July 2011 Archives

As Shakespeare Might Say, "Take this Job and Shovel It!"

In the 1950s and 1960s a string of relatively progressive young southern governors (Whatever happened to that string, by the way?) managed to sell a population steeped in a traditional distrust or, at best, skepticism of education on the idea that improved schools meant an improved economy. This notion had long been an article of faith among social scientists of many stripes, and the economic growth that marked the 1960s and 1970s seemed to bear it out, although business-climate rankings of that era consistently placed low-wage labor and minimal taxation ahead of a state's educational prowess.

By the end of the twentieth century, we were awash in talk of the new "knowledge economy" where a beckoning cornucopia of golden opportunities supposedly awaited those who had the appropriately sophisticated training to take advantage of them. Reality turned out to be a bit different, however, in the sense that research and development advances not only eliminated some potential new jobs due to breakthroughs in automation, but facilitated the "dumbing down" of other processes to the point that in many cases only a close acquaintance with the workings of specialized piece of equipment was required of the workers themselves. State-sponsored "start-up" training programs for new industries had emerged first in the South as a quicker, cheaper alternative to waiting on gradual improvements in public education to manifest themselves in a more broadly capable work force, and they fit nicely with the more individualized requirements of most new jobs. Hence, while the old theory that the key to industrial expansion was a vastly improved program of public education was still given lip service, its actual connection to reality became ever more resistant to empirical verification.

            It's true enough that the Department of Commerce reported this week that the higher wage "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) jobs that are supposedly "driving our nation's innovation and competitiveness" are projected to grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018.  However, the Commerce Department's own Bureau of Labor Statistics reported some time back that nearly 60 percent of the jobs likely to be available over that same period require only varying amounts of on-the-job-training for the workers who will fill them. Beyond that, BLS projections show that nearly 40 percent of all these anticipated jobs paid a median wage of $21,320 in 2008, and nearly 60 percent paid less than $33,000 per year. This means that the workers who held them were in the bottom 50 percent of all earners in that year, and 90 percent of them likely did not make enough even to require them to pay income tax.

If the OB hears one more born-on-third-base bastard complain that "half the people" don't pay any income tax at all, he's going to suggest that folks who get their calluses only  from golf clubs are welcome to sample how the slackers in the bottom half live anytime they choose. For starters, they might just consult the New York Times columnist Charles Blow's  impressions of the "working poor" he met on a recent excursion to the Deep South, where they too often represent the rule rather than the exception:

They do hard jobs and odd jobs--any work they can find to keep the lights on and the children fed.

No one mentioned the asinine argument about the debt ceiling. No one. Life is pressing down on them so hard that they can barely breathe. They just want Washington to work, the way they do.

They are honest people who do honest work--crack-the-bones work; lift-it, chop-it, empty-it, glide-it-in-smooth work; feel-the-flames-up-close work; crawl-down-in-there work -- things that no one wants to do but that someone must.

They are women whose skin glistens from steam and sweat, whose hands stay damp from being dipped in buckets and dried on aprons. They are men who work in boots with steel toes, the kind that don't take shining, the kind that lean over and tell stories when you take them off.

They are people whose bodies melt every night in a hot bath, then stiffen by sunrise, so much so that it takes pills for them to get out of bed without pain.

. . . . But they're the ones less talked about--either not glamorous enough or rancorous enough. They are the ones without champions, waiting for Democrats to gather the gumption to defend the working poor with the same ferocity with which Republicans protect the filthy rich, waiting for a tomorrow that never comes.

You tell 'em Charlie! I'm so mad I can't. At least the Republicans can identify their true constituency. For the Democrats, "working people" seems to translate solely into union members who already hold the best blue-collar jobs out there while the folks who are slaving away everyday and still can't make ends meet simply don't register on their radar screen. From a purely pragmatic political perspective, you'd think somebody would notice that the first group is shrinking rapidly while the latter is, as we have seen, getting bigger all the time.

