Upton Sinclair once commented on the unintended results of his seminal expose of the meat packing industry by saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” I think about that quote as I sit here today, blessed with another job after being laid off over a month ago. For the ten solid months that I worked in the warehouse some of my friends from college believed that I was working in a particularly “hard core” environment. In truth that idea is probably exaggerated (by me) but at the same time I was privileged to work this solidly blue collar job. My parents, my education, and my class all primed me for such a different life after graduation, and this experience has allowed me to better examine my own life, its various priorities, as well as the priorities for this country in general with respect to labor.
In the end I hesitated to write this article as it might be seen as either the efforts of a quiet spy now acting as a whistleblower or conversely a litany of complaints from an over-privileged white college kid whose hands got calloused working manual labor. In truth it is my desire that this column represents my simple observations over a 10 month period and my general impressions on what went right, and what may need to be corrected. It must be said that I am extraordinarily grateful for the job that I worked, the people I encountered, and the lessons that I learned. I am writing this not to bring to light the conditions of one place where problems exist, but rather to give an example of issues that have plagued our essential pool of so-called “blue collar jobs” especially given the current economic situation.
In may of 2008 I gave the graduation speech for the African and African American Studies Department at Brandeis University. My speech carried a defiant tone, as I used the opportunity to address some of my more cynical college classmates who used every opportunity to deride the practicality of my major and area of focus (especially given that I am a white male). At the end of the ceremony, a member of the audience approached me to tell me that he saw good things in me, and that I had the potential to do something great. It has been over a year since that moment, and through the difficulties I have encountered since that speech I have often wondered about that man, and the others who assumed that my potential would produce immediate results.
After waiting tables for two months in a restaurant that was determined to lose money, I called a nationally represented temporary agency with a few basic demands. First of all I wanted 40 hours a week on a morning to afternoon shift at a base pay of at least $10.00 an hour. I was living in my parents house at the time, and seeing that my only real expenses included gas for the jeep, entertainment, my student loan, and the occasional dinner out with my girlfriend, I could easily survive on that salary. Much to my surprise, I was told to come in that day to sign up.
Memphis is a strange city. At some points the stereotypical “charm” of the south is evident. The city is also under the incredible strain of a wide income disparity, and an even wider achievement gap with regards to race. In fact, the entire city might as well carry the sub caption of “with regards to race.” The wounds of being the place where Martin Luther King was shot have never fully healed, and perhaps as a result the city has suffered incredible economic hardship ever since. The middle class that does exist is fiercely protective of its turf and is also incredibly incestuous. Jobs, schools, and churches are all inhabited by the same groups of people, making success in any avenue highly dependent on who you know. As I knew basically no one, my best choice for employment came through the temp agency, and yet the speed from which I was placed made me suspicious. As I reported for my first day, I feared that I was being sucked into some massive pyramid scheme.
My fears of a scam were quickly alleviated when I first entered the building adjacent to the Memphis airport. Memphis, like many cities in the south, was saved from complete post-civil rights era poverty by becoming the low tax home to a major national corporation. In Memphis’ case, FedEx extensively controls the town (even our beleaguered NBA franchise was almost named the Memphis Express before David Stern vetoed such an obvious corporate kiss off) and as such the airport ranks as one of the top air cargo hubs in the country. The company I worked for benefited greatly from its proximity to the airport. But the exclusive deal that the company had with FedEx to distribute their products would later demonstrate the fragile state that the economy exists today. Today this symbiotic relationship between the two major corporations are damaging both companies as the economy weakens.
The company that I worked for (which for the purposes of not getting sued will be called by the pseudonym I invented “HealthEquip”) had at the time of my employment close to 1500 workers of various pay and skill levels in their Memphis hub, mostly at a corporate office a few miles away from where I temped. HealthEquip provides a multitude of different Medical devices throughout the world, and in Memphis the company focuses on Spinal equipment. Within the warehouse itself, I was part of the Outbound Loaners “D1” department. Basically I manned a series of massive metal shelves where rentable spinal sets sat waiting to be sent out on deliveries. My job consisted of grabbing these sets, which were packaged in large metal and plastic cases or black suitcases that varied in weight and arranged them on carts according to the needs of the surgeon somewhere across the country. After I put together this delivery, the rest of the outbound crew would check the cases and eventually the completed and inspected sets would be sent out via huge truck-sized FedEx deliveries.
