Tag Archives: labor

A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick

Photo: Getty Images

Finn Murphy| The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road | W. W. Norton & Company | June 2017 | 22 minutes (5,883 words) 

The following is an excerpt from The Long Haul, by Finn Murphy. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs.

Loveland Pass, Colorado, on US Route 6 summits at 11,991 feet. That’s where I’m headed, having decided to skip the congestion at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Going up a steep grade is never as bad as going down, though negotiating thirty-five tons of tractor-trailer around the hairpin turns is a bit of a challenge. I have to use both lanes to keep my 53-foot trailer clear of the ditches on the right side and hope nobody coming down is sending a text or sightseeing.

At the top of the pass, high up in my Freightliner Columbia tractor pulling a spanking-new, fully loaded custom moving van, I reckon I can say I’m at an even 12,000 feet. When I look down, the world disappears into a miasma of fog and wind and snow, even though it’s July. The road signs are clear enough, though— the first one says runaway truck ramp 1.5 miles. Next one: speed limit 35 mph for vehicles with gross weight over 26,000 lbs. Next one: are your brakes cool and adjusted? Next one: all commercial vehicles are required to carry chains september 1—may 31. I run through the checklist in my mind. Let’s see: 1.5 miles to the runaway ramp is too far to do me any good if the worst happens, and 35 miles per hour sounds really fast. My brakes are cool, but adjusted? I hope so, but no mechanic signs off on brake adjustments in these litigious days. Chains? I have chains in my equipment compartment, required or not, but they won’t save my life sitting where they are. Besides, I figure the bad weather will last for only the first thousand feet. The practical aspects of putting on chains in a snowstorm, with no pullover spot, in pitch dark, at 12,000 feet, in a gale, and wearing only a T-shirt, is a prospect Dante never considered in enumerating his circles of hell. The other option is to keep rolling—maybe I’ll be crushed by my truck at the bottom of a scree field, maybe I won’t. I roll.

I can feel the sweat running down my arms, can feel my hands shaking, can taste the bile rising in my throat from the greasy burger I ate at the Idaho Springs Carl’s Jr. (It was the only place with truck parking.) I’ve got 8.6 miles of 6.7 percent downhill grade ahead of me that has taken more trucks and lives than I care to think about. The road surface is a mix of rain, slush, and (probably) ice. I’m one blown air hose away from oblivion, but I’m not ready to peg out in a ball of flame or take out a family in a four-wheeler coming to the Rocky Mountains to see the sights.

I downshift my thirteen-speed transmission to fifth gear, slow to 23 mph, and set my Jake brake to all eight cylinders. A Jake brake is an air-compression inhibitor that turns my engine into the primary braking system. It sounds like a machine gun beneath my feet as it works to keep 70,000 pounds of steel and rubber under control. I watch the tachometer, which tells me my engine speed, and when it redlines at 2,200 rpm I’m at 28 mph. I brush the brakes to bring her back down to 23. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now. My tender touch might cause the heavy trailer to slide away and I’ll be able to read the logo in reverse legend from my mirrors. It’s called a jackknife. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. In a jackknife the trailer comes all the way around, takes both lanes, and crushes against the cab until the whole thing comes to a crashing stop at the bottom of the abyss or against the granite side of the Rockies.

It doesn’t happen, this time, but the weather’s getting worse. I hit 28 again, caress the brake back down to 23, and start the sequence again. Fondle the brake, watch the mirrors, feel the machine, check the tach, listen to the Jake, and watch the air pressure. The air gauge read 120 psi at the summit; now it reads 80. At 60 an alarm will go off, and at 40 the brakes will automatically lock or just give up. Never mind that now, just don’t go past 28 and keep coaxing her back down to 23. I’ll do this twenty or thirty times over the next half an hour, never knowing if the trailer will hit a bit of ice, the air compressor will give up, the Jake will disengage, or someone will slam on the brakes in front of me. My CB radio is on (I usually turn it off on mountain passes), and I can hear the commentary from the big-truck drivers behind me.

“Yo, Joyce Van Lines, first time in the mountains? Get the fuck off the road! I can’t make any money at fifteen miles an hour!” “Yo, Joyce, you from Connecticut? Is that in the Yewnited States? Pull into the fuckin’ runaway ramp, asshole, and let some
men drive.”

“Yo, Joyce, I can smell the mess in your pants from inside my cab.”

I’ve heard this patter many times on big-mountain roads. I’m not entirely impervious to the contempt of the freighthauling cowboys.

Toward the bottom, on the straightaway, they all pass me. There’s a Groendyke pulling gasoline, a tandem FedEx Ground, and a single Walmart. They’re all doing about 50 and sound their air horns as they pass, no doubt flipping me the bird. I’m guessing at that because I’m looking at the road. I’ll see them all later, when they’ll be completely blind to the irony that we’re all here at the same time drinking the same coffee. Somehow, I’ve cost them time and money going down the hill. It’s a macho thing. Drive the hills as fast as you can and be damn sure to humiliate any sonofabitch who’s got brains enough to respect the mountains.

