Working a seasonal job has been good for me. The obvious benefits go beyond the economic, although I’m not downplaying that one. As a struggling writer (aren’t we all?), financial issues are often the most common reason for the many who throw in the towel.
The real benefit is seeing firsthand what most American workers experience in the new economy touted by George Bush and his economic supply-side friends. Trickle-down economics doesn’t offer much more than a few crumbs from the table of the wealthy and privileged.
My seasonal call center job pays $10 and change, which is standard for this type of occupation in my area of the country. As our state has seen manufacturing jobs leave in droves, we have become a haven for companies wanting to locate their phone centers here in order to tap an able labor force willing to work for substandard wages. This phenomenon is not the fault of the workers—where does one go in a state where most jobs pay $8-$10 per hours? Most of the people I went through training with are working here as a second job. That means most of us are working 70-80 hours per week over this 6-week gig. It gives me a new appreciation of the term, "working poor."
Within a five minute walk from where I sit in my cubicle under artificial lighting and stale re-circulated air, thousands of shoe shop workers once toiled. Receiving a wage that allowed them to access part of the American Dream, these workers built this gritty working-class city of 40,000 into a community with character. Many of these French-Canadians took pride in their town. During the 1960’s and even early 1970’s, the downtown was filled with department stores and other locally-owned retail establishments. At one time, you could even ride the local bus line from my hometown 10 miles away.
When I was a boy of seven or eight, my grandmother used to take me on the bus with her and we’d go shopping. She’d take me to lunch at Woolworth’s where I’d have a grilled hot dog, french fries (we didn’t call them liberty fries then!!) and even an ice cream cone. I can still picture my Nana counting out change from her purse. With her peasant dress, large handbag that had everything, this fire-plug of a German immigrant provided her grandson with many memories that today’s kids will never experience.
I often express frustration at our media, for lacking the courage and drive to write stories about real Americans and their lives. What occurs to me as I battle the tiredness infusing my back and arms from burning the candle at both ends is that many journalists have achieved a level of comfort that prevents them from biting the hand providing it. A case in point is the fluff piece that my usually solid local paper carried about the call center where I work. There was little or nothing in the article that would force a reader to confront the reality of these jobs and how they ultimately do little to build the local economy. What they do provide is access to cheap labor for a local company that used to have more integrity. Still riding on the reputation of its founder, the flatlanders who now run the company offer empty corporate platitudes to their workers. While the article spoke of the “million dollar hours” that these phone centers ring up, there was no mention that the workers providing the modern day equivalent of assembly line labor are treated to tootsie rolls, candy bars and $35 Christmas bonuses.
A journalist with any integrity would have written something other than an article that was nothing more than PR copy that could have come directly from the company’s marketing department.
As a freelance writer, I often am denied the opportunity to write these types of hard-hitting pieces, primarily because I don’t have a journalism degree following my name. What I’m finding out, the further I go down this rabbit trail called writing is that journalism school doesn’t teach you how to write. What it does is teach you to become a subservient employee who rarely challenges the status quo set by the editors.
If journalism is ever going to become the hard-hitting, muckraking domain of men like H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, Studs Terkel and others again, it needs to get out of the classroom and back into the remaining factories and sweat shops and see how real Americans live, work, and die.