March always gets me thinking about my dad. He was born on the thirty-first and I think of the many skills he taught me. He thought there was nothing wrong with hard work and a person could always find work if they really tried.
My Dad worked a plethora of jobs, over the course of his life. He was a lumberjack in Maine, a pastry cook in Miami and countless others; even a Good Humor ice cream seller during the Depression. In fact, he was quite proud of the fact that he worked all during the Great Depression; sometimes two or three jobs, just to make ends meet, and he was single back then. I think one of the few jobs he did not have was as a Fuller Brush Man!
Starting out in his married life, he bought a small apartment building, one of those little ones that only four small apartments stacked on top of each other. He and my mom lived on the ground floor. They rented the others and my Dad took care of the place.
The rents covered the mortgage and gave them something to live on. Little by little, my dad built a life for himself and the family. By the time I came along, he owned an apartment building on Beacon Hill, in Boston and made a decent living from it.
We had the stereotype middle-class, “Leave it to Beaver,” life in Arlington, a suburb of Boston. As my dad always said, he didn’t want to be rich; he just wanted to live as he was. To him that meant simply having enough money to live the lifestyle he wanted and he did. We had a nice house, two cars; he had his sailboat and we had a little cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. None of it was fancy, nothing ostentatious, but all of it was decent.
For the most part, he was self-employed and did everything himself. He rarely hired other workers to make repairs or changes to the building, but when he did, he always paid them a decent fee. One of his other sayings was, “I pay an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work.” Given the struggles he’d gone through in his life, he knew how tough making ends meet could be.
My Dad was also a lifelong republican, which, given him being born and raised in Massachusetts, is almost an oxymoron! Yet, it was understandable in his case. He was an Eisenhower Republican. He knew the value of work, but also knew that huge corporations, left unchecked, were not to be trusted. He knew the value of unions, of protecting workers’ rights, of simple basic benefits, and of the need for a living wage. My dad was no fan of President Roosevelt, but he did see the value of Social Security and the minimum wage. He believed in that old saying that any job that paid minimum wage was the employer’s way of saying, “I’d pay you less if I could, but the law is in the way.”
Recently, I heard about a number of assaults on working class people. First off, the GOP will not even talk about raising the minimum wage. Their argument, a total lie, is that doing so will be a job killer. If that’s so, why is that states that raise the minimum enjoy job growth?
No, their answer to that wage is to cut or even eliminate it altogether. One argument goes like this: if you get rid of the minimum wage, an employer can cut the wages of all of his or her workers in half and hire twice as many employees. In no time, we’ll have full employment.
That argument is absurd on the face of it and is clear if you but think about it for all of five seconds. First, if a company has all the employees it needs and cuts its payroll by half, why would it want or need to hire more workers? Second, how are those employees supposed to live on half a paycheck? What, they’ll just get a second or third job to make ends meet? That means they’re taking work away from another person. Now, we’re right back to boosting unemployment.
The next attack is coming in Congress. They want to abolish the rules regarding overtime pay. The argument this time is that some people would prefer comp time, so they could spend more time with their families.
Congress wants to “empower” employees so they can negotiate these matters with their employers. Honestly? A secretary is going to put in fifty, sixty or more hours a week; she is then negotiate how much over time, comp time, if any, she receives. We are going to trust the employer to not take advantage of the workers by making them work long hours week after week before cutting them back to few or even no hours so they don’t have to pay overtime and just call it comp time.
I have been down this road before. Prior to my daughter being born, as a civil engineering drafter, I put in long hours to finish a project. The company wasn’t going to pay me over time, as I was, technically, a salaried employee; ergo the company could do that.
I asked if I could have comp time, once she was born, to be able to stay home a few days with her. The company said no. I then pointed out that the company was not giving my much of an incentive to put forth extra effort they wanted.
Playing the old “company loyalty” card only works when loyalty runs both ways and I was not “feeling the love,” as the saying goes. It was one of the few instances where I felt I had a good bargaining chip. Finally, the company offered a “two for one sale,” so to speak.
For each two days of over time I put in, I’d get one day of comp time. Not perfect, but I was willing to show I was a team player by accepting. I worked long nights and weekends, got the project done in record time, my daughter was born and the company laid me off.
The excuse was that the company was experiencing a work slowdown, which I could understand. The company’s top people had made a miscalculation. They’d gone after huge projects and blown off the little ones, in an effect to grow the company into a major player.
Unfortunately, their strategy had failed. We hadn’t gotten a single big project, the little ones were all drying up and we had no work. Several employees, including me, got the axe. Funny how that works, isn’t it? The people responsible stay on and we working stiffs the company lays off.
I did find it just a tad suspicious that I was one of those let go. As the resident expert on the engineering software we used, I thought I’d be the last to go. The company actually had the nerve to ask me to train the remaining staff in all I knew. Yeah right, teach them in two weeks what it took me six months to learn.
Out of a sense of loyalty to my fellow employees, I gave them a few pointers, but that was all. The idea of company loyalty disappears fast when you feel betrayed. I have a feeling my dad’s loyalty to the GOP would evaporate just as quickly if he was alive today and saw all that they’re doing.
Pity more working stiffs aren’t as smart as does my old man.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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