My destination is the ultrarich haven called Aspen, Colorado. This makes perfect sense because I’m a long-haul mover at the pinnacle of the game, a specialist. I can make $250,000 a year doing what is called high-end executive relocation. No U-Hauls for me, thank you very much. I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs. At the office in Connecticut they call me the Great White Mover. This Aspen load, insured for $3 million, belongs to a former investment banker from a former investment bank who apparently escaped the toppled citadel with his personal loot intact. My cargo consists of a dozen or so crated modern art canvases, eight 600-pound granite gravestones of Qing Dynasty emperors, half a dozen king-size pillow-top beds I’ll never figure out how to assemble, and an assortment of Edwardian antiques. The man I’m moving, known in the trade as the shipper, has purchased a $25 million starter castle in a hypersecure Aspen subdivision. He figures, no doubt accurately, he’ll be safe behind the security booth from the impecunious widows and mendacious foreign creditors he ripped off, but I digress.

I’m looking downhill for brake lights. I can probably slow down, but there’s no chance of coming to a quick stop. If I slam on the brakes I’ll either crash through the vehicle in front of me or go over the side. I want to smoke a cigarette, but I’m so wound up I could never light it, so I bite off what’s left of my fingernails. I’m fifty-eight years old, and I’ve been doing this off and on since the late 1970s. I’ve seen too many trucks mashed on the side of the road, too many accidents, and too many spaced out-drivers. On Interstate 80 in Wyoming I watched a truck in front of me get blown over onto its side in a windstorm. He must have been empty. On I-10 in Arizona I saw a state trooper open the driver door of a car and witnessed a river of blood pour out onto the road.

The blood soaking into the pavement could be mine at any moment. All it takes is an instant of bad luck, inattention, a poor decision, equipment failure—or, most likely, someone else’s mistake.

If any of those things happen, I’m a dead man. Read more…

An Ode to Dishwashers, the Unsung Heroes of the Restaurant Kitchen

Dishwashers Esteban Soc, left, and Joselino Aguilar, right, at work in the kitchen of Mexican restaurant Caracol. (Photo by Scott Dalton for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the Washington Post, food critic Tom Sietsema signed up for a dishwashing shift at Caracol, a 250-seat Mexican restaurant in Houston to experience the job Anthony Bourdain said taught him “every important lesson of my life.”

Dishwashers get paid a median annual wage of $20,000 a year in the U.S. and are a critical component of the restaurant industry. As Emeril Lagasse puts it, “You can’t have a successful service in a restaurant without a great dishwasher.” More restaurants are finding ways to recognize and reward their dishwashers:

After years of performing tasks no one else wants to do — cleaning nasty messes, taking out trash, polishing Japanese wine glasses priced at $66 a stem (at Quince in San Francisco) — the unsung heroes of the kitchen might be finally getting their due.

This spring, chef Rene Redzepi of the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen made headlines when he made his dishwasher, Ali Sonko, a partner in his business. The Gambian native helped Redzepi open the landmark restaurant in 2003. And in July, workers at the esteemed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., one of master chef Thomas Keller’s 12 U.S. restaurants and bakeries, voted to give their most prestigious company honor, the Core Award, to a dishwasher: Jaimie Portillo, who says he has never missed a day of work in seven years.

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A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

The U.S.-Mexico border at the Pacific Ocean. Via Wikimedia Commons.

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…

We Need to Talk About Uber: A Timeline of the Company’s Growing List of Problems

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (Photo by Wang K'aichicn/VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

In a piece for the Financial Times titled “Fire Travis Kalanick,” Kadhim Shubber wrote of the founder of Uber: “One day we will look back at what will hopefully be the smouldering wreckage of Kalanick’s career and ask how a person so lacking in basic human and corporate ethics was allowed to run a company for so long.”

Founded in 2009, Uber was able to portray itself as an underdog “disruptor” into 2012, galvanizing support to beat back city lawmakers in Boston and Washington, D.C. who sought to impose regulations.

But then their practice of surge pricing during crises came under fire when ride prices doubled in New York City after Hurricane Sandy devastated the metropolis in 2012. When surge pricing reached nearly eight times the fare during a snowstorm in 2013, riders got angry.

At first, few reporters took to criticizing the company. When they did, Uber’s public relations machine responded by trashing those reporters in other outlets. When reports of assaults and misconduct by Uber drivers started to roll in, the company responded by claiming they were not responsible for the incidents because the drivers are “independent contractors.”

