If you used to read the column I wrote for The Lookout News you may recall that one factor in my being one of the luckier of all human beings is that my sister and parents bought property about 30 years ago in Umbria, the “green heart” of Italy. This means that to visit family I’ve had a rather touristic place to go.
Last week I did something I’d always wanted to do — visit my sister during the olive harvest. Maybe it was a crazy trip — two days consumed in flying to spend five days in Italy — but I had the requisite frequent flyer miles, I wasn’t going to be missed too much at home or in the office (the latter these days you take with you on your computer anyway), and so I went.
Call it “immigrant-farm-laborer-tourism,” something Tom Wolfe might have written a novel about, but for four days I picked olives. In fact, as I learned, you don’t pick olives, but instead rake them. It’s not digging ditches labor, or harvesting field crops labor, but by the end of the day I had stretched muscles I was no longer aware I possessed.
Nearly everyone where my sister lives has olive trees, much like people here with backyards have vegetable gardens, and much of the conversation last week was about picking them and getting them to the frantoio, the press where they get turned into oil. As with the produce from a vegetable garden, when you consider the time you spend the price of what you purportedly grow for free is exorbitant, but the satisfaction in mixing your labor with the product is priceless . . . and the product is at another level of quality.
I’m a city-lover who loves visiting the country, and one reason is that as lovely as the country is, you get reminded why people live in cities. There’s no traffic to speak of in the Umbrian countryside, but nonetheless it’s a 20-25 minute drive to a supermarket or to an ATM. I.e., it’s not a convenient life.
And there’s not much economic opportunity. You can imagine how back in the pre-industrial day, which in much of Umbria wasn’t long ago, everyone in large farm families could pitch in for a few weeks and harvest olives, and the family would have enough oil for the year (and some to sell), but these days it’s hard to pick olives on an economical basis. The olives wouldn’t sell for enough money to pay wages that include everything that goes into a living, 21st century wage.
And so for a couple of centuries all over the world country folks have been heading to town. It’s been well noted that in the past decade for the first time the number of humans living in cities exceeded the number living in the country. When they get to those cities, former agricultural workers find economic opportunities, but their low skill levels typically limit them to the lowest level jobs, with compensation insufficient to pay the higher cost of living in the city, which includes public costs, too.
Their seeking better opportunities in the city then leads to various urban crises — housing crises, education crises, transportation crises, and numerous social problems associated with poverty. Think the Lower East Side 100 years ago. Or much of L.A. today.
To be blunt . . . not making enough money is a problem. It’s often said we have an affordable housing crisis — but what if it’s not, given the cost of building housing, that rents are too high, but that wages are too low? Shouldn’t people who work make enough to afford a decent place to live?
Which brings up the latest big news in Santa Monica — the deal UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union, has struck with OTO, the developer of the two hotels proposed for the corner of Fifth and Colorado.
For almost 50 years, from the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935 until the advent of Reaganism, a strong labor movement kept wages high and created a “working middle class.” Meanwhile American industry dominated the world as management and labor worked together. (By the way, if you think that strong unions and high wages are incompatible with high production and profits, look at Germany.)
But nearly 40 years of Republican domination of the National Labor Relations Board essentially rewrote the NLRA to remove the right to organize.
The labor movement has found new life, however, in the L.A. area over the past two decades, in organizing service workers. By raising the wages and benefits of these workers, the unions have benefited our entire society. Congratulations to UNITE HERE Local 11 for the deal they have reached with OTO, which follows the deal the local made for the hotel at 710 Wilshire, and which will no doubt be followed by deals with all new hotels in Santa Monica.
Congratulations, too, to OTO, for not following today’s corporate conventional wisdom and ideology and for showing its willingness to make a union deal.
Finally, let’s hear it for those politicians and political organizations in Santa Monica, notably Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, and activists and organizations like Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism and the Santa Monica branch of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, who have supported the union’s efforts over the years.
This is nothing for unions to be shy about. Business uses the political process, and so should labor.
Thanks for reading.
Beautiful article , frank. Did you see tom Friedman article in nytimes today? Similar union middle class observations.
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