I Wouldn’t Spend the Summer Laying Around

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Does anybody remember Betty Hutton, the singer and movie actress? Here’s something you haven’t known about her till now: She wore three-and-a-half-inch heels in size 3-1/2 AAA.

In June of 1952 I came home from my second year in boarding school. My sainted father, determined that I wouldn’t spend the summer lying around and grousing about mowing the lawn, found me a job in a shoe factory in the north end of Syracuse. One of his parishioners who was the maintenance man there took me to work and brought me home every day.

If OSHA had existed then, they would have arrived at the factory, taken one look, run back outside, and with a bullhorn have ordered loudly, “Everybody out!”

At five minutes before seven in the morning, an alarm bell warned us to step back from our machines and get ready. At seven on the dot, it rang again, and the long shafts that ran the length of the building began to turn, powering up all the machines. Mine – I’m not sure I can explain it adequately – was a tack-puller. The cobblers up the line wrapped the leather body of each shoe around a wooden last and glued and tacked it to an insole. After the glue dried, my machine pulled the tacks. A little pair of steel points, like the beak of a finch, shot rapidly in and out, yanked them, and spat them onto the floor. Now and then a tack got stuck in the beak, heated red hot, and got spat instead onto my T-shirt, which after a couple of weeks looked as though it’d been peppered with birdshot.

For this menial labor I received the princely sum of $.75 an hour. Nobody else in the factory, except the owner and the manager, spoke English. But, apparently, I was a valued employee; the manager invited me back for the following summer. Would I get a raise? I had a chance at a job at GE’s Electronics Park assembling TV sets for $1.85. Sadly, Mr. Flagler shook his head.

That was a long time ago. The only bright spot in that job was pulling the tacks from Betty Hutton’s sparrow-sized white-and-mint green high-heeled pumps. Just the other day I chatted with a new checkout woman at the supermarket. She’d worked for years at McDonald’s and had just changed jobs. Why? “My starting pay here is the same as I was getting at McDonald’s.”

If you, like me, are a habitué of the internet, you frequently encounter fretting by folks who hate “working my ass off while other people are living on my tax money.” They have a point. But the government support of pandemic-idled and -displaced workers has had an unexpected benefit. Many workers have taken a long look at their former employment, or employer, and decided to look for something better. After forty years of declining wages, that worm appears to be turning.

Employees who have begun working from home since the onset of COVID-19 have found themselves more productive than at the office, and no longer need to commute. Many thousands have adopted dogs they’re unwilling to leave alone for long days and want to be able either to remain at home or bring their dogs to work. It’s hard to believe that a culture that was able to plant astronauts on the moon can’t figure this one out. The alternative will be a spate of exit interviews.

There’s so much on the horizon that’s inevitable, but only recently been revealed to be possible and imminent. Iceland, for example, after leading the way with equal pay for men and women, is now experimenting with a four-day work week. Production has remained steady, and employee well-being has improved. What’s not to like? The Guaranteed Annual Wage, which will keep money circulating and recipients more nearly secure, is being tweaked here and there as we speak. Medicare for All, an idea fighting a heavy tide of established practice, lobbying, and prejudice, will eventually bring us into line with the rest of the industrialized world, save the nation trillions in costs, and improve outcomes by increasing accessibility. K Street must be muzzled!

If there are lessons to be gleaned from this still-threatening pandemic, one of the most important may be that doing business in traditional ways, because that’s the how we’ve always done them, is surpassingly stupid. For the first time in decades, bosses are having to listen to their employees, and having to believe that they probably have important information to share.