III Publishing

Summer of 1974:
the Shape of Things to Come

April 2, 2016
by William P. Meyers

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Making Jewelry in Providence and Globalization before Trade Agreements

By the spring of 1974 my previous life plan was looking bad. I was the end of my second year at Brown University. I was behind on my payments to Brown despite working 20 hours a week and being on a nearly full scholarship. I was eating the cheapest food I could cook; my clothes were turning to rags. And in trying to find the time and energy to get all A- grades, which at Brown would be recorded simply as A's, I was instead mostly coming up with B+ grades, which would go on my record as B's, giving me a less-than-stellar grade point average.

I was disillusioned, but trying out new illusions as fast as I could. Although the hippy era was pretty dead, and the Beatnik generation were old enough to be my parents, I was beginning to be persuaded that they were right: that the establishment way of living was a pile of BS. I had already become an atheist (which is why I was broke; my Roman Catholic lower-middle class parents had disowned me) and was in the anarchist-communist political camp. And the war crimes rolled on in Vietnam, just superintended by the Republican Richard Nixon instead of by the Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

So I decided to take a year off from school. Find out about life outside of academia. And earn some money to stop the flow of threatening letters from Brown about my being behind on payments.

Summer came around and I needed a job but quick. I did not want to work as a lifeguard, as I had the two previous summers. Back then if you did not have a family connection to a job you mainly looked in the newspapers. So I dutifully circled Help Wanted ads and trudged from place to place, filling out applications and occasionally having a brief interview.

Only one job was offered to me, so I took it. It was at the Coro Jewelry factory. Coro made costume jewelry. The supervisor was a nice older (though probably not as old as I am now) Italian-American guy (most of the workers were of Italian descent) who showed me my first job. There was a big spool of copper ribbon. I was to pull the end of the ribbon to a set point on my machine. I was to make sure my fingers were well clear, then kick a pedal. The machine brought down a cutter with great force, cutting off a few inches of copper ribbon. I took the copper ribbon and put it in the basket.

Then I pulled on the ribbon, kicked, removed the ribbon. And again. And again. And so on for two hours, until the break bell rang. Two more hours after the break. Four more hours after lunch. At the end of the day the ribbon spool had decreased in diameter by a few inches, but there was plenty left.

Over time I talked a bit to some of the other workers. My supervisor was quite pleased with my work. He indicated I learned to do new tasks properly in minutes that others had taken hours to learn. One senior machinist said that not many locals applied to work at Coro because at or near minimum wage, most people found the job boring and stressful. They would rather work in a store or cafe. I learned that a bunch of old women talking to each other in Italian as their hands flew were paid piecework, and were so fast they earned about twice minimum wage. And I heard that most of Providence's costume jewelry factories had already moved overseas.

This was long before NAFTA, and it was easy to understand (plus, I had completed An Introduction to Microeconomics and An Introduction to Macroeconomics). It really did not take that much skill to mass-produce costume jewelry. You can't charge a lot for costume jewelry. So if you are going to start a new factory to make costume jewelry, it makes sense to do that in a low-wage nation, even if there is a tariff (import tax) when you sell the jewelry in the United States. Since that makes sense, if you already own the machines, it also makes sense to rent a warehouse in some developing nation, move the machines there, and let the good people of Providence, Rhode Island, do more interesting jobs, like turning imported coffee into espresso.

I only worked 6 weeks at the Coro factory. I woke up one morning and my mind refused to allow me to walk to work. I had Fuck You money already. In this case my boss was nice, it was the work itself that sucked. Providence was depressed then, so renting a room in a group house, especially in summer when the Brown students left, was dirt cheap. I did go back to work as a lifeguard for the rest of the summer. I even paid off most of what I owed Brown. So much for being a member of the Industrial Proletariat.

When I came back to Brown University a year later, an experienced hitch-hiker, camper, and restaurant worker, I still had no idea what to do with my life. The War in Vietnam was winding down, and with its end most of America's political turmoil would come to an end. I already had done a bit of computer programming, on a mainframe computer, and took a programming course. Computers and computer programming and industrial robots were about to destroy America. They would destroy more good jobs than any amount of moving factories overseas could.

Students today are angry about their debts and their prospects. But they love their smartphones, tablets, and computers. They love the cloud. To me it is just plain weird that they are blaming Hillary Clinton for their problems. I'm not saying that the ruling class of the world has not tried and largely succeeded in writing trade agreements that are to their advantage. I'm just saying that greed and trying to make a profit in business are nothing new. Back in 1974 men and boys becoming men did want boring factory jobs, but only if the wages were high. But hard jobs, boring jobs, at low wages: they are taken only out of necessity by those whose lack of education or inability to learn leaves them no other choices.

Planet Earth has a fever, and the organism that is causing the fever is called homo sapiens. That is what I am certain of. Some people suspected that in 1974, but most refuse to believe it or act on it even today. And not even the Green Party candidate, Laura Wells, is directly addressing it. So there are no truly good choices for me in this election. There is just educational work to be done.




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