Working: Now and Then

So far, I can’t help but notice the parallels between modern society, i.e. the 2009 publication of Pekar’s adaptation of Working, and when it was originally published, in 1974.  I think the timing of the publication of this new graphic novel adaptation couldn’t be more appropriate.  While reading through the first two sections, I was struck by the amount of issues, not only work-related, but environmental and political issues, that seem relevant to today, not just when it was written back in the 1970’s. 

For example, in “Coal Miner and Wife,” I noticed similarities between that story and today’s controversy over fracking.  It says: “You’re in one of the richest areas in the world and some of the poorest people in the world…They offered a woman seventy-five dollars an acre on the farm that the gas well’s just laid on, for destroyin’ half an acre of her place to set that well on…  Company can dig all your timber, all your soil off, uncover everything.  Go anywhere they want to, drill right in your garden if they want to… They took bulldozers and they tore the top off the ground…  When they come through with them bulldozers and tear it up like that, the dirt runs to our bottom land and our drinkin’ water gets muddy” (7).  This sounds eerily reminiscent of what is going on today with the natural gas companies that are taking over land for the use of hydraulic fracturing.  The result is polluted waters, so that local wildlife is often killed off, and citizens’ drinking water is contaminated to the point that it can literally be lit on fire.  Unfortunately, I see a parallel here with the way corporations are allowed to treat the land; apparently, we haven’t learned much in the last forty years!

Another issue from Working that resonates today is the military.  In the same story, the son just got back from serving in Vietnam and went to work at a strip mine.  His mother is vehemently against the idea of him working in a strip mine, saying, “I’d rather see him in Vietnam than see him doin’ strip jobs” (9).  In her mind, the dangers of being away at war seem harmless compared to working in a mine.  The son acknowledged that “he had to make a livin’ some way…Well, he’s gonna have to go back to the army” (9).  Sadly, people were often forced to choose between an undesirable, unsafe job and joining the military to be sent off to war.  This thread continues subtly in the story, “Organizer,” when the character says, “I floundered around for two years in college, was disappointed, and enlisted in the army” (30).   I think this is still true today; many people who can’t find work or afford college tuition often join the military.  Not only that, but people in the armed forces coming back from Afghanistan are often unable to find work in order to support themselves and their families.

An additional point that was written in 1974 but seems relevant today is in the farmworker story.  It seems prophetic when the character says, “Now the machines are coming in…  They have cotton machines that took jobs away from thousands of farm workers… We’re trying to stipulate in our contract that the company will not use any machinery without the consent of the farmworkers.  So we can make sure the people being replaced by machines will know how to operate the machine” (21-22).  This last part of the quote is a caption above an illustration of a robot saying: “We work for free!”  I wonder if they knew back then just how accurate that concern would be.  Could they have predicted back in 1974 that the tollbooth person’s job would be replaced by EZ pass?  The subway token seller to be replaced by Metrocard machines?   The bank teller replaced by the ATM?  Those are just a few examples.  It seems that much harder to find a job nowadays because machines and computers have replaced so many human jobs.

If I hadn’t read the original copyright date, and if “Vietnam” had been replaced with “Afghanistan,” I would have believed this book was just written.  This new graphic novel adaptation brings to light many relevant political concerns, and the ways in which they affect workers in our society both now and in 1974. 

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One thought on “Working: Now and Then

  1. Insightful post: this is a topic that we should have discussed in more detail in class. It’s also interesting to note that outsourcing, which is arguably just as devastating to US labor as “technical obsolescence” is not really on the radar of WORKING, outside of the shoe industry organizer’s narrative. We’ll discuss that topic in more detail in a couple of weeks, vis a vis Kunzru’s TRANSMISSION.

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