The hardest work I’ve ever done has been for the least amount of money. Luckily it was only for short periods of time, but I can’t imagine facing that kind of work for pennies for the rest of my life and then having to ask the government to help me make ends meet while my body hurts and my spirit is damn near broken at working 40 hours and not being able to support a family.
I’ve only had two truly difficult jobs in my entire life. The first was before my freshman year of college when I needed a summer job and my parents bet me that I couldn’t handle manual labor.
(Looking back, this was the period where we were supposedly trying to rebuild our relationship after my coming out in junior high went so badly and here they go basically telling me I was too much of a sissy to do blue collar work. Shady shady old Black people…)
My mom & dad definitely tricked me. We went to a factory where they assembled torque rods. The plant manager took me to this assembly station where these middle-aged women were sitting on stools with all their little buckets of parts around them, putting together torque rods for lawnmowers. There was a metal bar with a hole in each end. (I blocked out most of that summer from my memory so I don’t remember the names for any of the parts, but I could still put one together if I had to). You took a bar and squeezed a little bit of blue lube from a grease gun around the rim of each hole at the end. Then you put in a ball bearing, some more grease, and a big metal ring kind of like a washer. You put that end onto a machine and pull the lever to stamp it closed. Then you squeeze some grease into a plastic cap, put it over the end, and put it into another machine that slides a metal ring over it to keep the cap in place. Then you rotate your bar over to do the same process to the underside of the ball bearing. After that, you flip the bar over and repeat the process for the other end. Rotate the bar over and do the underside. Then you’re done. That’s one torque rod.
These women were just chatting away with their little radio playing, assembling torque rods and making conversation. I was like “piece of cake. I can totally do this” and I told the plant manager I would take the job.
The head of the Lawnmower Ladies had gone to high school with my mom and she told me what an easy job it was. The plant manager had gone to trade school with my dad and he told me if I was as hardworking as my dad, I would do really well there.
They were all liars.
I reported for work the next day for training met with the manager in his office. I expected my trainer to be one of the Lawnmower Ladies, but this big white guy had to be at least 6’5 and 250 lbs of hard living. He looked like he was strong as an ox and ate one for dinner every night too. He shook my hand – crushed every bone in it – and led me to the work floor. We walked past the Lawnmower Ladies who all waved at me. We passed by an area that I later came to realize was the place where most of the torque rods for cars were made, and we finally ended up in the very back of the work floor full of large parts and larger machines. This is where they made torque rods for big rigs. And this is where I would be working. Each bar itself was between 10 and 25 lbs and each ball bearing was about 5 lbs. At the time I was about 5’9, 140lbs, and I was expected to pick up the bar, put it on the assembly area, drop a ball bearing into each side, assemble and stamp, rotate the bar, assemble and stamp, flip the bar, assemble and stamp, rotate the bar again. And I was supposed to make between 100 and 150 a night.
Had it just been me, I would have walked out, but I really couldn’t bear to prove my parents right. “You think I can’t do blue collar work? Fine. I’ma do the blueingest collar work and be fierce at it.“
Anyway, that big tree of a man must have been the supervisor for that area because when he spoke, everyone stopped their convo and turned to hear what he had to say. “Listen up. This here is Rafi and he’s gonna be working at station four across from me. If he needs something get it for him if I ain’t around.” And that was my introduction to factory life. (That was also my first brush with grown-ass heterosexual men in decidedly uncharacteristic surroundings for an effeminate gay man to be in. Surprisingly enough, I’m still friends with one of them on Facebook but that’s a heartwarming story of tolerance for another time ::cue NBC AfterSchool Special Music::)
The process of making a torque rod isn’t hard – you just have to make sure all of the parts are lined up and assembled correctly before you activate the machine to stamp it tight – but that much weight over and over and over for eight hours ain’t cute at all. I made it through my first shift OK, but when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t walk. My legs didn’t work, I couldn’t raise my arms, and I felt like I had slept on a bed of rocks. I was three hours late to work because I had to soak in some Epsom salts while reevaluating my life. By day three I was getting blisters on my hands. By the beginning of the next week I had hemorrhoids.
But I stuck it out because I was determined to prove to my parents that I could be a sissy and still do hard work. (I was a misguided youth laboring under the false dichotomy of what “real men” should do and believing I’d gain respect by proving my “worth as a man.” We were all lost at some point, don’t judge me.)
A month into the job, I had gotten into the swing of things. My supervisor said I had a “knack” for lining up the parts correctly every time so I rarely had to redo or scrap a rod. He set me up with a large order that was impossible to fill in one shift – something like 700 parts for Volvo – so that I wouldn’t have to switch out the machinery or alter the process between changing from one type of torque rod to another, and I got to steadily pound away with just a break for lunch and a break to pee. My bonus for setting the record was a whole $20 and a certificate that I still have. I was proud of myself because I had accomplished something I didn’t think I’d be able to, but nothing in me was excited about my paycheck every week.
I went through all of that for $8 an hour. My first office job in NYC I made a few times that amount and I spent 80% of my shift watching movies on Youtube, chatting on Facebook, and updating my blog.
Most of my jobs after the torque rod factory were retail jobs. I was personable, not that ugly, and I could count money. I worked in retail all through college and my first years in NYC, finally leaving retail to work for a concierge company. I quit that job after Fashion Week and the Super Bowl descended on NYC back-to-back and I was just completely over playing virtual fetch for rich folks with too much money and no common sense. I needed to decompress and find a job with no stress and little responsibility and I thought working in a juice bar would fit the bill. How hard can it be to smile and make smoothies?
