Wednesday, May 03, 2006

el primero de mayo

Entirely by coincidence, I was in and around Union square most of Monday afternoon and evening.

A few businesses closed that might otherwise have benefited from the turn-out. Pie by the Pound on 4th Ave was shuttered with a simple note taped up "Out of solidarity with...." Most places were open and light clientele seemed adequately served by light staffing. At 10:30, the crowd and the colorful banners had begun to fill the square. The noise resounded in the brick and glass canyons feeding into the square. A scruffy band of white kids who looked more like NYU students dressed to trick-or-treat as the revolting proletariat strike force, marched north from Washington square to meet up with the rally at Union square. They were chanting "fight for the people, ..." and waving red flags. No one else, passerby, spectator or marcher seemed to share that shrill, overwrought demeanor. It was much more a celebratory pause to come out and reveal [and revel in] their numbers than a protest.

By noon, sporadic drumming punctuated the din By 4:00 the crowd, barely contained by police barricades, chanted and circled the overflowing square. By 5:30 or 6:00, the loud carnival began to stream down Broadway. Still, the only persons I saw upset by this were the people who tried to move about lower Manhattan in their cars...these would be either out-of-towners or persons without other choices. The MTA ground on with its usual gritty reliability. Most lookers on just looked on. It takes a lot to raise an eyebrow in New York, NY. I need to be blunt about this: no one looked threatened. No one looked threatening. The most common sentiment I saw on placards or heard from marchers was that they thought America was a great county. Contrasting their exuberance about being here with the discontents you will read in this blog, you'd think those conservatives who have,for the last six years, been chanting "right or wrong, its my country" would embrace this crowd.

As we made our way down Broadway in search of dinner, we were in the midst of the parading. Like so many others, we snapped a few pictures. Counting cell phone cameras, there must have been a million pictures taken Monday. In the middle of this throng, there was no vibe or hint of a hunting pack. They were not here to take anything. They were here to give themselves the reassurance of their own multitude.

This triggers an ancient memory. I grew up on a farm in California in the '50s. Some days, I'd go to the field with my father and these men who had no English, big grins and the hottest damned pickled peppers you ever got near. We didn't hire migrant workers, we hired guest workers. The history of Mexican guest laborers in the US has little that either country should be proud of. [ the bracero program depressed wages for all crop pickers] We would pick up a crew at a barracks-like camp when the tomatoes were ripe and they would pick and load lug boxes all day long. They laughed easily, shrugged off the wear and tear of their jobs, mostly stayed sober and saved their wages. And come September or October, they were back on a bus to Mexico [or maybe just to the border] with no insurance and no retirement plan beside that roll of bills in their pocket. Running a family farm on razor thin margins doesn't provide insurance either. It took my folks 15 years before conceding that neither luck nor hard work could make a go of farming leased land. After the Labor Department shut down the Bracero program, dad complained none of the people he picked up at the day labor offices near skid row in Sacramento ever worked out. I have since learned dad's nostalgia for that program may have been misplaced. It was a stopgap, the death throes of a 19th century economics of farming when "farm hand" was not seasonal work but might have been a career that included room and board. To set a table with unmechanized food production [grapes, melons] along side fully mechanized production [wheat, corn, beet sugar] required either honest price differences or dishonest pay scales. Going with the latter, our country poked holes in its borders and in our expectations that have never been repaired. Just because you cannot reduce the labor content of a service or product does not establish any logic but greed by which you could lower the wages entailed. The darkest and least civilized harms that lurk in the ironic shadows of a civilization might be dispelled if the "civilized" could just say of some things "we can't honestly afford that". The wage disparities that move people across our borders will have no permanent solution until they have a just solution: prices would go up. Would we accept that? Would we laugh as easily at our hard lot as those braceros did, as easily as the "undocumented" busboys and chamber maids swarming in Union Square do?

