Fifty years ago this week I was working with the Neighborhood Youth Corp shoveling sand off of the flooded lowlands of Wisconsin Interstate park after the 1965 spring floods dropped 8 inches of sand on the picnic area. I have already written about this previously -- you can read it here .
I was a new HS graduate trying to earn money for a year at college. Two weeks of shoveling sand and I got a call from the plastic factory in Dresser to work on the afternoon shift at $1.35 an hour versus $1/hour (I think) at the park. So visiting them, they offered me a summer job and mentioned I could catch a ride with neighbors Mark and LeRoy so wouldn't have to have a car to get there.
Brother Marv, coming home from Fortuna, ND after a winter of teaching there got on too so we could do rideshares with the others from the Cushing area -- a full carload, the common thing in those days.
The plastic factory was a straight 8-hour shift from 2 pm to 10 pm with 10 minutes for a break and a sandwich midway through. I sat at a hand plastic molding press and ran two levers, one closed the mold and the other injected plastic.
The rhythm, right arm in to close the mold, left arm in to position the hot plastic nozzle, left arm out to remove it and right arm out to open the mold. We sat on a stool, facing our machine directly against the concrete block wall where the only relief on the whole blank wall was a round black rimmed plastic clock where the second hand clicked away as the minutes and hours progressed.
Too noisy to talk to the neighbor, you just became part of the machine. For three months we made little plastic parts for cars, cameras, computers etc. Sometimes hundreds a day and sometimes thousands.
The drudgery and boredom was significant, and the mental concentration nil, so mostly our minds wandered far afield. I don't actually remember what I thought about--maybe how a good education might get me beyond milking cows, hauling hay and running a machine and living paycheck to paycheck.
College was a refreshing break, but summer I needed to earn money. Uncle Lloyd visited us in May. "Would you and Everett like to work at Stokely's this summer? They need some people to run the bean picker tractors. You drive them up and down the rows 1 1/2 miles per hour trying to keep on the rows and the right depth." Well we had run tractors up and down the rows most of our lives after the age of 10, so we felt qualified and Lloyd put in a good word for us.
The next four summers for me were on the bean picker going from farm to farm starting in Hastings MN and working our way up highway 35 to north of Frederic ending up the season back in Hastings for the second crop.
Another mostly mindless job that gave us 90+ hours per week and earned the $1200 for another year at college. It was better than the plastic factory because double the hours meant double the pay. We were outdoors with much to see and more interesting activities. You can see some photos at an older post by clicking here and a detailed description by clicking here.
Mindless jobs are fast being replaced by automation. However what I appreciate about them is the insight I got into other folks who did them for a lifetime.
The folks at the plastic factory were farmers who worked part time to keep afloat with poor farming prices. They were women who were single or divorced trying to make a living, or wives of men who for some reason were unable to earn enough to live on, and a few who just were bored staying at home in the days when women mostly did that. There were young men who were farmers who needed a little more money to get established. What we all had in common was we couldn't live on what we earned exclusively at the factory unless maybe we got promoted to a foreman or other higher level job.
The common miseries of the folks included when something broke that cost money to be fixed. Many drove on tires well beyond their safe driving life. Many had autos barely functioning. The meager income made the least extra expense a severely stressful problem for them. A doctor's bill could floor a person even in those days when they weren't so expensive--few minimum wage jobs paid any insurance.
They worked hard and many had two jobs trying to earn enough to get by. I understood the pain as sometimes when we were growing up on the farm the same problems arose (although we had the luxury of selling a cow if needed to pay the doctor or buy tires).
Hardworking folks deserve decent pay--living wages for their work and I know that having worked at these jobs. Part of my support for unions, minimum wages, benefits and pensions come from knowing how hard it is to live at the low income end of life.