The job itself remained rather repetitive and mundane. On some days I would find myself running around without the presence of my colleagues in labor, as my reputation for being reliable soon allowed an already “lean” shift to operate with even less support. Throughout my time at HealthEquip I would periodically receive a partner on the first shift that I worked, but the welcomed assistance would unfortunately exist as a fleeting joy. The second that the work slowed down, my partner would disappear, a development that would always perturb me initially, until I remembered that it was I who had been spared the dreaded cut.
Despite my original plan to remain as quiet and unassuming as possible, the familial setting and my own loquacious nature soon allowed me to open up to the employees as a whole. A sense of curiosity soon developed around my placement at the warehouse as a white college-educated temp is something of a rarity. My personal story set me apart from the vast majority of the workers on many levels. While a number of the employees have an undergraduate education, most only have high school degrees from Memphis’ decrepit school system. Despite this, however, the range of experience and level of intellectual curiosity varied greatly. Due to the unspoken rules regarding seniority, most of the older employees enjoyed the benefits of working the morning to afternoon shift (which benefited those with the constraining schedules created by a family with children). Second shift, on the other hand, included more singles and younger couples (as well as more people my age, in general).
Many of the employees had made the company a family tradition of sorts. And despite the rules regarding employment of family members in different departments, the widespread nature of the relations had a chilling effect on attempts to discipline bad employees with large company pedigrees. Specifically in my department, a well-known problematic worker was assigned to perform a truly superfluous task for months on end under the guise of light-work duty. In truth one supervisor pushed her over to our section to avoid having to deal with her issues on a daily basis, but due to a large number of family members at the warehouse, complaints about her from other workers were generally ignored.
Nepotism and lazy employees are by no means a universal phenomenon. At every job there exists an obvious hierarchy and unspoken division of labor. Everyone in the working world can identify the small number of extremely hard working individuals without whom nothing would get done, the people who show up to collect a pay check, and those who survive solely on their ability to kiss ass. All of those types of workers were well represented at my work. What made HealthEquip unique and different for me was the obvious paternalism of the head company, which adapted their strategy for the south. The apparent kind-hearted nature of the company served as a distraction for the workers in a place where a union would be extremely effective towards attaining a better workplace. HealthEquip provided a decent benefit package and kept the workplace in decent enough shape so that the FDA and OSCHA could not complain too much, but there existed some serious places for individual improvements. Complaints from the workers usually were unfocused, and brought up at massive meetings where upper management would be in sight, which created a rather intimidating presence.
The plant manager himself embodied this paradox. Despite the attempts his attempts to appear gentile and understanding, he existed as an obviously over-paternalistic figure with an equally vindictive side. On tours he would push around carts to give the impression of understanding the plight of the everyday worker, yet at the same time would assemble the entire plant together to address the issue of cursing (while the embarrassed HR rep would have to clarify that the larger issue involved potential liabilities for sexual harassment). Again a clueless executive or middle manager is a rather common occurrence, but the lack of a true representative for the average worker was strikingly obvious. A required online survey for every employee supposedly served the purpose of providing a “voice”, yet the constant reminders from supervisors regarding rising national unemployment delivered the transparent threat of “go along or get along”. Education probably plays a factor, as many employees would speak often about their issues with the atmosphere of the warehouse, but articulating these complaints into a concise list of grievances proved difficult for many. The traditional social hierarchy of the south also universally re-enforced that idea that a possible challenge from the average worker to the corporate authority figures was simply out of the question.
