Posts Tagged ‘jobs’

The Company Store

I just started watching a show that takes place in a turn-of-the-century coal mining town in Canada. It’s a Hallmark show that’s clearly shaping up to be a romance, so it’s rather saccharin, but it’s pretty cute nonetheless.

The show is about a silver-spoon sort of city girl who takes a position as a teacher out in this coal mining town. The mothers of the town had hired her to give their children the sort of education that would keep them from having to go into the mines themselves when they grew up. As if that weren’t challenge enough- three months before the teacher arrived, there had been an explosion in the mine, leaving a large chunk of her students suddenly without fathers. They only found the last of the bodies when she got there. This, of course, left a lot of widows in company housing without husbands to work in the mines to pay for the company housing.

This is a Hallmark show, so it does its best to gloss over much of the reality of working and living in a company town. However, by episode two, the notices had gone out to evict the widows and children from the company housing to make room for the miners the boss was looking to bring in. The teacher is working with the widows to try and figure out how they can stay in their own homes. She comes up with a solution that has a legal precedent and goes about setting it in motion. It’s thwarted because the supplies she needs would be from the company store and are suddenly unavailable for her to purchase.

If you aren’t familiar with what a company store was, they were a brilliant (devious, terrible) way for the boss to keep both the profits and the workers within the company. Mining towns were notorious for them. I believe railroad towns also frequently used them. It was an option for basically any business model that took their workers and isolated them away from any other store options. If the company store is the only place that you can buy your food, clothes, and other necessities, then that’s what you did. You paid the outrageous prices, you took on debt if you couldn’t pay cash, and, as the song says, you owe your soul to the company store. It wasn’t uncommon to work for the company until you died, trying to pay the debts you couldn’t avoid racking up.

What does this long-winded report on a slightly silly tv show have to do with anything? After all, we don’t have company stores anymore. There’s almost no way to isolate workers away from any and all forms of purchasing power. We all drive past Walmarts, Targets, and malls and have the right to stop in and spend our money in any or all of them as we see fit (or can afford). Sure we have debt, but it’s not to our employer. It’s to a bank or a credit card company. Totally different than that coal mining town.

Or is it? Look at America. The bulk of us work for anything from lousy to crap wages. Maybe an iPhone isn’t quite the necessity that a ribbed wash-board was in the coal town, but the advertising that we are immersed in sure wants us to think it is. So we pay out all of our cash for things that we need. Then we take on debt for things that we need but can’t afford. Then how do we pay this debt? We keep going to the soulless job with the crap wages because we don’t have/can’t see any other options. But between the things we still need and the money we aren’t making, our debt only gets worse.

Maybe we think company stores don’t exist because we have nothing to compare them to. Can’t see the forest for the trees and all that. I have been trying to think of companies that I know that are, say, 80% free from the corporate world. I think I came up with a small handful, but most of them are tiny, struggling, and unlikely to be noticed outside of niche communities in their town. There are few to no viable options outside of what has become normal. Normal, of course, being items that we are told we need produced in massive amounts with the absolute minimal inputs and created to be worn out in no time flat.

I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, here. I’ve gotten over that. What I am saying is that the bosses are still more than able to keep the profits and the workers exactly where they want them. Has America become the company town for the wealthy elite? Have we all become workers in a coal town with no prospects and no future away from what is right in front of us? I don’t want to be right about this, but I’m also having a hard time seeing where this logic train could have gone wrong.

So . . . now what?

Farm Lesson: Weathah

I had another idea for the first lesson, but part of farming is the ability to roll with what life throws you. That means that this lesson is currently more important.

In my family, we recognize two kinds of weather. Weather is sun, rain, clouds, snow- no big deal. Weathah, on the other hand, is when you batten down the hatches and put on your sou’wester because the nor’easter is going to beat the tar out of you. Not being a coastal state, Colorado doesn’t really go in for nor’easters, but we do have our own versions of weathah. One of the worst types for farmers being hail. Overnight between August 25 and 26, the farm got nailed by hail. The hail itself wasn’t so big, but it just kept coming until most of our plants were little more than stems, their leaves all shredded. This would have been bad if it had happened in spring or the early summer when most hail strikes, but because it hit at the end of August, it’s devastating.

The reason that this hail is devastating rather than just a royal pain is because it’s too late in the season for most of the plants to recover. Many of our crops have already set the fruit they were going to set and don’t have time to set new. This is particularly true of the winter squash that I’ve been looking forward to since May when we planted them. We are able to start harvesting many of them anyway, but we found very few that look like they’ll be able to keep the way they usually should. I’m starting to think of things in terms of self-sufficiency, and having squash that won’t sell well is one thing, but if this were being harvested to be our carbs for the winter, we’d be in serious trouble. Our potatoes are in great shape, since they were hidden underground, but just potatoes for carbs gets pretty boring.

