Tag Archives: labor

Looking for Trolls and Finding Common Ground

IMG_0751Saturday  I went down about 3 and 1/2 miles into the center of a mountain.  My husband has a friend who works at the local palladium (used to make catalytic converters) and platinum mine (one of only three in the world) and we got an invite to the annual Employee Appreciation Day  tour.  How could I pass up a chance to go into the kingdom of the trolls, workplace of the 7 Dwarves, and inspiration for the dark kingdoms in Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy?

The bus ride from downtown up the Boulder River to the mine took about an hour and we got lucky.  We were hit three days ago with a very early winter snow storm with 8 inches in town and 3 1/2 feet up in the mountains and at the mine.  Saturday was bright and sunny and the roads were clear.  The ride is always gorgeous but it was a winter wonderment yesterday although it was hard on the cows, horses, elk, deer and turkeys that we passed as they pawed and scratched to find some grass or grain to eat.  With the temperatures already rising, tomorrow would be much easier for the critters.  And most ranchers were spinning out some hay to tide them over.

On the hour ride a safety film was played and a safety instructor went over the basics of how to conduct ourselves in a hard rock mine.  “”Oh boy what have I got myself into?” I thought,  as my mind started plotting a Bruce Willis movie where he has to save a bunch of tourists who were trapped in the Escape Chamber at the bottom of the mine.  It didn’t help that I’m working out a deal for a client of mine to do “The 33”, a movie about the trapped Chilean miners who in 2010 had to spend 69 days a half mile down in the earth.  They were a half mile down and  we were going a lot further down. Yikes! I looked around at who to cast as the a**hole who drives people nuts and steals the last Coke and energy bar when nobody is looking.

IMG_0749 - Version 2Once we arrived at the mine, we entered the administration building and got our protective gear; hard hats; impenetrable gloves, flashlights, eye protectors, and metal toe shields.  Oh, and ear plugs.  Each person also has access to an individual device like a airplane oxygen mask that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, if, for example a fire breaks out.  It gives a person about an hour of air.  Time to find one of those escape chambers.  If there is an emergency, there is a  “Stench Warning” in which  a gas is emitted that sends a rotten stench through the air since miners may be working in the dark with ear plugs on.  Not sure I got all those instructions right, but then I’m still not sure about how to inflate those life vests under the airplane seats.

IMG_0743The journey down was in a long train made up of individual small square cars with room for about 4 to 6 people in each.    It was pitch dark and chilly  as we rumbled along with nothing to see but light bulbs, wires, and tubes.  Not quite a Disney World ride; no pirate ghosts but at least no annoying speaker system playing “It’s a Small World” although I started humming to myself, for some reason,  “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash followed by “16 Tons”.

Once we arrived about 17 minutes later, we were shown around the shop area and also shown different types of machinery.  There was one massive machine that bored the holes into the rock for the sticks of dynamite.  I asked where it was manufactured and turns out Sweden makes a lot of these hole making machines that can cost a million dollars.  IMG_0733 Tasmania makes some of the underground bulldozers they use to scoop up the muck from which the precious metals are extracted.  They run around a half million dollars.

After an hour or so tramping in and out of different tunnels and watching guys operating heavy machinery, we loaded back into the train to take us back up to the top.  The journey home was much slower as we were going up.  They also admitted they were going slower on account of not wanting to possibly get derailed with a bunch of tourists on board.  It was at least 30 minutes and it was pretty darn chilly.  I was glad I brought warm gloves and a sweater and jacket, but many of the people had just worn sweatshirts.  The girl next to me looked kind of miserable, but the miner across from me was catching some shut eye. I passed the time reading “Econned” by Yves Smith on my I Phone.

We arrived at the top and got a great lunch of spaghetti and salads.  Then we piled back on to the buses and headed down the mountain and back to town.

Some of these miners come from over two hours away every day on the buses, work their shifts, and ride back home which leaves as little as 6 hours sleep.  But the pay is good and the work is “honest” as they say.

So no trolls.  No pick axes.  Just some lean looking regular  guys in yellow hats and plastic glasses.

As a footnote, back in 2000 the Stillwater Mine and the citizens of Sweet Grass and Stillwater Counties brokered a conservation deal.  It is called “The Good Neighbor Agreement”. Called ground breaking, it has become “a model” by the NY Times and “a testament to how people can find common ground,” by the Billings Gazette as it seeks to create jobs while at the same time protect the rivers, streams and agricultural land.

I was here when the discussions began about how to  protect the river where they shot “The River Runs Thru It” and it was highly contentious. (There was a doofer element that yelled loudly that any kind of interference with the company would cause the mine to go out  business, but that’s another whole chapter.)  But thanks to the hard work and common sense of some thoughtful rancher conservationists, they hammered out an agreement and to this day regular monitoring of the operations at the mine continue.  There is also  no man camp and so no “company store” that Cash lamented about.   It is also considered one of the safest mines in the world and the supervisors are continually looking for ways to improve safety.

