When I set my stack of stuff to the side of the work table at the factory, Dennis noticed my book amid everything. I was reading a pre-release edition of Charles Todd’s upcoming mystery, The Confession, for my blog, and I’d brought it along for lunch breaks. “What’s that you’re reading there?”
“It’s a British mystery. Well, British-style.”
“I don’t know. I just got it. I like what I’ve read so far. And I liked the last book by this author.”
But Dennis wasn’t so much interested in the content as the simple two-tone cover illustration. “I like the picture,” he said. “Who did that, do you know?”
“I can’t say. Pre-release editions generally don’t have all the credits.”
“That’s a really cool picture. I’d like to do something like that.”
“You mean cover art?”
“No, just art in general. I’d love to do comic books, or maybe movie posters and storyboards. I’ve tried to do pictures like that, with the two colors that make it look fully dimensional.” Dennis reached over and touched the picture like it was an original artifact. “I feel like I’m close, I just haven’t gotten there yet.”
I wish we could have had time to finish that conversation. We had work to do, and strangely enough, our bosses wouldn’t take it well if we spoke rather than crunched our tasks. So many questions lingered there, waiting for me to ask.
Like, why does he feel he can’t do that job? What stands between him and the ability to get paid for something he’s good at? And why does he, like so many other workers at the factory, speak of his life in the future tense?
I’ve heard many factory workers talk about what they’d like to do. One young woman, who already has a degree in commercial finance, can’t receive her CPA credentials until she completes two mandated online courses, which she can’t yet afford. Another guy wants to use his Associate’s Degree in diesel mechanics to work for the railroad, but needs to move across the state to get to where the work is.
Just days ago, Dennis and I sat in the lunch room, and he flipped through the photos in his iPhone, showing me the makeup he and his son wore on Halloween. Dennis designed it himself, turning his son into a zombie and himself into a leering death’s head. The complexity was breathtaking. If his comic art matches his makeup skills, he has profound potential alongside the likes of Jack Kirby.
Yet he has stuck to the factory for several years. He has set himself the standard of breaking even. Perhaps he feels that, to feed his family, he needs to defer his hopes. There’s something to say for keeping body and soul together: why shouldn’t he work, if he wants to get paid?
Yet the factory relies on workers who believe they have no other option. As long as workers feel they can’t leave, the company can set wages at any level they want. In fairness, our factory pays more than a lot of employers in our ho-hum town. But in relation to their annual net, workers’ wages represent a drop in the sea.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters have repeatedly decried financiers who use rubber math to enrich themselves without producing goods. Short-selling commodity futures and leveraging one fictional financial instrument against another, and gambling on which will crumble first, have made a self-selecting elite appallingly wealthy. Meanwhile, people who produce marketable goods have seen little wage movement in nearly two generations.
When I hear commentators disparaging the Occupiers, saying people are demanding handouts and wanting something for nothing, I think of Dennis. He doesn’t want anything handed to him. He wants to work, and work hard, at something he’s good at. But because of our economic conditions, he feels he can’t.
Of course, we need people to work in factories, producing goods. Several of my colleagues at the factory enjoy producing filters, and are good at it. Although this isn’t the life I anticipated in graduate school, I’ve discovered I’m pretty good at the factory, and it’s remarkably fulfilling work.
But if hard-working, industrious people can’t get work in fields where they have spent time advancing their skills, where they have proven their ability, that speaks volumes about our economy. This system has let its best people down. The Occupy protesters don’t want freebies and greedy displays. They just want work for people like Dennis.