Making Lemonade Out of the Economy

In 1970, a union painter at the University of Minnesota painted his truck. Because he had bought it new three years prior and because it had given him nothing but grief in the three years it took for him to get it paid for, he painted it lemon yellow. It looked like he had done it with a broom. Then he wrote “this truck is a lemon” along each side of the truck in large black letters.

That done, he went to the lumberyard and bought two sheets of plywood and some 2X2’s for stakes. This he all painted lemon yellow, assembled it and mounted the sheets, one on each side of the truck’s box. Then he took more black paint and carefully listed all of the repairs that had gone into the machine in the three years since it was new. His plan was to drive the truck to work and back for as long as it ran and then to give it to the junkyard.

The University was mortified. Perhaps it had some research sponsored by Chrysler, or hoped to. They first talked directly to the painter, and when that failed, talked to his union. The painter told the University that if they planned to pay him from the time he left his front door each morning until he returned home in the evening, he would clean up his truck. Otherwise, he said, you can go to hell. The union backed him up. As far as I know, his finished his entire working life as a painter at the University of Minnesota.

I am thinking of this painter again because I have been trying to understand the Tea Party people. The painter was several years older than I and would be retired by now. Would he be in the Tea Party? He couldn’t have known that in 1970 when he painted his truck and throughout 1971 as he wrangled with the University we were at the very peak of good times for working people in this country, at least the white ones.

Things had never before been so good for the working class and would not be again for at least forty years and maybe forever. What does an entire life of downhill do to a person’s frame of mind? What would he think as his kids either failed to find work as good as his, or graduated into the executive and professional classes to enrich themselves by exploiting working people such as their father?

It is important, I think, that the system in place for this painter in 1970 gave him a good wage and benefits plus the opportunity to vent his spleen in a very public way over having been taken in a deal on a vehicle without putting his family’s livelihood on the line. That certainly would not be the case today. And today, when it seems the best the working people of the country can hope for is some kind of a nitwit in the White House who can “triangulate”, it is difficult to focus on the value of the kind of job security that allows for some self expression.

It is not enough that the wages are good, though that would be a step in the right direction, or that the job be relatively secure, which will not happen until we get some control of our corporate elite. There needs to be space for human expression. There needs to be room for a human to live, in the real sense of that word.

The Tea Party is overwhelmingly white, mostly retired, and just a bit wealthier than the average working class stiff. An argument can be made that they are angry that their chance to really live in their work and in their country has been taken away.

A slaughterhouse worker, for instance, who may have finished his career in the ’90s at a lower wage than the one he started at in the ’60s and has spent the last two or three decades watching Hispanics do the job he did for less than half the salary and no benefits, may well hold up a sign warning the government to keep its hands off “my Medicare.” He has lost enough, and he is scared. He knows that his replacements are not really to blame. He knows that his government won’t fix immigration because it does not want to. What he hasn’t yet figured out is that it won’t because the same folks own it that own his slaughterhouse, and the Tea Party itself.

Confused as the Tea Party may be, they have nothing on Obama and the Democrats. These folks just spent two years pretty much doing business as usual because they seem to believe that the troubles with the economy started in 2008 rather than 1971, and that they actually fixed something by handing the Treasury over to Wall Street. (I know very well the TARP belongs to Bush. But the Fed discount window and the sweetheart buy back and insurance deals are the responsibility of Obama’s economic whiz kids.)

The working class still wonders if it would have done the rest of us very much harm to just let Wall Street choke in its own slime. I know I do. I will bet that retired University painter does too.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2011

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