Working to Live, Living to Work

Column by George Sibley

Mountain Life – August 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING the mountain valleys — _not the specter of a working-class revolt against the owning class, but the specter of no working class at all.

Well, it will probably never be quite that desperate. But for the past half decade or so, changes in the local economy, amplified by changes in the national and global economies, are creating interesting new labor problems for retailers, restaurateurs and other service businesses in the mountain towns dependent on tourists and resort vacationers.

Part of the problem is a growing shortage of resident people willing to work for near minimum wages in towns with high costs of living (primarily housing). This problem has been exacerbated by the booming second home construction industry; men and women alike can start as grunt laborers for contractors at wages 50 percent or more higher than restaurateurs, shopkeepers and hoteliers can afford.

Here in the Upper Gunnison valley, some restaurants and shops have had to cut business hours due to a lack of workers to fill their shifts. Large employers are now importing planeloads of seasonal workers from Mexico, Africa and Europe, and it appears to be only a matter of time until someone fills a business niche importing permitted workers for small businesses too.

But a more subtle part of the problem seems to be attitudinal: employers complain that the locals who will work don’t seem to have a good “work ethic.”

“Job applicants don’t ask about wages and benefits,” one shopowner said; “they start by telling me what hours they are willing to work, and when they are going to need a long weekend for a kayak trip or whatever.” They call in sick on powder days. There are other “attitude” problems, mostly concerning mixtures of surliness and patronization with customers, and then there’s the matter of dress, body piercings, et cetera.

But, while this is a real problem for business owners in the mountain valleys, I think blaming the “working class” for losing the “work ethic” — or at least expecting that reform should come from the workers — is a narrow and nostalgic approach that is not going to achieve much. The “work ethic” needs a little analysis.

The epitome of the pure work ethic in this valley has always been the immigrant coal miners — “pure” because, unlike the ranchers who work hard, and the shop owners and restaurateurs who work hard, the miners had no ownership in what they did; it was straight work for wages — the dirtiest, most dangerous work imaginable, and for the meanest wages the companies could get away with.

Why did they do it? In a word, desperation. They came from starving villages across the Atlantic for the opportunity to earn a few dollars a day working for companies that viewed them as less valuable (because they were easier to replace) than the mules in the mines.

But what of their “work ethic”? Did they love their work? They were deservedly proud of their ability to survive the work, and to stand up to it. But I don’t believe they toiled for the love of the work. Joe Saya in Crested Butte said it for a lot of the miners when he said, “If I had it all to do over again, I’d rather sell pencils in the street.”

Back in the coal mining days, the owning class cried about the loss of the work ethic when the miners began to organize themselves in unions to get better working conditions and wages. The International Workers of the World was dissed as the “I Won’t Work” union for arguing that workers should have reasonably safe working environments, an eight-hour day, and some tangible share in the ownership of the businesses that succeeded on their backs.

A HUMANE SOCIETY would probably rejoice that _the “desperation quotient” in America has been reduced to the point where people no longer have to take, and pretend to like, uninteresting, low-paying, deadend jobs. If a community’s workers aren’t enthusiastic about jobs that don’t support such ordinary middle-class ambitions as desire for advancement, opportunity to purchase a home, ability to start and raise a family (with time available for the family), then it’s not just a “work ethic” problem to blame on the workers; it’s a problem that the whole community needs to face.

It’s obviously too easy to just say, well, the restaurants and shops and hotels need to start paying higher wages; most of them are paying about what they can afford. So maybe we are addressing the problem in the only way possible — by bringing in a “globalized” workforce from those places where people are still desperate enough to be grateful for any work at all. This is, of course, the same old 19th-century solution — except, now, the labor force gets sent back at the end of the season. No fear of them getting settled and getting up on their hind legs and maybe getting organized, and rebuilding that middle class that was supposedly one of America’s greatest strengths.

George Sibley has practiced the work ethic in many places, and currently attempts to avoid it in Gunnison.