Navigating college has not been as easy for me as it is for many. I struggled for a number of years to find the direction I wanted to take academically—graduating high school in 2002 then finally choosing sociology as a major in 2009—and there were spans where I put my education on hold all together. During my time away from school, I held some really labor-intensive, hazardous, and low paying jobs that included moving furniture and hauling junk; I got a taste of what it’s like to make ends meet performing unskilled, nonunion labor for unscrupulous employers. My experiences at these jobs eventually led me to become interested in worker’s rights and labor studies. From there, I found an academic direction—sociology.
In a way, my story probably isn’t all that different from a lot of sociology students; my interest in sociology began, as it does for many, after experiencing adversity. On the other hand, the way I got here may be more atypical. Without a sense of direction after high school, it was difficult for me to become invested in college and I dropped out after my first semester. I didn’t realize it until years later but, perhaps somewhat ironically, I would begin to find my academic direction outside the classroom when my friend Puck (an amicable vagabond and punk with whom I had been getting into trouble for years) introduced me to his boss at Gulliver’s Movers and helped me get a job moving furniture. It turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
Being a mover at Gulliver’s was a survival lesson in a myriad ways (not just in terms of how to avoid getting crushed under a piano, etc.) and it illustrated to me many of the struggles involved with unskilled, nonunion labor. Hiring was done on a day to day basis and every morning dozens of guys would show up looking for work. There were always more workers than positions to fill and this surplus of labor made for an uneasy situation as it created a competitive undercurrent; our relations with one another were generally friendly, but ugly emotions often bubbled up to the surface upon hiring time because it was inevitable that some of us would be turned away.
All of us wanted to improve our own chances of being hired, even if it meant undercutting each other. It helped to be related to someone with seniority, so Puck introduced me to his boss as his cousin (this was a common ruse at Gulliver’s). Still, even though it was during the busy summer months, I didn’t get placed on a moving crew to go out on a job until my third or fourth day. It also helped to network and make friends with the drivers who were hired more consistently, typically led the crews, and had a say in who came on jobs with them.
If you didn’t get placed on a crew, Puck taught me that if you stuck around the dispatch office long enough the crowd of laborers would start to thin out and some work around their warehouse might come up. These instances didn’t exactly provide a full day’s pay, however, usually accounting for two or three hours of wages. After I had worked there for months, there were still days when I had to settle for limited hours in the warehouse as did other workers who were more tenured than me. You really had to be observant, persistent, and an active networker if you were going to find work at Gulliver’s because it was easy to go unnoticed. This all illustrated to me some of the compromise and struggles unskilled workers often have to cope with because their lack of professional skills affords them minimal leverage in employment negotiations.
Gulliver’s management usually upheld a reasonable standard of ethics, but they did occasionally exacerbate their employee’s struggle. There were a couple instances where our paychecks bounced and we had to wait a few days until they deposited more money into their payroll account. I can’t imagine what it was like for those who had families and were living paycheck to paycheck to be caught in such a situation. Also, on a number of occasions, our paychecks were written for less than we were owed and correcting them was a hassle (I once had to drive to their location in Alexandria in order to get reimbursed). Lots of workers kept a separate record of their hours as a safeguard. This illustrates another problem that unskilled workers deal with more often than you might think—being unpaid or underpaid.
I’d had crumby part time jobs in high school, but my time here really helped me understand what it’s like to be unprivileged in the workplace. It wasn’t, as I would later find out, my most frustrating, hazardous, or unscrupulously managed job. If Gulliver’s was a lesson in what it’s like to be an unskilled, nonunion worker in terms of competing for work and dealing with compensation issues, my job at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was a lesson in protecting your own health and safety in the face of unscrupulous management.
1-800-GOT-JUNK? is a full service junk removal company. The service they offer involves the removal of junk from wherever it might be located (mostly inside homes and offices); it’s not a service where the junk has to first be taken to the curb by customers before it is hauled away. The trouble with hauling junk out of indoor spaces is that they are often extremely dirty, sometimes to the point of posing a hazard to workers (from the inhalation of dust and toxic materials). Unfortunately, while I was working here, management wasn’t very concerned for our health in this regard and wasn’t as keen as they should have been on providing us with proper respirators. It was common for us to run out of the cheap dust masks they preferred to offer and I often found myself reminding them (or even arguing with them) to buy more. Some jobs involved removing dusty debris from renovations. Others were in filthy, moldy storage spaces and basements nobody had set foot in for years. The use of proper respirators was really necessary in order to be protected under these circumstances.
