[This essay is a winner of an essay contest held by Left Hook and sponsored by Monthly Review. — Ed.]
During the last two summers, I did not spend my days relaxing on a beach reading great novels and poems. I did not write the grand story I promised myself I would write. Instead, I spent the sweltering days of summer inside a dark, dusty factory, assembling newspapers to earn money to complete my college education.
In the summer of 2004, I was hired to work for a Pennsylvania newspaper. I glowed with a smile and radiated with happiness after I was called to come in for an interview. Hoping to gain more experience in journalism, I imagined that I would learn about page layout and practice writing leads that grab the reader’s attention.
My dreams crashed when I learned after my interview that I would be working in the printing factory. Instead of interviewing interesting people and writing news stories, I would stand in a gritty factory all day and assemble newspapers, but I accepted the job because I needed to make money fast in a few months.
On my first day of work, I watched newspapers fall from machines and roll on conveyer belts. My job was to bounce the newspapers, make them look neat, and place them into carts. As I stood in the factory, I studied the faces of my coworkers. They had big black bags under their eyes and wrinkles on their faces. Their hair was greasy and messy, and their T-shirts were faded. It was obvious that the strenuous job axed years from their lives.
My first day, I ate lunch in the parking lot because I needed to inhale fresh air, instead of the dusty, stale air of the factory. While eating my lunch, I stared at the peaceful blue summer sky. The factory felt like a prison, and I longed for freedom. But I needed money. In Northeast, Pennsylvania, jobs are scarce. I had to take what I could get.
As the days went on, my muscles throbbed and ached. My stomach grumbled with hunger. Shifts were rarely under eight hours, and we only received two brief breaks and a lunch — nothing more. We could never relax because 50,000 newspapers had to be printed and assembled.
To keep myself sane, I talked with my coworkers. Though most of them were older than me, they still chatted with me about horror movies, music, and life. Normally downbeat, my coworkers smiled and laughed . . . perhaps because I was so young and idealistic.
I also wrote poems and short stories during lunch. The factory was so gloomy, bland, and depressing that I was seized with a fear that it would sap my mind, just as it drained my coworkers’ bodies. Writing, or trying to keep my imagination sharp at least, was my defense.
By August 2004, I was ready and eager to leave my job. On my last day of work, I dashed out of the building and drove away. I was elated while driving home, knowing that I could return to school and no longer have to work such a treacherous job.
And yet I felt guilty fleeing the factory and feeling great excitement for returning to school. My coworkers didn’t have the luxury of college. They were working-class people who did not have the same opportunities that I did. Instead of working the job for just a few months, they were stuck in the factory for years. What did they have to look forward to? Every night, they would leave the factory with greasy, blackened hands and return home tired, only to wake the next morning and repeat the same monotonous, mind-numbing routine.
Unfortunately, Northeast, Pennsylvania is a rundown town filled with closed shops and forgotten mines. Few jobs come to the area, so my coworkers had no other options. They stayed in the factory because it was job security. Without college degrees or the wherewithal to move to a bigger city or a different state, they were trapped.
Across the United States, there are many places like Northeast, Pennsylvania, places where there is no work. This problem has not been remedied. Instead of using money to build businesses and rebuild old towns, the government spends billions on bloodshed, fighting unpopular wars in the Middle East. Instead of helping people earn college degrees, the government gives tax cuts to billionaires.
|“[T]he share of state general funds going to higher education has shrunk by more than one-third over the past twenty-five years. Had this share remained constant at 1977 levels (8.9 percent of state general fund budgets), institutions of public higher education would have received, on average, an additional $3,900 for each full-time-equivalent student in 2001” (Ronald G. Ehrenberg and Michael J. Rizzo, “Financial Forces and the Future of American Higher Education,” Academe 90.4 [July–August 2004]).|
|“According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 1999-2000, 76 percent of full time dependent students attending public non-doctoral institutions held a job while attending school. They worked an average of 22 hours per week during school and more hours each summer as well. About one-fifth of them are working 35 hours per week or more. The students are doing their part. Still, the national average of undergraduate student loan debt has nearly doubled in the last decade. . . . Today the debt load for a student finishing college is about $17,000” (Peggy Gordon Elliott Miller, “The Math is Not Complicated,” New York Times [November 2003]).|
Meanwhile, many college students, like myself, struggle to pay for an education. Because tuition constantly increases, I am forced to work dull jobs in the summer. I have the responsibility to make cash fast.
However, I’m still one of the lucky ones. I’ll eventually have a college degree. The meager wages my coworkers make are not enough to pay for college.
To keep workers healthy and motivated, the government must do better. Wages should be raised, and there should be more programs, like grants, to help people gain a college education. Otherwise, kind, hard-working people will continue to receive unjust wages, as they wear themselves out doing hard labor.
I returned to the newspaper factory in the summer of 2005. Though I dreaded the job, I accepted it again because I couldn’t find work elsewhere. When I returned, people welcomed me with open arms.
The routine was the same: we assembled newspapers. However, the shifts worsened. Because the factory had new machines that constantly broke down, it was not uncommon for us to work 11- or 12-hour days. More grueling shifts didn’t get us extra breaks or another lunch. Our throats burned with thirst, and our muscles hurt. My coworkers cursed the bosses, but they never did anything. An activist, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t. If they hated working such long shifts and wanted to go home to their families, why didn’t they speak up?
Looking back on the job, I realize my coworkers did not speak up because they feared losing their jobs. If they were fired, where would they go? Daily, my coworkers browsed the paper, hoping to find an ad for a new job, but they never did. Instead of quitting, they stayed in the factory. They mumbled under their breath, but they never spoke out against the long hours and few breaks.
There are many people across the United States who are locked in factories or bound to jobs they dislike, but they don’t leave because they don’t have the proper credential for something better, or there are no other jobs where they live. The government forgets the people who are the country’s tired and poor . . . for they appear content. The government will not change until its oppressed roar, picket, and protest — like union men and women who did decades ago.
Brian Fanelli is 21 years old, a senior at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. His major is comparative literature, and his minors are journalism and creative writing. He is active in peace and global justice movements.