For the local miners, this is for many, if not most, their first exposure to unions and the idea of government mandated safety rules.  It has been a long time since the Anaconda copper mine made Butte, Montana, “the richest hill on earth” while at the same time creating the nation’s largest super fund site with the toxic Berkeley Pit as a lasting reminder of corporation bad practices gone amuck.   Montana mines were also the most dangerous in the country. But many of these young miners are the grandsons and granddaughters of dairy and wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and not the kin of the rugged Fins and Irish men that wrestled minerals out of the earth a hundred years ago.  They are new to the idea of solidarity but you can hear it in their voices as they describe with pride how they look out for one another each and every day.   So no whistling while they work or “Hi Ho, Hi Ho’s”, but as we tourists settled in for the night in our warm homes  in town, somewhere deep below the mountains the  sounds of 1950s rock and roll are keeping a weary miner going.

On Work/Jobs/Career and Leisure – Updated

I watched my husband swath the alfalfa last Saturday.  It’s a hot, noisy, dusty…well, really  crappy job.  There is nothing idyllic about it although he did comment that he saw a crow catch a mouse, something he had never seen before.  Thought crows ate bugs.  So there you go; a first.

But swathing does have a certain sense of power.  Swathers are big bad machines that can slice up critters hiding in the grass and ruin your hearing.  So when you’ve been out in the heat and the dirt; driving around and around in circles or up and down, row after row, cutting and hacking, you have every right to take the rest of the day off.  Which is what my husband did.  He went to town for some beers.

That got me thinking again about work and leisure.  It is not a new topic but it needs to be discussed in serious ways amongst us.  It would be a good topic for a non partisan group of neighbors.  What is work and what is a job?  Why do we need “careers”?  Careers are sometimes defined as “lifelong work”.  Now isn’t that dandy.  Sentenced to life….long….work.  Whoo! Hoo!  I’ve got a career.   It is also defined as a “permanent calling”.  Oh, that sounds very hoity toity; a calling.  But the permanent part sounds grim. And it is soooo anti- freedom loving American.

I asked my husband for his off-the-top-of-his-head definition of career and he said, “Well, I’d say with a career you can get an upgrade. Some people can’t upgrade, so that’s a job.”   Ah, ha!  The word career then could turn any job into something more desirable.  “I am entering a career in waitering and hope to advance to head waiter or move up the ladder to private butler at the Rockin’ Buckaroo Dude Ranch.”  (Yes, there is a dude ranch that has luxury camping tents with king size beds and your own personal butler. )

But what if having a “career”  is also a sneaky way to make us spend money on college and so to confer on us some sort of status?  Instead of working your way up from a boiler room on Long Island up to hedge fund trader, you can get a degree in selling ice to Eskimos at a very prestigious college.  Much more fun and half the work.  And very hoity-toity sounding.

What is this obsession with work that Americans have anyway?  This week I ran into a sewing materials store to buy some thread and I started chatting with a couple from Australia visiting Montana.  They were here for six weeks!  They officially have four weeks per year off and took an extra two in order to really see America including Hawaii on the way home.  They were shocked to hear that here in the greatest country in the world most people in companies might get two weeks off and work their way up to three.  But most people don’t get any paid vacation at all.

“What?!” they exclaimed.

“Yes,” I said, “we live in a very primitive country here.  We aren’t really free.  We have been brainwashed into thinking freedom is something to do with choices in cereals and having a lot of weapons to kill other people just in case they have the cheekiness to not like us very much.  Meanwhile we have few holidays or vacations where we explore other countries like people in developed countries do.  Add to that expensive healthcare, pitiful pensions, exorbitant education costs, and lousy trains, and you’ve got a pretty primitive kind of society for such a big fat empire like the U.S. of A.”

“You are nothing without work.”  You hear that all the time.  What a crock.  I’ve discovered Michael D. Yates when I was reading everything  I could about why the Wisconsin uprising ended up in a mush.  He wrote a piece in March called “Whoopee! We’re All Gonna Die”.  He expounds on the ludicrous way we sheeple buy into the notion that we all want the dignity  and fun of working until we drop.

In his piece he relates a disturbing story from The Guardian and comments on it.  Sounds like something written by Terry Gilliam.

A friend of mine referred me to an article in the February 16, 2012 issue of the Guardian (United Kingdom), in which it is reported that: “Some long-term sick and disabled people face being forced to work unpaid for an unlimited amount of time or have their benefits cut under plans being drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions.” Those ancient Wal-Mart greeters will have to work in those wheelchairs just to get social security. And if they need kidney dialysis, the machines can be hooked up to the chairs while they smile at the customers. Perhaps there will be a nonagenarian so disabled that all he can do is blink his eyes. Then some bright young technological wizard will be tasked to find a way to turn those blinks into labor.

