Friday, July 11, 2008

The skills of workers

A couple of nights ago, I couldn't sleep. For some reason, I thought back to my days of working in the corn canning factory for Green Giant in Le Sueur, Minnesota.

The work was all-consuming. We worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. We had the option of taking one day off, but the prospect of overtime pay made that choice unlikely.

For about one month, my entire life was consumed by factory work. All of which is lost, over and dead. I spent a few moments looking for images of husking machines, kernel stripping machines, etc. The knowledge is gone. The reality that consumed me for a brief period of time is lost in the ether.

This happens all the time. The everyday life of workers: the machines with which we interact, the quotas which guide our actions from moment to moment. They are all gone. Lost in the wind. Overpassed by progress. New machines. New technology.

Skills that marked us as valuable workers have died again and again, as technology makes us obsolete.

I wish I could do what Gene Gable accomplished in his article Waxing nostalgic over paste-up. He talks about the skills that I mastered nearly 20 years ago that made it possible for me to live a productive life and earn a decent, union wage. These skills have all become obsolete now. The lives of printers and typesetters have metamorphosed into unrecognizable cockroaches of progress.

What do we, as workers, do when our skills become obsolete? What choices do we have? How do we honor our learning and skills once they are no longer needed?