And since 2013, the missteps and scandals have only continued to pile up. Here is a not comprehensive timeline of all of the trouble Uber has gotten into to date:

January 2014: Pando reported that an Uber driver suspended after assaulting a passenger in San Francisco had a criminal record, including a felony conviction involving prison time. Uber has no explanation for why the driver cleared the background checks that California mandated they run. That same month, outlets nationwide report on the company getting hit with its first wrongful death suit stemming from a driver killing a 6-year-old girl in a San Francisco crash on New Year’s Eve. That driver also had a criminal record that included a conviction for reckless driving. Read more…

For Caregivers from the Philippines, the Israeli Dream Is Fragile

Rose Fostanes won X-Factor Israel in 2014; two years later, she had to leave the country when her visa expired. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In colloquial Hebrew, the word filipinit — a woman from the Philippines — is no longer a simple demonym; Filipinas have dominated the eldercare sector in Israel for so long that it has become a generic term for “caregiver.” In the New York Times Magazine, Ruth Margalit explores the stories of precariously employed women and the complicated bonds of co-dependence and isolation that form between them and the elderly for whom they provide care. Along the way, she revisits a recent episode that highlighted the fragile status of Filipinas in Israel: Rose Fostanes won the local version of The X Factor in 2014, only to be forced out of the country two years later, as soon as her visa expired.

In 2013, the Filipino community in Israel came under an unexpected spotlight when Rose Fostanes, a 46-year-old Filipino caregiver, auditioned for the Israeli version of the singing competition “The X Factor.” A short video clip aired before Fostanes’s performance, mentioning that she lived in South Tel Aviv with three other caregivers: “I love my job because I like to take care of old people,” Fostanes said. The clip drew knowing chuckles from the audience. Short and plump, in a green shirt and jeans, Fostanes represented the unlikely, diamond-in-the-rough heroine audiences love to embrace. Her rendition of Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life” became a national sensation; more than half of all Israeli households tuned in to watch her win the season’s finale. But the praise she received was tinged with condescension: She was shown offering to make a sandwich for the supermodel Bar Refaeli, the show’s host, and the judges kept saying how “proud” they were of her.

After the show ended, Fostanes was supposed to land a lucrative record contract, and she quit her job as caregiver. But her first single failed to sell, and her management company later dropped her. Last year, after a protracted legal battle over her visa status, she returned to the Philippines, where she now makes a living performing in small bars and clubs across Manila. “She got tired of chasing her dream,” a friend of hers, Winston Santos, told me.

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Below Deck: A Dickensian Horror Story

Photo by Pete Markham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The California Sunday Magazine, Lizzie Presser reports on the Dickensian treatment of Filipino workers aboard Carnival Cruise Line ships — where the routine involves 12 and 14-hour days, seven days a week for paltry pay and zero overtime — just to be able to provide better lives for families they rarely get to see. And, if they’re injured on the job? They’re essentially on their own.

When Regie stepped aboard the Sensation, his first ship, he was enchanted. Built by Carnival in 1993, it was huge — 14 stories tall and nearly three football fields long. Regie had never used a dishwasher, but now he was spending ten hours a day, every day, loading and unloading one and steaming pots as big as bathtubs. In his cream-colored, windowless cabin two levels below deck, there was the thrill of waves thudding against the hull, startling him awake. Even the routines felt exciting. He cleaned his navy-blue uniform in the evenings and reported to the kitchen, on deck eight, at 6 each morning.

Regie’s wages washing dishes — which came to about $1.75 an hour — were on the lower end of Carnival’s pay scale. He figured that if he was giving up time with his family, he might as well make as much money as he could.

The salary would be enough to send his kids to private school, and the 48-hour workweek sounded standard. Regie didn’t notice that his $450-a-month pay was fixed, even if he put in up to 70 hours a week. He also didn’t see the clause at the bottom of the third page that barred him from seeking protection under U.S. law if he were injured.

In those early years, Regie never complained. He had accepted that the monthly two-and-a-half “paid leave days” in his contract would not be honored. Instead, he worked every day. If he was lucky, his managers gave him two daytime hours off each week, sometimes four.

In interviews with ten Carnival Cruise Line employees with a combined 70 years of experience on different ships, all said that the number on the Fun Time screen appeared in red when they logged more than ten hours. Room stewards, cooks, and waiters explained that, in these cases, a supervisor would call them, reduce their hours to ten (or, in rare instances, 11), and then ask that employees sign back in to Fun Time to approve the adjusted time sheet.