Before the OB goes careening wildly down that well-worn path again, let's return to another consideration raised by these employment projections, i.e., the real importance of education in contemporary America. Even we'uns stuck up here in the ivory tower have been under fire for some time now from folks who see little need for superfluous little trappings like literature and history when the real point of getting a college degree should be preparing young people for lucrative careers in information systems or risk management or some similarly enticing field. First of all,  this argument overlooks the sobering fact that teaching actually represents one of the better-paying projected "growth" occupations out there right now.   Beyond that, although most higher salary positions do require a minimum of a bachelors degree, a good number of them now seem specialized enough that companies may be less concerned than they once were about undergraduate majors per se because they, too, will effectively "O.J.T." many of their new entry-level hires. In this scenario, the ability to master large amounts of information quickly and to communicate that mastery effectively seems much more important now than it once did. Having picked up on this from a number of recent humanities graduates who have found their place in the corporate world, the OB points with special pride to a certain history major whose interpretive and communication skills have been a major asset to his career in information security. (Good going, Son, your Mama and I are real proud, and besides, we already had plans for the spare bedroom.)

It's one thing to posit the functionality of education even in a more specialized vocational setting, however, and another to take a stand for its intrinsic importance regardless of one's employment status or income. The OB hastens to explain that he does not rise here to advocate a universal end game in which absolutely everyone winds up with at least a baccalaureate degree. While an educated person should be able, not to mention willing and eager, to absorb and interpret information effectively, it is that capacity and inclination, not simply the retention of the information itself, that is really the mark of being "educated." With due respect to all the brilliant, long-suffering souls who saw me through my undergraduate and graduate schooling, I was probably almost as "educated" in terms of that ability and desire to learn when I graduated from high school in 1965 as I was when the fools gave me a PhD ten years later. I'll grant you that I was exceedingly fortunate in my high school experience, especially given my ultimate choice of career, but I would have been no less fortunate in other respects had I simply stepped directly onto the assembly line at a local plant. Indeed, in the latter case, I might've had even greater reason to thank my high school teachers, for while an appreciation for Shakespeare or Coleridge or Wolfe or just for ideas in general doesn't necessarily help with running a machine,  it can prevent what we do for a living from completely defining who we are.

"Was" May Look Just Like "Is," But It Isn't

Historical analogies can enhance our understanding of both past and present, provided we take care to distinguish between superficial similarities and fundamental sameness. Contrary to what you may have heard, history doesn't repeat itself. (Would only that the same could be said for those who presume to interpret it.) An excellent case in point involves critics of Georgia's Draconian new immigration laws who have dubbed them the "Brown Codes" in an effort to link them to the "Black Codes" passed by Georgia and other former Confederate states in 1865-66 to redefine and codify the subordinate status of newly freed blacks. This comparison works fine if we are talking only about the discriminatory aspects of both sets of legislation. If we look at the overall thrust and intent of the discrimination, however, the differences are actually quite striking.

The principal aim of Black Codes was to restore white control or supervision over black life, especially black labor, which, of course, was critical to the resurrection of southern agriculture. Hence, the Black Codes provided for apprenticing black children to white "masters" on terms largely set by the masters themselves. Tightly drawn vagrancy laws were aimed at forcing "free people of color" to bind themselves to white employers or face lengthy prison or jail terms. Since the citizenship rights of former slaves or their descendents were not constitutionally confirmed until the Reconstruction-era ratification of the Fourteenth amendment in 1868, in 1866 Georgia's "free persons of color" were assigned to what was intended to be a permanently separate and racially circumscribed civil category. The idea here was to regain control  of black  labor, however, not to create a climate so utterly  repressive that the former slaves opted to take their labor elsewhere. Accordingly, there were some concessions to their newfound status. Their stable, monogamous marriages and their parental rights and responsibilities were recognized by law, and they could testify in civil or criminal proceedings involving other free persons of color, although public officials were forbidden to marry or issue marriage licenses to couples where one party was deemed to be of at least one-eighth African descent. This determination was not as easy to accomplish with the naked eye as it might seem, but it was obviously easier than making visual distinctions between legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants. Therein lies the rub with Georgia's new anti-illegal immigration laws (which, let's face it, are essentially anti-immigration, period) because what were once deemed lawful protections for documented immigrants, not to mention naturalized citizens, against peremptory searches or interrogations are now put aside in the cases of all persons of either Hispanic origin or the mere appearance thereof.

            It is true enough that under both Georgia's black codes of 1866 and it's immigration legislation of 2011, people were/are subject to having their rights violated simply on the basis of their racial appearance. Yet the Black Codes were aimed at controlling blacks and thereby assuring an ample supply of cheap labor, while the new immigration statutes effectively seek to expel or repel immigrant workers and thus threaten to leave millions of dollars worth of Georgia's crops rotting in the fields this year.

