difficult, dirty, dangerous)

Q: Because it was the best paying temporary job I could land. It paid twice what pumping gas or flipping burgers would have.

The moral: I was being paid to risk and endure.

I bring this up because this is an aspect of employment that Mother Jones readers and union-loving types have a blind spot for. They don't see that some people are happy to take on uncomfortable and risky jobs if they are paid well for doing so.

For the Progressive Thinking types, these kinds of jobs are unconditionally unacceptable. But I disagree. This was my preferred job while I was a student in St. George.

If this turkey farm had been unionized, I would not have had the opportunity to hire on for this 3D job and I would have been less happy as a worker. It either:

o wouldn't have existed as a 3D job, work rules would have changed it to make safer and cleaner in some fashion, and the wage paid would have been lowered, and I would have instead taken work pumping gas or flipping burgers.

o would have been made safer and cleaner and offered to a person who was in the union and paying dues, which have put a hoop-jumping barrier between me and the job, and made the effective pay even less, and I would have been even more excited to be flipping burgers or pumping gas.

o would have been made safer and cleaner ...and the farmer would have thrown up his hands in despair and said, "I can't make money doing this anymore." and moved the farm elsewhere, and I would... yeah, you get the message.

So my thinking about the complaints in the Mother Jones article is, "If it's gotten that bad, why are you, the people of these stories, still at these jobs?"

And my complaint with my friend's attitude is, "Why do you want to restrict the kinds of jobs that are offered to people? Why not let people be paid for their abilities to endure, and their willingness to take risks? These are abilities just like lifting, talking to people, and working with office equipment. Why treat these abilities as something not useful for employment purposes?"

--The End--