What's Left

June 17, 2003

The Garbage Collector

By Stephen Gowans

When I was growing up there were three to a truck. One guy, usually the oldest, sat high up in the cab, a bored expression permanently etched on his face. On cold winter days, he had the best job, warm and safe in his heated cab, a thermos of piping hot coffee beside him. He would drive the truck a few yards and stop. The other two, who rode on the back, bundled up against the stinging wind in winter, their sweat-soaked shirts clinging to their skin on hot, humid, summer days, would jump off before the truck had rolled to a complete rest, taking a few steps toward the garbage bins waiting at the side of the road, whose contents they would toss into the maw of the beast at the back. Grabbing the railings at the side, they would jump lightly back aboard the monster as it lurched forward, ready to alight at the next stop and repeat the cycle.

They never collected much pay, and the work was smelly and hard and vile. And then one day, a guy who drove to work in an expensive car, with air conditioning, and sat in a cushy chair that cost a few hundred dollars, did what other guys who drive to work in expensive cars, with air conditioning, and sit all day in cushy chairs do --  he figured out how to lower costs. And so the three guys who used to man the monster as it lurched down the street, day after day, became two guys, one to drive and one to pick up. This was good for the guy in the cushy chair, because the city he worked for was pleased that costs had been reduced. Taxes could be brought down, and the rich people, who were always screaming about taxes being too high, would be placated. Meanwhile, the work of three was spread between two.

Time passed, and the guy in the cushy chair retired, and the two guys did the work of three. And one day, another guy who sat in a cushy chair all day, decided that garbage collection must be outsourced, because that's what good managers do -- they outsource, to drive down costs. And so garbage collection was privatized, and another man, who also sat all day in a cushy chair and drove to work in an expensive, air-conditioned car, set to work to figure out how to fatten the profits of the private garbage collection firm he worked for. He decided that if two could do the work of three, maybe one could do the same, if the one was motivated enough. Since there were an awfully lot of people clamoring for a job, and since the income supports for the unemployed had been helpfully "reformed" by governments so that those without a job would take just about anything, it turned out that there was no shortage of motivated workers.

This morning a lone man, motivated by fear more than anything else, leapt from the cab of his truck, sprinted to the garbage bins at the side of the road, tossed the contents into the maw of the machine, sprinted back to the cab, threw the machine into gear, rolled forward, put on the brake, leapt from the cab, sprinted to the garbage bins at the side of the road, and so on, at a pace so furious you'd think he was training for the triathlon, or that he was a frenetic machine, whose cogs would soon wear away, at which point he would be discarded on the scrap heap and replaced by a new one, cheap enough to buy. One man--that is, one machine, one unit, one entry in a ledger--replacing three.

The work, always poorly paid and smelly and vile had become poorly paid and smelly and vile and desperately frenetic, unconnected as far as possible to the requirements of those who did the job, for a decent income, for a measure of security, and for work that wouldn't quickly grind them down and spit them out. Instead, everything about the job, from its low pay to its fevered pace, was entirely subservient to one goal -- ensuring that a group of people called entrepreneurs and shareholders and bondholders, who only ever sweat in gyms, and never work at such a furious pace, and never notice the people who pick up their garbage, could fatten their bottom lines and earn bigger dividends and collect interest, and so enjoy comforts the garbage collectors who actually did the work would never enjoy. Making the mean lives of garbage collectors meaner would make the comfortable lives of shareholders and bondholders and entrepreneurs more comfortable, and so it has happened.

Children, who sometimes wonder why many people are made uncomfortable, and some acutely so, when it would make so much more sense and would be humane to arrange work to furnish all with basic comforts, are fed lies. Oh, those people are just lazy. They like that work. Sometimes, children are warned. You must study hard, and avoid trouble, so that you don't suffer the same fate.

Many, including those who studied hard, and avoided trouble all their life, learn later that the same fate has tracked them down. They're not humans, they discover -- just bookkeeping entries, part of a system of equations linked to something called profits. No different from the garbage collectors they never notice. No less subject to lay-offs and speed-ups and ill-treatment and threats of joblessness and....exploitation.
 

Today, the newspaper my garbage collector picked up, ranked the city's public schools, based on students' performance on standardized tests. The rankings were helpfully furnished by a right-wing think tank, to which people who have money to spare can make charitable donations, in return for a tax credit. Garbage collectors are not among the think tank's well-heeled supporters. They are, instead, like you and me, among its victims.

The think-tank "promotes free market solutions to public policy problems," which means it promotes private schools over a public school system based on taxes (the public policy problem.) Since banishing public schools and--more to the point--the taxes that support them, is a charming idea to those who already send their kids to private schools, and don't see why they should take part in bankrolling the education of the rabble's brats, they're pleased to furnish the organization with tax-deductible "charitable" donations.

Governments, comprised of people who either count themselves among the comfortable who seek to enlarge their comforts by making the lives of the rest of us meaner, or are bankrolled by the same, have done their part, ensuring public schools are starved for funds, so public education can be scorned at every turn, and held up as second best to schools that are said to be disciplined by the private market, but are really awash in cash that public schools have been robbed of.

The same, in broad measure, is true of public healthcare. Privatized medicine is held up as a tasty cake to be salivated at (by Canadians and Britons who still have the dregs of a public healthcare system), a welcome relief from the diet of white bread they've been forced to endure.

But public healthcare, as much as public education, has been starved of funds, making comparisons with profit-making healthcare centres that cater to the rich as meaningful as comparing the income of garbage collectors to that of managers who work out ways to make others do more work for less pay. Sure, there's a difference, but does it have anything more to do with one getting more money than the other?

To furnish public services with the funds they're starved of makes more sense than abandoning them, letting low and middle-income families contend with sub-par, or no, services at all, while being hoodwinked by con men into believing they'll be able to afford tony schools and sumptuous healthcare clinics, so long as they deliver the okay to smash down the barriers that encircle the few remaining public services yet to be fully privatized.

But what makes sense hardly matters, for what's good for the majority isn't what animates what gets done, any more than the human requirements of decent work and secure income shape the terms and conditions of the garbage collector's job. Enlarging the interests of the comfortable, at the expense of the rest of us, is what matters. We are no less entries in someone's profit-loss statement than the garbage collector, who, after all, was never any different from you and me, no matter how much we thought so.

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What's Left