            This thoroughly predictable outcome seemed to escape the comprehension of some exceedingly business-friendly politicians who have built their careers on keeping labor cheap and abundant. Rather than offer a constructive response to legitimate concerns about illegal immigration, they simply could not resist the chance to pander to anti-Hispanic sentiment by pushing through laws that are clearly over the top even by Georgia standards. Their efforts to extricate themselves from the increasingly narrow crevice between rock and hard place on the farm labor issue pose some interesting historical parallels. Enforced with great vigor in Georgia and elsewhere after Reconstruction was overthrown, exceedingly stringent vagrancy laws aimed at insuring a large supply of farm labor quickly gave rise to a surplus convict population whose maintenance costs amounted to a huge drain on state coffers. This in turn gave rise to the heinous practice of leasing convicts, typically at a few pennies per convict per day, to private employers (including Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown) who had no stake whatsoever in seeing to their health or providing even minimally humane treatment in general.

Flash ahead 135 years and we have governor Nathan ["Let's Make A"] Deal, the architect of Georgia's new iron-fisted immigration policies, calling for the state's unemployed ex-convict population (most of whom are required to seek work while on probation) to be pressed into service in order to alleviate an estimated shortage of 11,000 workers in the state's agricultural sector, said shortage, of course, having been exacerbated in the first place by Deal's anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation. A similar small-scale effort with probationers fizzled a few years back when, consistent with a region-wide pattern, an I.N.S. crackdown decimated the workforce at a poultry plant at Stillmore, Georgia, and judging from this early report  on how Deal's plan is actually working out there in the vegetable patches so far, the outcome of this more ambitious experiment promises to be about the same this time around:

The first batch of probationers started work last week at a farm owned by Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. In the coming days, more farmers could join the program.

So far, the experiment at Minor's farm is yielding mixed results. On the first two days, all the probationers quit by mid-afternoon, said [crew leader Benito] Mendez, one of two crew leaders at Minor's farm.

"Those guys out here weren't out there thirty minutes and they got the buckets and just threw them in the air and say, 'Bonk this, I ain't with this, I can't do this,'" said Jermond Powell, a thirty-three-year-old probationer. "They just left, took off across the field walking."

Mendez put the probationers to the test last Wednesday, assigning them to fill one truck and a Latino crew to fill a second truck. The Latinos picked six truckloads of cucumbers compared to one truckload and four bins for the probationers.

Conditions in the field are bruising, and the probationers didn't seem to know what to expect. Cucumber plants hug the ground, forcing the workers to bend over, push aside the large leaves and pull them from the vine. Unlike the Mexican and Guatemalan workers, the probationers didn't wear gloves to protect their hands from the small but prickly thorns on the vines and sandpaper-rough leaves.

The harvesters carried filled buckets on their shoulders to a nearby flatbed truck and hoisted them up to a dumper, who tossed the vegetables into a bin.

Temperatures hovered in the low 90s with heavy humidity Thursday, but taking off a shirt to relieve the heat invited a blistering sunburn. Tiny gnats flew into workers' eyes and ears. One experienced Latino worker carried a machete that he used to dispatch a rattlesnake found in the fields.

By law, each worker must earn minimum wage, or $7.25 an hour. But there's an incentive system. Harvesters get a green ticket worth 50 cents every time they dump a bucket of cucumbers. If they collect more than 15 tickets an hour, they can beat minimum wage. . . .

The Latino workers moved furiously Thursday for the extra pay.

None of the probationers could keep pace. Pay records showed the best filled only 134 buckets a day, and some as little as 20. They lingered at the water cooler behind the truck, sat on overturned red buckets for smoke breaks, and stopped working to take cell phone calls.

While they hardly merit commendation, the proponents of the Black Codes at least recognized their dependence on maintaining a pool of cheap, docile black labor. Latter-day boosters of Georgia's Brown Codes appear to have overlooked a comparable dependence among Georgia farmers, not to mention poultry processors and doubtless quite a few contractors, landscapers, etc. as well, on cheap, docile Hispanic labor. In the months to come, a great many Georgia employers, agricultural or industrial, corporate or individual, who find themselves hard-pressed to secure the labor they need at anything like the cost they've become accustomed to paying may well conclude that Governor Deal's "final solution" to the illegal immigration problem is infinitely worse than the problem itself .



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