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Old Dirt: Making Something Out of Nothing

Our truck pulls away, and I watch the sloped farm in the rearview mirror, all yellow and green in the new sun. The mid-morning scene vanishes in a silver chrome flash, and soon, Josh and I are back in the land of traffic lights and brick buildings. Too soon I am back on an airplane, pulling away from these mountains, headed home, where I unzip my suitcase and dump the entire contents into the laundry. Only later—days later, in the odd indoors light—do I notice the sprinkle of dirt I have dropped in the hall. Old dirt . . . the old dirt from Mr. Neal Woody’s farm, now blessing my carpet, tickling my naked toes in the dead of night, shading my dogs’ paws, filling up an inch of my vacuum someday, when I decide it’s time. But for now, old dirt is the best souvenir, for I have North Carolina in my rugs — the farms and flowers and sweet-smelling pines, Josh and Neal, and the misty indigo sunrise. None of that ever goes away. Even now, months later, I can lift the coffee cup to my lip and feel it in my hands, the dirt-brown mug that Josh made — a veritable piece of the Appalachian Mountains, rough as rock and sturdy as stone.

At Letters From Earth, Andrew Evans celebrates the wonders of farming and crafting clay pots — two occupations based on making something out of dirt with honest labor.

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The Chaotic Nature of Working at Victoria’s Secret

Victoria’s Secret employees may be scheduled for more than 30 hours of work across five days in a week, but ultimately work only 10 of those hours, the complaint said. Aside from the logistical hassle of planning life around such an unpredictable schedule, it makes earning a living wage even tougher. At a $9 minimum wage, the difference between 30 scheduled hours and the 10 actually worked turns out to be earning $270 versus $90 in a week, or $1,080 against $360 in a month.

— Shopping mall staples rely on “call-in” shifts, and the legality of this system, which may prevent part-time employees from finding other work and pursuing higher education, is in question. Employees around the country are fighting back, and the ramifications for workers’ rights and financial profit are huge. BuzzFeed News has the story.

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Fair Hours Have Once Again Become a Basic Concern In Worker Organizing

Laundry Workers Union of New York, 1914. Photo by Library of Congress, Flickr

Along with wages and conditions, hours used to be a basic concern in worker organizing. During the heyday of the struggle over hours, in the century before World War II, the demand was always for fewer of them. The “Lowell Mill Girls” agitated for a 10-hour day, and the Haymarket strikers wanted to get down to eight. But since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 enshrined the 40-hour week, hours have tended to be taken for granted. Time was regularized, and thus depoliticized. This is changing only because, in recent years, employers have entered a devastating new race to the bottom: Involuntary part-time is becoming the new norm for low-wage workers, together with schedules so unpredictable and varying that one can’t easily get another job, or go to school, or be a reliable parent.

Now, as a new national movement about work hours gets going, it has focused on more rather than fewer, and at more regular intervals. University of Chicago professor Susan J. Lambert, a collaborator of Gleason’s, is the leading authority on the numbers behind the crisis. Her research has found that 41 percent of early-career hourly workers—people in their mid-20s and early 30s—learn about their schedules a week or less in advance; for African-Americans, it’s 49 percent. Only one in five of these workers has a significant say in when their shifts will be. The hours worked by part-timers in a given week fluctuate, on average, as much as 87 percent. The ingredients of economic crisis, corporate competition, and technology have created “a perfect storm,” Lambert says.

Nathan Schneider writing in The Nation about how unpredictable schedules and “involuntary part-time” positions for low-wage workers have put fair hours at the forefront of the fight for employee rights.

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Why Certain Workers Are More Vulnerable to Wage Theft

The problem of wage theft is not confined to any one industry, ethnicity, size of business, or corporate structure, says Labor Commissioner Julie Su. Each year, California loses approximately $8 billion in tax revenues to wage theft, and Su’s office has investigated millions of dollars’ worth of violations committed by, among others, a hospital, assisted living providers, and a construction project. But restaurants in Chinatown are particularly egregious offenders: A 2010 report by the CPA found that half of Chinatown restaurant workers have had their wages undercut, payments withheld, or tips stolen. A survey of low-wage workers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, performed by the National Employment Labor Project, reveals that close to 85 percent of foreign-born Asians, 78.8 percent of women, and nearly 85 percent of undocumented workers have experienced overtime violations.

Among the most likely victims of wage theft are nonunion workers, people who don’t speak English, and immigrants who lack an understanding of their rights. Not all of the workers involved in the Yank Sing campaign fell into these categories, but many still felt vulnerable. If they went public too soon, if they picketed the sidewalk or stormed the dining room or publicized their story in the media, they risked turning management against them and losing their livelihood— and many of them wanted to keep working for Yank Sing. Their situation was unusual: According to Kao of the Asian Law Caucus, three-quarters of the wage claims received by the organization’s free legal clinic in San Francisco are filed by workers who have already left their job. People who are still employed, notes Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, typically don’t risk such actions without the protection of a union contract.

Vanessa Hua, writing for San Francisco Magazine about a brigade of kitchen workers who successfully fought to recoup $4 million in lost wages from Yank Sing, one of San Francisco’s premier dim sum restaurants.

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