Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Ramblings on class, family and books …

with 2 comments

I’m reading Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant right now. It’s the story of journalist and self-proclaimed “progressive” Bageant’s return home to Winchester, West Virginia, after living in slightly more cosmopolitan areas for 30+ years, and the people and ideas he encounters there. Bageant is both a liberal and a hillbilly, and being a bit liberal and a bit hillbilly myself, I’m digging the book a lot so far.

This passage in particular struck me:

Leaving aside all numbers, “working class” might best be defined like this: You do not have power over your work. You do not control when you work, how much you get paid, how fast you work, or whether you will be cut loose from your job at the first shiver of Wall Street. “Working class” has not a thing to do with the color of your collar and not nearly as much to do with income as most people think.

I called my mom yesterday to complain about some office politics in my newsroom, and she told me my aunt, who worked in payroll processing for eyewear manufacturer/distributor Luxottica (formerly Lens Crafters), just got fired from her job. The reason they gave her? She perpetually clocked in at five, ten, even quarter-after nine, when company policy required her to clock in by 9 a.m. sharp. My sister, who interned at the company this summer, said she knew my aunt was wont to do this, but she stayed late — sometimes by more than the increment of time she was late in the morning — to make up for it, and always got all her work done. My aunt says she pointed this out to management, but they said it didn’t matter; that was their policy. I was shocked. I can roll into work anytime between 7 and 10:30 a.m., and as long as I stay the requisite amount of hours and get my work done, I’m cool. There are really still offices where the actual arrival and departure time is clocked down to the minute? To make it even worse, they approached her in the building lobby as she was coming into work and wouldn’t even let her go up to her floor to say goodbye to co-workers or gather her belongings. They said they’d mail her any photographs or personal effects.

There is more to this story, though. Luxottica has a policy where employees who have worked there for 10 years are eligible for retirement and health care benefits at age 55. My aunt, who just logged her 10th year with the company, will be 55 next year. My aunt thinks the company just didn’t want to be potentially liable for her retirement benefits and, unfortunately, her minor tardiness gave the company a legally safe way to get rid of her.

You are probably thinking there must be more to this story than I am telling you, or than I know. Maybe my aunt committed all sorts of other egregious workplace sins she is not telling us. Maybe she was a loose-wire, a basket-case who could not even be trusted to go back into the office to pick up the photos of her two grandchildren with which she’d decorated her cubicle. I can’t say it’s not possible. But it’s not plausible. I’m close with my aunt, and while she may not be the brightest or most well-educated person, she is honest and a hard-worker (she’s worked many years to support her agoraphobic deadbeat husband who, strangely enough, was recently featured in Time magazine for refusing to shave his beard until Bush was out of office). Plus, I’ve got my sister, who has worked in the office with my aunt for three summers, to vouch for all this.

Nonetheless, nothing about this story is exceptional, I know. A 54-year-old woman got fired from her clerical job. She’s got a high-school education, limited professional skills and likely very-limited job prospects. She’s overweight, has health problems and a bevy of medications which she will surely not be able to afford sans employer-sponsored health-insurance. It’s the kind of anecdote that’s become cliche in news stories about healthcare or the economy, the kind of story I wouldn’t think twice about were it not a family member involved. And my aunt will be okay — my family is old-school close, mostly living within a few blocks of one another, and they will help her out ’til she gets things back in order. You are probably wondering, by this point, why I am even telling you this story.

And I’m not sure. But reading that quote from the Joe Bageant book earlier today got me thinking about the situation, and how it really is so foreign to the existence me and most of my (working-professional) friends know. To think that people can be fired for not showing up at some arbitrary work-day start point … and that the possibility of finding another comparable job wouldn’t just be a given. I suppose that’s the province of the young and over-educated. So is this even a class issue at all? I don’t know. I’m really a product of the same class and environment as my aunt, only a few decades removed. One of her daughters is pretty much in the same circumstances as she is; but one of her sons has a PhD and is a professor of anthropology and one of her sons is a teacher and would-be politician who several years ago was vying for a U.S. House of Representatives seat. The anthropologist son is super-liberal; the politician son is hardcore Christian conservative who despises Bush for his economic policies; and the daughter was mad the day they taught her 8th-grade son evolution this year. This story is beginning to have little direction or point, so I think I’ll stop with it now. Families are interesting, class is interesting, and I think I’ll go back to devouring Bageant’s book …


Written by Elizabeth

March 5, 2008 at 1:46 am

Posted in Culture, Misc.

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Heartbreaking post. I went to my staff meeting right after reading it and found out we might be getting a contract with Luxotica. Crap. I really should go write about soup…or do my job…


    March 5, 2008 at 6:59 pm

  2. When I was working for UPS, we had a computerized time clock where we had to punch in every morning, and they would come yell at us and threaten disciplinary action if you were even one minute late. This is why I was going to hearings and getting suspended from work before I finally quit. I had something like 30 “attendance infractions” on my record; probably 28 of them were for being less than five minutes late.

    this is why I love working at Jeni’s. I am consistently ten or fifteen minutes late to work every day because of how the buses run, and no one even cares.


    March 6, 2008 at 12:35 pm

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