Time to have a talk with your neighbors.  Get what needs to get done, done.   Make what needs to be consumed but stop with making all the bric a brac and the knick knacks.  Michael Yates is right;  we need more security not less and a lot more leisure not a life of joyless toil.  So cut some rows, fix some fence, and head to town for a brewski. And start to look for alternatives like the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) idea to provide for the basic needs of everybody on the planet. Hey the banks stole around 800 trillion in the latest LIBOR scandal.  That should work to fund our mad scene of a life filled with time for family and friends and thought.  Now that’s a career I could get behind.

UPDATE: Last night after I published this I woke up and followed a link from Naked Capitalism to a item in the Financial Times called “Enough is Enough of the Age of Consumption”  This article by Robert and Edward Skideisky references the John Maynard Keynes essay I was going to look up on a recommendation by a NC commenter. Keynes wrote “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in 1930 and “predicted that by now we would only need to work  15 hours a week… The rest would be leisure time.”

The Skideiskys point out that conventional wisdom in economics said that there were three stages of economic development; the age of capital in which people save  their income; the age of consumption where they consumed their income; and the age of abundance where they would say “enough is enough” already.  Let’s work less.

What went wrong?

Well,  producing more than we really need seems to be the culprit along with kicking small farmers off the land and into factories. Large land owners don’t seem to be a good idea.  Saying that, of course around here, will make me few friends.  Montana is home to Ted Turner who owns a good chunk of the state and has his buffalo a roaming and his restaurant “Ted’s” to eat bison burgers.  The idea of large chunks of land with cows and other critters roaming isn’t a bad one.  If we could have some shares in it rather than have just a few wealthy lords makes more sense.  But that’s another whole essay.

Working with our present system, looks like we should have that Basic Income Guarantee.  For people who don’t mind tedious jobs in factories or driving a tractor up and down, we make sure that they have plenty of leisure time.  We could also make sure aka subsidize that artists, musicians, and other performers could create.  Scientists seem to never want to stop working so give them what they need to invent things and cure diseases.

This morning I heard that the LIBOR scandal number was $350 Trillion.  Less than the $800 Trillion I read from Taibbi who got it from the WSJ, but still enough to finance a more balanced world where people have time for themselves and their own ideas of leisure.

The Great Leveler



The Great Leveler


Fixing the Leveler


The Weak Link on the Leveler


Death has been called “the great leveler”.  Recently social networking has been called “the great leveler” because it allows small businesses to compete with big business.  But for me the great leveler is when my husband asks me to “help out for a minute”.  A chill always goes down my spine.  What impossible task does he have in store for me? Will it involve getting close to  large whirling pieces of machinery that will rip off my arm or capture my scarf and Isadora Duncan me?  Will it involve large cows charging towards me in an alleyway with only a long stick to fend them off?

I spend most of my day sitting on my butt wrangling with film producers on the phone.  I know a lot about deal making and a fair amount about computers.  I have an almost PhD in theater and film, (except for that dissertation) so I can tell you about Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, and Frank Capra.   But mechanical ability?  Not so much.   A sense of what hydraulics are?  No… not really.   Even watching the women at Janet’s Hair and Nails this morning knitting kids’ hats filled me with wonder and dread.  It looked really hard and I didn’t think my short attention span could tackle such tasks.

“It won’t take long,”  he says. (He always says that).

“Do I need to change shoes?” I query because sometimes it involves cow pies and bull crap.


So we go out the back door  and into the shop yard where he has his tractor attached to a gigantic leveler.  But he also has his diesel flatbed truck backed up against the leveler with the hydraulic arms stretched out lifting a huge chain wrapped around part of the leveler.  These hydraulic arms are used to pick up round bales and then drop them on the ground for the cows to feed.  But now he’s using them to hold the back end of the leveler up.

“Hold this piece  and when I start lifting the back end, you try to put the pin in that hole.  And watch your fingers. It may jerk a little”.

Yes, friends, it’s the “watch your fingers”  part that always has my hair stand on end.  There are a whole lot of guys around here missing digits and I do not want to join the club.

Anyway, it works pretty well  with him using the hydraulics to line up the back end and I guide the narrow piece of metal into the rectangular hole.  But it doesn’t quite line up.  He then tries all kinds of things involving hammering, using a crowbar, putting blocks behind the wheels and then backing the tractor up.  But still off by a couple inches.

“What happened to it?” I said.

“Oh, this piece was weak so I cut another piece and welded it on top.  But looks like the hole I cut needs to be another half inch.  Then I can close that gap and bolt it.  So I don’t think I need you for awhile.”

Just when I was enjoying a beautiful Indian Summer day of 70 degrees and sunshine and doing something really useful and learning a bit about mechanics,  I have to go back into an office.  Pooh.  Well, at least I have all my digits for dialing.

Where the Hammering is Done - The Shop