The subtle historic dynamics of southern culture were evident the second you walked into the warehouse. The racial divisions followed suspiciously along the more skilled (and better paying) positions, creating an unspoken set of cliques that embodied the tension that existed throughout the city surrounding our workplace. The tense racial nature of the community was never more evident than during the election and inauguration of Barack Obama.
Memphis long ago suffered the economic blow that came with white flight. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, de facto segregation arose throughout the metropolitan area. Churches, schools, and of course neighborhoods exist as polar opposites of each other in regards to their racial demographics. Jobs like mine at HealthEquip remain one of the few places where people of different backgrounds and experiences are forced to co-exist, and the situation is tenuous.
The election caused spirits to rise and previously made friendships across racial bounds dissolve instantaneously. Insensitive, race-based comments were made on a regular basis by some of my white co-workers, and the fact that their actions remained un-punished added to the feelings of betrayal on the part of the black employees. The racial imbalance of the warehouse (roughly 70/30% black to white workers) added to the paranoia and sense of persecution of the white workers, who were beginning to form cliques. It must be noted that management realized that this was developing, yet was clueless about what to do.
When Obama won the election in November, his supporters were jubilant inside the warehouse, and displayed their excitement mostly by wearing t-shirts that touted our new leader. Meanwhile, some of the white employees who supported McCain carried out truly idiotic acts representing their displeasure. These actions ranged from Nazi salutes (supposedly as a spoof of the loyalty of Obama voters), to pronouncements of an impending Obama assassination, and even modifying a piece of spinal equipment shaped like a white cone while declaring it the miniature doppelganger of a Ku Klux Klan member. When these developments came to the attention of upper management, they finally acted. The employee who made the “Klan member” was “talked too”, while several Black employees were sent home for violating the previously loosely enforced dress code violating t-shirts with writing. The hapless plant manger visited each department, pleading for every one to get along. His solution to this problem “don’t talk about the news and this sort of stuff”. As someone who spends most of his time debating and speaking with people of every background possible, this decree to remain ignorant to the thoughts of others and feign tolerance seemed irresponsible, if not completely idiotic.
The election marked my full entrance into the mindset of the majority of workers at the plant. Given my love of politics, and the fact that I really can never shut up about the subject, I gained a notoriety for being outspoken as well as perhaps more knowledgeable than previous temps. In fact I became something of a real oddity at the plant. I am a white, college educated liberal from the Northeast working at a place where most of the white men my age are lifetime Memphians, and more than likely good ol’ boys. When I casually told a few people in the course of a conversation that I support gay rights, consider my self an agnostic, and have even dabbled in vegetarianism word spread quickly that the kid with the beard in the Red Sox shirt was very different. The fact that my personal history and opinions were flowing freely on the grapevine was annoying, but eventually I used this development to talk openly about some very controversial subjects. Perhaps it was the lack of the intellectual stimulation I had from college (or maybe it was just my ego) but I took a certain joy in making management nervous when a crowd developed during my ad-hoc sermon about the need to separate church and state. My background in African and African American Studies put me in the truly unique position to float between the black and white contingents of the warehouse, and individuals from both sets often voiced to me their dismay about the lack of leadership in the plant and their overall sense of feeling that that management was generally condescending.
At some point I joined the hustle to get out of the warehouse. At the time I believed that my path out of HealthEquip depended on getting into graduate school. My eventual failure to do so helped me realize the mindset behind what I originally saw as fleeting, desperate, if not ignorant attempts to escape the job in hopes for a better life. While my idea of pursuing a higher education represented the more conventional (and successful) escape attempts that many other workers were involved in, some other employees fell victim to a myriad of scams and get rich-quick ploys. On my first day I was asked to join what I assumed to be a pyramid scheme, and months later I saw the employee whom had invited me talking in a very distraught manner on the phone with his lawyer. This man was not alone however, many other workers spoke often of their horrible credit ratings from similar pursuits, but some had even taken the very unorthodox step of becoming involved with drugs. The low salary of the job made the purchase of expensive vehicles for a few workers very suspicious to me, and a fellow worker confirmed these thoughts by specifically identifying a few employees whose second job involved being low to mid level dealers (again management has no idea).