Unfortunately, the danger of inhaling hazardous materials became apparent at one site in a neglected basement apartment when I experienced chest pain. A coworker (actually my friend Puck who had quit Gulliver’s by this point) got is worse than me and had to take a couple days off work due to the pain. It’s really disturbing to be exposed to this kind of hazard because there’s little that can be done to find out exactly what had been inhaled. For all we knew, we inhaled chemical fumes from old household cleaning products or hazardous mold and toxic dust from the rotting interior (it appeared that the apartment hadn’t been lived in for decades). Furthermore, in an old building like the one in which this occurred, the presence of asbestos is always a possibility. This kind of exposure to hazards is common in many occupations and, as this story illustrates, workers cannot always rely on management to look out after their health.
Injuries from lifting were also prevalent at 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. We were supplied with hand trucks (the two-wheeled carts delivery men often use), which were helpful to lift heavy items up stairs and to roll them out to the truck, but it really wasn’t sufficient for some of the things we were expected to haul such as copying machines. Sometimes we would get heavy items out to the truck without much problem, but would then be caught in a dangerous situation trying to push them up the truck’s ramp. Injuries didn’t only occur while hauling the heaviest items, however, and could easily happen merely by lifting with improper technique. These instances revealed another area where management showed a blatant lack of ethics; sometimes, as illegal as it is, employees were fired after being injured because management worried about repeat injuries and the resulting rise in insurance costs.
Had we been unionized, we would have been more knowledgeable about our rights as workers and would have had a support network for assistance—I’m confident we would have had proper respirators and job security upon being injured. However, practically speaking, it’s difficult to convince unscrupulous management into complying with safety standards or to deal with the legal process for remedying wrongful termination without a support network. One of my coworkers was able to get compensation after being wrongfully fired, but a lot of his success had to do with his family supporting him with the process.
As I burned out from working at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and was preparing to quit, I knew I wanted to return to school in order to afford myself better working conditions. So, I quit and started to take classes at Montgomery College (a nearby community college in Montgomery County, MD) and, shortly after enrolling, I realized my academic interest in worker’s rights and labor studies. While learning more about worker protections, I couldn’t help but think how a lot of the adversity my former coworkers and I faced could have been addressed. I continued to work a number of odd jobs during my time at Montgomery College and, even though they weren’t as tough as Gulliver’s and 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, I took lessons away from them as well. Among them were jobs at a small video store (similar to the one in the movie Clerks by Kevin Smith) and at the company Doody Calls (a “premium pet waste removal service” where I drove around in a pickup truck collecting dog waste in people’s backyards). These jobs, too, offered…a certain kind of insight (it was hard not to notice a few social dynamics at Doody Calls).
Upon transferring to the University of Maryland, I chose sociology as a major with a specialization in social stratification. Even though there aren’t any classes specifically about labor studies, I’ve found much of the sociology curriculum to be relevant and I take every opportunity I can to incorporate labor into my schoolwork. For the spring semester, my final semester here at UMD, I’m arranging an independent study with Dr. Pease about labor unions. This semester, as part of my supporting course requirement, I’m taking an anthropology course (ANTH498N, Ethnography of the Immigrant Life taught by Dr. Freidenberg) that involves a service learning component at the community organization CASA de Maryland.
Dr. Freidenberg has a friend, Maria Walsh, who is involved with various community organizations in Langley Park and they were able to arrange volunteering positions at these organizations for everyone in the class. After expressing my interest in worker’s rights and labor studies, they introduced me to labor organizers at CASA de Maryland who specialize in the organizing of day laborers. CASA does a great service by helping day laborers because they’re likely the most vulnerable segment of the labor force; because most of them do not have papers and are hired under informal circumstances, they are easily exploited by employers.
CASA’s organizers help day laborers deal with many of the issues I faced at Gulliver’s Movers and 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. Wage theft is probably the most common way in which day laborers are victimized. According to a study published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, “nearly half of all day laborers (49 percent) have been completely denied payment by an employer for work they completed in the two months prior to being surveyed…[and] 48 percent have been underpaid by employers during the same time period” (Valenzuela et al. 14). CASA helps to remedy this situation by providing facilities through which hiring is monitored and by offering legal services in cases of wage theft. They also host Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) presentations about workplace safety, including information about respiratory hazards.
I’m grateful for the opportunity CASA de Maryland has given me to help workers in this regard and I plan on pursuing a career along these lines. In the meantime, however, I continue to work an odd job in order to cover my living expenses; the past four years I’ve worked for a business that buys and sells used camera equipment online, mostly through eBay. It doesn’t sound like that odd of a job, but it is. It’s run out of my boss’ house and I have a wide array of tasks that range from herding sheep and assisting his girlfriend with her art business (which is also setup in the house) to detailing cars, repairing cameras, and making spreadsheets in Excel. Now that I’m getting close to graduating, I’m considering my next steps toward career building. Among my considerations are interning at Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and enrolling in a Teaching English as a Foreign Language program (TEFL) this summer as I need to improve my Spanish for this line of work.
Elliott is a senior undergraduate sociology major.