I have never liked the feeling of breathlessness. That may seem unremarkable, but I spent much of my younger years as a competitive athlete and there are few sports that don’t require physical exertion. So what I’m calling breathlessness, is commonly referred to as “being winded” in athletic circles. I find the expression imprecise and it masks the actual experience of being out of breath. It’s an extremely uncomfortable experience. I can almost trace my decline as a competitive runner in terms of my efforts to avoid the feeling of my lungs being on fire. Thus, I knew that I did not want to spend my life playing sports where the terms of participating persistently recall death and dying. For example, runners refer to the buildup of lactic acid in their legs as “rigging,” as in rigor mortis and most runners tend to “die” at the end of races. I didn’t like racing against the clock.
Now I want to control my time and how I spend it. I chose a profession that I thought would allow me maximum control of my time. When I had jobs that required eight hour commitments, I was miserable. And just think, an eight hour work day is an improvement in labor conditions. When 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis in 1968, one of the things they were protesting against was their lack of control over their labor.
In detailing his experience as a sanitation worker, James Robinson offers the following description of his hours on the job in Michael Honey’s book Black Worker’s Remember:
When I first started to work, I started out in east Memphis. Our route was from Sumner, back across to Poplar, everything north of White Station. Depends on how much territory you had to cover. You had to cover that in a week. You had to stay out there as long as it would take you. You’d work ten, twelve hours a day. But you didn’t get paid but for eight. You stayed out there until you’d get through. We were out there sometimes ’til dark. You’d start at seven o’clock in the morning, no extra for overtime.
Without overtime or even the guarantee of receiving full remuneration for an eight hour day, full-time workers for the sanitation department were still eligible for welfare.
I came of age in the wake of the successes of union efforts but I was still well aware of how deadening blue collar work could be. Workers were not permitted very much creativity over their labor or their time. They were told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Nonetheless, these jobs provided families with adequate wages and healthcare benefits. If you missed Michael Moore’s film Roger & Me, I highly recommend it. The film documents the devastating impact of General Motors Chairman Roger Smith’s decision to downsize the workforce in the Flint, Michigan plant.
It earns its spot among the top 50 documentaries you must see. I haven’t seen the film discussed much in terms of the current crises facing unions but it should be. Tying popular culture to actual experience might be the way to help people to identify with the challenges facing union workers.