The physical set up of the warehouse of HealthEquip provided a not so subtle reminder of the hierarchy of importance within the company. Behind a few security doors at the front of the plant the cement floor seceded to carpet, demarking the presence of the managers and corporate representatives. Despite their best efforts, these people and the environment they existed in exuded a classic example of the proletariat class, and all of the trappings and feelings of entitlement that have been traditionally assigned to this group.
But while management tried to control the tone and subject of the communal conversation on the side of the doors in which I worked, the continuing worsening economic situation defined the mindset of the average worker. As layoffs increased nationwide, massive company-wide e-mails were sent out trying to pacify the growing fears amongst the employees that we were next. Communication became an issue as well, as innuendo and rumor spread at a rapid pace, a situation that only worsened as shift supervisors were unable or unwilling to confirm or deny the various stories circulating around the plant.
I was lucky in many ways to have learned from my earlier jobs in high school and college that the average mid-level manager will support and even praise the workers who he or she never sees taking it easy. The appearance of always being at work allowed me to cultivate strong relationships with all of my direct superiors. In response to my dependability and work ethic these superiors rewarded me by allowing me to adjust my schedule for LSAT classes, taking a late lunch everyday, and most importantly providing me with the behind the scenes information concerning my employment.
While my I generally thought of the plant manager as relatively ineffective in his job, I had apparently made a decent impression him. My job relied on his approval every three months of a new contract for my services. Without my direct knowledge, my contract was renewed three times with absolutely no complaint from anyone. In late May however, I received word from a supervisor, whose main personality flaw lay in his need to impress his workers (who were once his equal and have never given him the appropriate respect since) about all of the information he was privy too that the temps were an endangered species.
HealthEquip announced that they were planning to shed thousands of jobs globally, but failed in their press release to tell where the cuts would be centered. As a result panic engrossed our plant faster then the freak out over the swine flu two months earlier. Behind the scenes however, the Plant Manager and members of the corporate staff at the head quarters outside of Memphis figured out that a enough money could be saved from the Memphis warehouse without firing any full-time employees. Contract workers like myself on the other hand, would have to go.
On Friday, June 5th I was called into the office of my supervisor around 11am. I thought nothing of it until he told me that “I have good news and bad news”. I asked for the bad news first and was told that the temps were being cut, but that a shift starting at 4am had been saved for me specifically if I wanted it. I asked for a few minutes to call my girlfriend (with whom I was to begin moving in that weekend) and we discussed the 4am option. When I returned to my boss’s office I thanked him for the offer, but told him I would have to turn him down. He in turn thanked me for my service, agreed to serve as a reference and turned to write down my decision on a memo pad. Before I left he asked me “You spell your name S-t-e-p-h-e-n right?”. I reflected on the irony of my 10 months of hard work, but failing to make real impression on the people around me. “Are you sure that you do not want to work the rest of the day, you just can’t tell anyone about what is going on” my boss told me, after which I politely asked if I could just leave right there.
I left immediately and raced back to the temp agency, where preparations were made to have me interview for a state job after a few weeks. While I sat in the offices the plant manager called to officially announce the cutting of the temps from the warehouse. I looked on as my representative wrote down the four names of the people with whom I had worked with for so long, and in my opinion kept the place running. I hesitated however, when I heard my name and the word “walk off” mentioned in the same sentence.
Apparently the plant manager was under the mistaken impression that I stormed off after being let go, while I had actually asked for permission from my supervisor. Communication was never his strong suit and he seemed to recognize his mistake, especially after being chastised by my representative for cutting me in such a curiously silly manner (rarely has anyone been told that they were free to finish out the day after being let go of a job they had worked for so long). The expectation of my silence while working my final day with the knowledge of being laid off was simply comically strange, and assessment that my representative agreed with me.