The other aspect of this is that we went from too many jobs and not enough hands to not enough jobs and too many hands. If the farm weren’t backed by PPCF, most or all of us would have been out of a job on the 26th. As it is, our hours are being cut because there just isn’t enough to do. As a farm employee, I knew that the work would go from crazy to nothing pretty much overnight, but that wasn’t supposed to happen for another month and a half or two months. However, I also know that this is a job that tends to be feast or famine. Rather literally. When you can plan and prepare for the down times, they can be a wonderful break from the intensity of the work. However, this wasn’t in the plan. Having some extra time of is pretty nice, but it’s going to be less nice when I get the smaller paycheck.

We are telling our customers what happened and that we will have less to offer for the rest of the season, but I got the impression that only some of them realized what this actually means. I think most of them are so accustomed to going from farm stand to farm stand at the market and then picking up anything else they need at the grocery store on the way home, that our lack of produce means very little. They’ll just get it somewhere else. It’s not their fault, we’ve been conditioned this way for 50+ years. However, something like this could spell the end of a small farm, which would mean one less producer of local food. You can only always get it “somewhere else” as long as food is being brought in from “somewhere else.”

What this lesson is really driving home for me is the fragility of our food system. Whether you “believe” in climate change or not, I think it’s getting pretty clear that weather is getting more extreme. It’s not going to be long before weathah is as common as weather, and that’s a problem. For the time being, we can import what we need, but what happens if California dries up or, worse, falls into the ocean? What happens when gas gets so expensive that it’s not worth shipping food half-way across the country- or world- to us? How are we going to handle an already delicate food system that is going to be battered by too much need and not enough predictability of growing conditions? I don’t know, but we need to figure it out.

Giving Jobs to China

I just finished watching Death By China. I’ve been saying for a little while now that China was grooming us to take us over. I thought I was kidding.

China joining the World Trade Organization and opening their borders to trade was sold to us in the ’90s as a good thing. We would make goods in America and ship them to China. That didn’t exactly happen. Since they joined the WTO in 2001, we have lost 57,000 manufacturing plants and something along the lines of 5.5 million jobs. Good jobs.


I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that losing 5.5 million manufacturing jobs also kills all of the jobs that supported them- maybe as many as half a dozen per job. We’ve seen pictures of Detroit. When the factory goes, that’s it. Bear in mind that it seems like the big businesses knew this was going to happen. They knew that when China was opened for trade, they’d just skedaddle over to the country that doesn’t have minimum levels of pay, or safety, or environmental concern.

There are several problems with this situation. Number one is that there are lots of Americans that are willing and able to work that simply don’t have the option. If there aren’t any jobs to be had, then there aren’t any jobs to pay the bills. People complain about a nanny state and a welfare state, but a welfare state is the logical conclusion to shipping the available jobs elsewhere.

The second problem is a total lack of quality control. This covers everything from worker’s health and wellbeing to the quality of the products themselves. Most of the products aren’t worth repairing when they break which supports the current throwaway culture. Worse than that? All of the products, including food, that have been recalled because they’re dangerous. If an American company had the reputation that Chinese products do, they’d be drummed out of business. But, hey, who cares if it’s killing you or killing the people that made it if it’s cheap enough?

The last one, the one I hadn’t realized, is that all of the money we funnel into China is supporting their large and growing military. If you remember your history, one of the major reasons that the North won the Civil War was because they were the manufacturers. The South had all the cotton they could want, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to turn that cotton into uniforms. Or guns. So the North cut them off from imports and trounced them with freshly-manufactured weapons. In a war, the “service jobs” that they’re pushing Americans toward are about as useful as a plantation full of cotton without a weaving mill. At the moment, we cannot build a military plane without Chinese parts. If they choose to cut us off, or worse- sabotage the parts, we’re in the same position that the South was in. The losing position.

So what does this mean? Don’t buy from China. I don’t care how much cheaper it is. If you can’t buy local, then buy American. If you can’t buy American (we don’t make microwaves anymore) then buy an import from anywhere but China. Don’t give them your money, and don’t support “American” companies that have given away our jobs.

We also need to get our government to stop allowing the Chinese to bamboozle us. If they are going to manipulate the currency, then we slap them with an import tariff to make up the difference. If they are going to soot up their country, then we charge them for the excess carbon they’re dumping into the sky they share with the rest of us.

I think this is a situation where we trust in Allah, but also tie up our camels. The government needs to get their heads out of their butts and help us out, but they owe so much money to China and their corporate overlords are so happy with the current state of things that I’m not sure how much they can do. So we push them to help us but also take steps to help ourselves. We start small businesses to make products worth having. We shop at our neighbor’s business instead of WalMart. Either our government will be able to do their job and protect us, or we’re going to rebuild our economy anyway.

The documentary started and ended with a plea to remember that the Chinese people are not the same as the Chinese government. I think this is a very important distinction to make. The people are suffering from low wages, dangerous working conditions, and the most degraded environment in the world. This isn’t their fault, and I doubt they’d keep things as they are if they had any say in the matter. If we can stop our insatiable demand for cheap products, then that will remove a lot of the drive for their government to treat them so badly. Buy American to improve the lives of the Chinese.