Here are some questions for which I no longer feel I have sound answers. They are all about "wedge" issues wrapped up in the illegal immigration debate. These wedges will force employers to take sides and congress to talk out of both sides of its mouth.
  • Do the affluent fear the poor who can vote less than they fear the poor who have no vote?
  • Do the employers fear the workers who have no legal protection?
  • Could the marginally profitable businesses who seem to need the support of exploitable labor get by with the support of an understanding consumer?
  • Did NAFTA move enough low-skill, low-wage jobs from US to Mexico to reduce illegal immigration below levels it might otherwise have reached?
  • Do jobs that pay poverty level wages and provide no health benefits create more demand for tax-funded services [police, fire, ER, schools] than they fund via income and other taxes? I.e., what is the real cost of an underpaid worker and hasn't the employer shifted some of these costs to other taxpayers while keeping most of the benefits of the labor?
  • Does the world owe a living to a businessman who sells an uncompetative service or product?
  • Do the poor who worry about losing their job fear the poorer who worry about finding a job?
  • How high a wall do you have to build around a country to stop employers from needing low cost labor?
  • Has any society lived "well" without the unheralded support of an underclass? If so, what were their labor, tax and immigration policies like?
I do not want my story to end like this: "I once lived in a country that became too lazy to earn its contentments. Instead, they wanted cheap drugs which they could not make and cheap labor they were ashamed to perform. Both came from the same places and this country became addicted to both. This addiction made them blind to the connection between the market they provided and the holes in the fence through which that market was supplied. Only the holes in the fence alarmed them."

6 comments:

etbnc said...

I showed up late to this party, but it's a good one. That's an interesting, inquiring essay.

You ask some insightful questions, such as: "...what is the real cost of an underpaid worker and hasn't the employer shifted some of these costs to other taxpayers while keeping most of the benefits of the labor?"

Ah...externalities! Those hidden fudge factors that make our conomy appear to work.

Later, you ask, "Does the world owe a living to..." (some particular set of humans)?

But when we ask that question, we don't really mean "the world", right? Don't we really mean, "Do humans owe humans a living?"

Does that question apply to any other species?

What happens if we reframe it: Does the world owe a living to rabbits? Do rabbits owe a living to rabbits? Or do they just know how to live within the world in which they evolved?

How did one species reach the point where it forgot how to live according to the principles that worked for most of its history?

GreenSmile said...

How did one species reach the point where it forgot how to live according to the principles that worked for most of its history?


Not to mention: "and worked for most of the other species." There ARE some mass extinctions that may have "human caused" on them: Many large game animals vanished form north america about the time the first "natives" made large incursions onto the continent. As a moral question, the "who owes whom a living" is rarely asked. It got an implicit answer throughout all of what I will call the era of natural history: preditors will eat prey until the populations reach a sustainable ratio, perturbed by climate but otherwise oscillating about an average.
Natural history ends when you have a predator that can just keep switching prey as it wipes out one thing after another. That ability to switch, more or less unprecedented in the history of the world, spells the end of natural history. We take a piece of ground and we don't move on until nothing will grow there and nothing to eat lives there any more.

The ecologists are the first to be alarmed...some I think are now in states of shock or profound depression.

We are, along with our special ability to make food out of everything, also the first species that could, if it chose to, view the world as a closed system, as "spaceship earth" in the parlance of Buckminster Fuller. I think we passed the point where that view was optional...now we need that view to survive. And as a principle for sustaining life, it has echos in the smaller spheres like the economy or just how we will get along with the neighbors.

I was not addressing ecological or sustainability with my questions but the same wholeness in grasping the problem that eludes most of the people shouting solutions to the illegal immegrant problem also applies to bigger contests...you have made a valid extension of the

etbnc said...

Excellent follow-up! Thanks for continuing the dialog. Looks like your comment was cut off, unfortunately. Do you have more to say?

GreenSmile said...

...you have made a valid extension of the pattern to a larger scale problem.

I really appreciate the comments, etbnc.

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