A few days later I found myself in the unemployment line, surrounded by a diverse (read; crazy) group of people all of whom were dealing with the tough realities of the current economy. Thankfully my time on government assistance was limited. Today I am happily employed with a much more secure job that is more in tune with what I want in a career. My tenure in HealthEquip taught me many things, and the experience was overall a very beneficial and worthwhile one, but at the same time I do believe that there is much that can be doe to avoid the problems that I witnessed.
I have generally berated the leadership represented by the upper management of the plant in which I worked. While they deserve a huge share of the blame for the precarious situation in which their labor force exists, it would be unfair to focus solely on them. For one I have must commend those in management for saving all of the jobs within the warehouse for those permanent employees who depend so greatly on the company for their livelihoods. I am also in their debt for constantly extending my placement contract and fighting for my employment until it was simply not economically feasible. In truth only the day to day failures and problems of the plant do fall on the backs of those in the front offices. The general negative tone and attitude toward these sorts of general labor jobs is developed by the corporate leaders of the company, and has been imbibed by the American people themselves.
I helped deliver devices necessary for life-saving spinal surgeries, but I must admit that I rarely thought or cared about those whose lives depended partly on me doing my job precisely or on time. Due to my own problems revolving around bills, college debts, and the failure to deliver on my potential as a graduate I found myself cutting corners and abusing company policy, just as everyone else around me on every level was doing. I gained a reputation as a decent employee due to the fact that I did not take advantage of my job as often or as recklessly as many others. The reality of my employment persisted that due to my low pay and lack of any chance for advancement, I had little to no incentive to put forth the amount of effort that I was capable of.
For whatever reasons whether it is our rapacious history, our stubborn sense of individualism, or the Republican Party, Americans have little to no respect for the laborers whose daily actions keep our society functioning at the standards to which we are accustomed. Skilled or unskilled trades and industrial production used to represent career choices that could lead anyone who was willing to put the time and effort straight into the middle class. Since Reagan however, these jobs have disappeared while a second Gilded age led by sociopathic tycoons and modern day robber-barons has arisen to soak up the profits that our economy has created.
Our lack of communal values was a continuing theme at the plant. For the laborer the constant threat of unemployment and the problems that arise when living in a state with little to no safety net encouraged some to cut corners in a foolhardy way to increase production. Mid level managers were unfairly hampered by asinine requests from their superiors to magically improve their bottom line and maximize profits without any added resources or the ability to hire extra staff while firing problematic employees. Meanwhile at the front offices exists a class of executive staff who have no idea about the products that they produce, the daily lives of their employees, or any of the myriad of problems that truly need their attention.
The solution to this problem lies in the realization on the part of both management and labor that an financial equality needs to develop between these two disparate groups. Labor needs to understand that there is little no chance that they will live like a Trump, but that a life in the middle class with a limited budget (especially for the luxury items that have unfortunately become the objects of our obsession) that is free from the problems of debt or poverty is an honorable life. Management meanwhile has to be regulated so as a person cannot command a salary that is worth literally hundreds of times that of an average employee for doing little of the actual work needed to keep the company running and the product reaching the customer. We need to empower organized labor to represent the interest of our middle-class workers and we need a government that keeps a watchful eye on executive abuse (as well as keeping us afloat when the economy slows down).
But perhaps I have digressed. Today I am perhaps on the path towards the sort of career that I want in my life (I’m applying to law school this fall) but for the vast majority of those with whom I worked with every day life is much more precarious. HealthEquip could announce another round of layoffs, they could get sick, or their kids could become victims of our horrid school system here in Memphis. If I learned anything during my time at the warehouse, it is that the people that the unemployment numbers or plant closing announcements represent are real people with real dreams and problems. These people deserve the respect from those of us who have lived in the ivory tower and have ventured out into the world in the hope of gaining riches and power. Next time you vote to reduce your taxes, support politician who despises unions, or watch CNBC just remember that your health, your money, and basically your entire existence depends on people like my friends at the warehouse –and they are not happy right now.