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The Working Class : How's it feel to unload coffee, to pick cotton? An eyewitness gives us a look into the lives of laborers : HOW TO TELL WHEN YOU'RE TIRED: A Brief Examination of Work, By Reg Theriault (W.W. Norton & Co.: $18; 188 pp.)

October 08, 1995|David Mas Masumoto | David Mas Masumoto is a farmer and author of the recently published "Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm" (HarperSan Francisco)

Reading about the nature of work can be dangerous. I begin to feel guilty about the other tasks I should be doing. But while piles of paper clutter my desk and unanswered phone calls decorate my message center, I feel most burdened by the physical work I have not yet done out on my farm. I know well the meaning of "hard work" as Reg Theriault describes it in "How to Tell When You're Tired."

"Work originally meant moving weight" he writes. "If the object is heavy, moving it is called hard work." From his first job as a box maker in a melon-packing shed in California, then as a fruit tramp working the farms along the West Coast and finally as a longshoreman in San Francisco, Theriault describes his working life with a common-sense attitude and the voice of a worker, not just a writer. Much of the book, however, is dedicated to describing the life of a longshoreman and the continuing struggle between the workers and management.

As the "union man," Theriault laments the decline of working conditions and the status of the common laborer. "All production processes at present, worldwide, strive for more production at the expense of the worker," he writes, and "Accidents are built into the industrial process . . . profit and loss are the principal factors" in decision-making.

He describes a simple test to determine public attitudes about work and status: "Casually remark that you know plumbers who make $30 an hour. It will be a conversation stopper." The ensuing discussion, the author assures us, will reveal "the class to which a person feels he belongs."

The best sections are about work from the perspective of the worker, spoken with the inspiration akin to a common-man Tom Peters and his school of anecdotes:

"When an old-timer says of some younger man that he doesn't want to work, he is usually complaining that the kid hasn't picked up his work habits yet."

"The annoying thing about injuries, all injuries, is that they stay with you."

"Just as in our Southern states a generation or two ago, the longing to get away from looking over a plow at a mule's ass all day long as it plodded down a furrow sent a lot of farm boys north, so now the desperate desire to escape the assembly line has lead a lot of their sons to scrape a few dollars together and buy a truck."

Theriault takes us into the world of the laborer with these and other delightful stories about how it feels to unload coffee, about a cotton picker giving in to human desires and about his own three decades as a union man on the waterfront.

But the author's acid opinion of management is expressed in not-so-subtle ways. "The bosses want, require, more from the worker than they give in return. They are never quite equal. This discrepancy is called profit." Unions, according to Theriault, are not necessarily a panacea. "What has become clear, at least in America," he writes, "is that trade unions and their leadership have no program or ideology of their own. They only respond to the demands of industry and its management."

Theriault describes a phenomenon he calls "taking it easy on the job while someone else covers your work." "Sitting down on the job," at least for some longshoremen, was, in his experience, part of the daily routine. Theriault writes of anyone who might question this attitude: "I'm sorry, but I have searched my mind in vain for a polite way of telling him to go to hell." Even "breaking the machine" is a tactic recommended for workers needing to "take it easy" (though one should first try "merely slowing it down"). The rationale for this attitude is that "management is going to get more out of you than it gives in return. This is a fact of life." "Working on and off" is a way to level the playing field.

I am left with conflicting images. I grin when the veteran longshoreman says, "The first thing you do is you construct yourself a good seat. And the second thing you do is make sure you use it a lot." Yet later I read of the resentment against automation that displaces workers and how "those workers remaining are pushed faster and faster."

As a farmer, I'm torn by the paradoxes of work--I do hard labor but I am also an employer. I understand the difficulty of harsh working conditions that some jobs require--yet I also understand the need to increase productivity because of competition.

"Workers continue to labor under conditions in which their decisions are always subject to overrule by someone else," writes Theriault. That "someone else," at least on my farm, is me--and it is my right to overrule because I own the farm.

"How to Tell When You're Tired" ends hopefully, in a description of the possibility of the "self-directed work situation" and the need to "incorporate workers into the production process." Yet another haunting image remains--perhaps one that shadows much of today's business-labor climate: "When a company gets into trouble, real trouble, it cannot call on its own workers for help, for an honest joint effort to recover its own, its workers' and its nation's economic health."

Workers and managers are often too busy to listen to each other. As managers, we can't distinguish between those who do hard work and who that don't. I plead guilty, for I must end now and go to work--no one else will do my job and it will not get any easier tomorrow.

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