It was midway through the morning when I started to hear them groan, men who hadn’t counted on being tired before lunch. A group of four was helping me and my wife move into our new place in Michigan, and the sheer quantity — and weight — of our stuff was beginning to tell. We had several large pieces, enough boxes for a small village, and myriad IKEA components that are difficult to carry. There was a time when I moved myself, with the assistance of a family member or two, in a matter of hours. My wife, bless her, has relegated those days to the ash heap of history.
The foreman and his assistant worked mainly from the moving truck, unloading our things. My attention was soon focused on the two movers doing most of the heavy lifting, bringing our stuff up the driveway and inside. Both men were black, between the ages of perhaps 25 and 32, though I’m not much good at guessing these things. One guy was powerfully built, well over six feet and two hundred pounds. He wore thick glasses that seemed to have been pasted to his face but that became more crooked as the day wore on. His partner was maybe 150 pounds, five foot something, and probably the younger of the two. I guided them as they went back and forth down one flight of stairs, bearing furniture, appliances, and boxes of books I will never read.
“Man!” huffed the smaller guy at one point, gallantly trying to carry two book boxes at once. “Someone sure likes to read a lot.” Someone wants to read a lot, I told him, and he tried to laugh but gasped for air instead.
The big guy asked where we had moved from, and was surprised to hear New York City. “Really?” he asked, and weighed his words so as not to give offense. “You left there…and came here?” He seemed perplexed and his glasses did, too.
Throughout the day the two men worked in good humor, and we shared several laughs together. They were solicitous of where we wanted things placed, even as their steps grew weary and their breathing frantic. Seeing that my wife and I had numbered the boxes, and that I was checking them off on a clipboard, they started calling out the numbers:
“57 and 81,” said the little guy, almost collapsing into a corner with more book boxes.
“No number on this one,” huffed the big guy, carrying one of our evil IKEA pieces. Something about this gesture of theirs touched me, and I wanted to know more about where these men came from.
It turned out they were not employed with the moving company but with a local temporary work agency; they were laborers, not professional movers.
“They pay us between five-fifty and five ninety-seven,” said the little guy, tossing an empty box and shaking his head. The big guy, wrapping up some moving blankets, nodded when I asked if I had heard correctly.
As we were settling up, the foreman told me that he paid the agency $15 an hour for their services. When he was out of sight, I gave the two men a tip that essentially doubled their hourly take for the work, bringing them closer to $10 an hour.
THEY WERE SUCH DECENT SORTS they lingered in the mind long afterwards. I remembered that throughout my life I had dealt with men of their ilk, men without a lot of education or skills working hard for a pittance. And when I was younger the inclination was to grasp at traditional liberal solutions — higher taxes, hikes in the minimum wage, jobs programs, and the like.
The old saying echoed in my mind: “If you aren’t liberal when you’re young, you haven’t got a heart; if you aren’t conservative when you’re older, you haven’t got a brain.” A liberal would want to force the agency to pay above the minimum wage for work like this, even if the work does not have a market value that justifies that rate. If companies are only willing to pay $15 an hour for help of this kind, how can the agency pay its employees much more than minimum wage and still make a profit? Of course, the possibility exists that the market will bear more than $15, and that the agency could charge companies more, and pay its employees more in turn.
If the agency is charging artificially low rates to spur more business and corner the market, and these practices are found to be unethical or illegal, there are remedies. If their practices are merely harsh, but legal, employees have options — switch to another firm, find a way to acquire new skills, or move elsewhere where the climate is more favorable. None of these options is easy. All are part of the real world of capitalism, about which the less romanticism, the better (the less hysteria, too). Capitalism, as someone once said, is really a liberal’s word for life. And we all know how fair life is.
We’ve had 40 years and more of liberal social spending to try to make it more so. We put our money where our hearts were, and to hell with our heads. When we started, the illegitimacy rate in the black community was about 20 percent. Now it’s 70 percent. The poverty rate, for all that high-priced compassion, has barely budged in the intervening time, and the quality of education in urban communities remains wretched. With the exception of the civil rights laws, precious little that was enacted during these decades has done anything to help men like these two laborers to a better life, let alone a higher wage.
Adapting the old song from Casablanca, it’s still the same old story: a tale of value and money. If you can’t provide the first, nothing will help you get the second. How the economy ascribes value has very little to do with justice, but if one meets those standards of value, he will generally be treated — and compensated — justly. To expect more than this from any system of economics is to expect that human needs and wants will match human ideals and aspirations. They are different things.
I liked these men and wished them well, but wishing is a poor substitute for truth. As I watched the moving van drive away, I reminded myself of that…and reminded, and reminded. The truth has its own rewards, but the heaviness in the heart remains.