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Inhuman Working Conditions Right Here At Home

by Molly Ivins

Does anybody remember when labor was a beat, right along with business?
OK, it's a great country, but you've got to admit, it is a little strange. One of its strangest aspects is the relative attention paid to fluff compared to the stuff that actually makes a difference in people's lives. Take the-whale-with-rope-around-its-jaw.

I realize this is a trite old argument -- and I yield to no one in my fondness for dogs, cats, birds, fish, hamsters, etc. -- but stay with me for a minute, because there is something truly weird going on. God bless all the humane societies, and the vegans who refuse to wear real leather, and the savers of uncuddly beasties, and everyone who puts time, care and thought into helping other creatures. PBS just ran a wonderfully dotty documentary on "The Natural History of the Chicken." Good on you all.

But an unscientific survey of the Internet since June 10 shows 239 articles about the-whale-with-rope-around-its-jaw, which has also been a popular feature on the nightly network news. The whale's plight, the efforts to rescue the whale and the attendant who-ha are a big-time media attraction, and in my opinion, more interesting than Gary Condit's love life.

During that time, I have seen exactly two articles about some hideous things being done to human beings in this country. One was the July/August cover of Mother Jones magazine titled "The Most Dangerous Job in America," about conditions in the meat-packing industry that make Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle" look tame. The slogan in meat-packing, where workers' body parts keep getting severed with depressing regularity, is, "The line must keep moving." Well, it's not just meat-packing.

The Wall Street Journal, that reliable friend of the working man, ran a front-page article by Timothy Aeppel last week on the trend in manufacturing toward plants that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Aeppel writes of "the unspoken reality of manufacturing: Increasingly it is structured around the machines, rather than the people who run them. The reason is economics. Every hour a costly plant sits idle is a drain on the company's bottom line, something no one can afford in the face of today's sharply slowing economy."

The most common pattern is 12-hour shifts, with a three-day weekend every other week. The stress on workers is grueling. Have you ever worked an eight-hour shift in a factory? Any idea what that feels like when you're getting on toward 65?

Aeppel reports: " Running factories nonstop can take a heavy toll on workers, disrupting homes and relationships. Single parents, Little League coaches, students as well as preachers must contort their lives to meet their schedules, or give up the things they love to do. The pressures affect not only the workers' quality of life, but also their health and safety."

Plastics, tires, toothpaste -- one expert says it's a "massive conversion" to 24/7. What the corporations do is close down about 40 percent of their production facilities and consolidate the work in the remainder. Says Aeppel: "As plants become more automated, they are often designed to run nonstop." The Journal article then goes on to discuss whether alternating day/night 12-hour shifts causes fatigue, stress, depression, accidents and ill-health, as though there might be some doubt about it. Some unions have acceded to the 24/7 demands, while others fight it. Samuel Gompers must be rolling.

Sooner or later, we are going to have to re-think exactly what the point of this society is. If profits are above people, let's just put it out there. We already know illegal workers are cheaper than legal workers. Slave labor would be even cheaper. Hey, manufacturing has to compete in a world market these days.

When anti-globalization protesters first showed up, the media were like Freud on the subject of women: "What DO these people want?" Since Genoa, they have settled on the conventional wisdom that the protesters may have some points, but their message is too confusing -- has too many messages in it. Grave disapproval from the professional harrumphers. You can't have more than one point.

Unless, of course, what's happening permeates your whole life, causing everything from strokes to not being to able to coach Little League. (More than one point there, sorry.) Can't anyone in the media think outside the damn box? Does anybody remember when labor was a beat, right along with business?

Why is "The Fleecing of America" always about some screw-up by government? Doesn't anyone notice that we're getting fleeced by banks and pharmaceutical companies and utilities and energy companies and our HMOs and big, international companies in general? Why is this a non-story?

I know the whale has a rope around its jaw. That's sad. But there's an awful lot of people out here with the equivalent of ropes around their jaws, too.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 31, 2001 (

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