I lasted 6 shifts before I quit and went back to office work. Standing up for 8 hours with barely any down time while rich people (only rich people spend $100 on a supply of juice for a week or $12 for some mashed up fruit) are standing around rudely acting like they will literally die if they don’t get their order in the next 90 seconds. That “customer is always right” bullshit is annoying to deal with in clothing stores, but it’s amplified to the nth degree in any kind of food service with a counter. “We’re out of pineapple right now.“ I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS! I WALKED ALL THE WAY DOWN HERE SPECIFICALLY FOR THIS SMOOTHIE! “I’m sorry, I believe this was made with chocolate whey instead of vanilla whey.” WHY CAN’T YOU PEOPLE DO ANYTHING RIGHT? I SWEAR EVERY TIME I COME IN HERE. “Wait, slow down just a second, you want the #3 but substitute spinach for kale? There are no leafy greens in this. Did you just want to ADD spinach?“ THAT’S WHAT I SAID. ARE YOU AN IDIOT? OMG JUST LISTEN.
It took everything in me not to throw a smoothie in somebody’s smug ass face. But I stood back there for six shifts with a fake smile plastered on my face. For $9 an hour.
During my 3rd or 4th shift, one of my old bosses from the concierge job came in and asked (with all the surprise and incredulity in the world), “you’re working HERE???” Why would *I* – a college educated 20-something with a deep resume – deign to work with the lower class slinging juice for pennies? To be honest, it should have made him take a look at the office he was running since one of his best employees quit suddenly to take a pay cut and make juice, but that’s beside the point.
The point is we know what the cashiers and the baristas and the smoothie makers and the burger flippers make, and we look down on them. We’ve separated the workforce into employment by class. We expect certain people to bag our groceries, certain people to make our Big Mac, certain people to write on our Starbucks cup, certain people to find a size Medium in the back, and certain people to hand us a wine list. There’s a hierarchy at play even though none of those jobs are all that dissimilar from one another. We give more respect to the waiter who tells us the specials over a white tablecloth than the guy who blends our smoothie, but the biggest difference is environment. They both have to remember ingredients and pretend to care about what you want. They both have to be well-versed in the available options to be able to make a suggestion for people who have no idea what they should choose.
That assignation of worth doesn’t just affect wages and the uphill battle to raise the minimum wage to a livable standard. It also affects perception and how we view different segments of society. I recommend Kate Norquay’s entire article about her years working at McDonald’s but this part is especially pertinent:
McDonald’s is supposed to be a job for people who can’t do anything else. I noticed that the majority of entry-level jobs didn’t hire people who looked like the people I worked with.
At McDonald’s, there were people with disabilities, overweight people, people who weren’t conventionally attractive, people who couldn’t speak much English, young teenagers and a lot of racial diversity. These people made up the backbone of the store. They were respected as some of our best workers.
Then I would look at a store like Starbucks, and the majority of the time, I would see people who looked like me. White, early 20s, reasonably attractive, slim, English speakers.
This was the bias that both me and the people around me were applying to my job. I meet the criteria for a “good” job at a clothing store. People who come from good backgrounds aren’t supposed to end up in McDonald’s alongside those who couldn’t do better if they tried.
If you’re a white girl in your early 20s, you will be ridiculed for working at McDonald’s. But I don’t think the same applies for disabled people or middle-aged immigrant women, for example. Their friends aren’t quietly snickering, “When are you going to get a real job?” Because this is the job we expect them to have.
We’ve assigned worth to jobs and we’ve also assigned jobs to people, so we’ve also assigned worth to people. We’ve told certain people that they belong behind the cash register at Wal-Mart or they belong over the fryer at McDonald’s and we’ve decided that those people don’t deserve a decent standard of living. The minimum wage fight isn’t really about whether or not you deserve more money for making a hamburger. It’s really about whether society’s failures and undesirables deserve as much money as everyone else.
McDonald’s is the face of the minimum wage fight, not the Lawnmower Ladies working in the torque rod factory because we know what the workers at McDonald’s look like, and it’s easier demolish support for raising wages by associating those wages with the less-educated, less-attractive, less-AMERICAN worker giving you a bag of saturated fat. In some respects, working in a factory is about as American as it gets since it was our manufacturing prowess that solidified the middle class after World War II. I was making $8 an hour for backbreaking work in a good ole American factory, but nobody is putting that in the same conversation with the fry guy or the smoothie maker. The two hardest jobs I’ve ever had in my entire life, the most physically and mentally demanding undertakings I’ve ever put myself through, were for the least amount of money. That’s why I support raising the minimum wage. They are doing the jobs that have to be done that nobody else wants to do, but we pay them pennies to do it because we’ve assigned them a place in society and that’s where they must stay. Even if they wanted to, it’s impossible for everybody to move up the ladder of employment because capitalism is a pyramid and somebody has to be at the bottom.
If you have any doubts about the minimum wage, I implore you to take a sabbatical from your decent salary to go flip burgers or fill a quota in a factory beside real people who are facing that for the rest of their lives. Look them in the face and tell them they don’t deserve a decent standard of living. Tell them they should 40 hours a week in a thankless job just to stand in line for government benefits so they can feed their families. I have to believe that in my heart nobody can actually do that to another person one on one and face to face.