Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

September 17, 2005

Response from Oregon

I just received an email from a gentleman who has worked for nurseries in Oregon. He is originally from Minnesota. When he first moved to Oregon, he was housed in nursery-provided housing. It was filthy, but free--at first. A while later the owners announced that they were charging him $400 per month for the space, so he went out and rented a real apartment.

During tree digging in October, he noticed that the Mexicans he worked with were getting sick from the cold. He went out and got them some hot chocolate and muffins, and they gobbled it up.

Within hours, he was called in and reprimanded for "being nice to the Mexicans." If you do that sort of thing, the owner said, they'll come to expect it. A month later, he was called in again on the same charge. This time they got more specific: You are to treat the Mexicans like robots. Give them orders and make sure they follow them. The only motivational tool you are to use is fear.

Well, he quit that job only to take another which ended up to be much the same. He hears stories from others in the nursery trade in Oregon who report the same treatment of workers throughout the nursery and farm industry there.

Depressing.


A little business and a little blogging

I have been watching the place today, which means hanging out in the office waiting for business. In August, when I am worn out on the public, I find the task difficult, but after two weeks of travel, I enjoyed visiting with the people who have stopped by today, including one weblog reader.

The gardens are on the downswing. We have stopped maintaining them. As soon as it freezes, they will be ready to rip out. Oddly, the mosquitoes, which have been absent for most of the summer, are ravenous today.

Had a little discussion with the aforementioned weblog reader about weblogging--the fact that I sit here writing about my life and there are up to 300 people per day (according to the counter) reading about my life--and yet, I know nothing about the daily lives of the readers. So people come here to visit who feel as if they know me, yet I don't know them.

It feels silly, at times, journaling for public view. It goes against all of my beliefs about privacy and the dignity of keeping to one's self. Yet, it has always been my dream to run a newspaper. With the weblog, I can have my own daily forum without the hassle of covering high school sports and city council meetings. I can publish my comments without ads, or the hassle of selling ads, and make it available for free.

Weblogging also gives me daily practice at writing for an audience. I appreciate all of you checking in--it gives me reason to write. I find that writing for some theoretical future audience (in other words, sitting down to write a real book) doesn't motivate me at all, whereas writing for you folks who read it within hours is downright fun.

I avoid most politics on the weblog because I don't have energy to deal with the rage sometimes released by political discussion. When you aren't face to face, people find it easier to "flame." That is internet parlance for emailing a very nasty diatribe to somebody you know you will never meet. When I get flamed, which is rare, I find it difficult to calm down.

Despite my fascination with religion, I don't discuss that much on here either. Part of me would like to, but part of me doesn't want to deal with the inevitable flak. People are quite sensitive about matters of belief. I think discussion about matters of belief should be in the realm of humor--since nobody can prove they're right anyway--but that simply isn't the way it works.

At other times, I would like to just pull the plug and write like I might in a private letter to a trusted friend. That is the tone struck by many weblogs. Hangovers, relationships, immoderate daitribes, the whole works, all aired out for the world to see.

I am not comfortable with such promiscuous revelation, although I have a feeling some people would enjoy my writing more if I really let fly. I just don't want to deal with the consequences. I am not locked up in an apartment in Minneapolis, sealed off from my readers, or writing for an audience almost identical in general philosophy to myself. I run a business in a small town, and as much as I hate to admit it, I do hold back a bit as a result.

When writing for an audience, every sentence is shaped by the writer's perception of that audience. There is no getting around it. My writing has been shaped by my beliefs (whether true or false) of my audience--they are older, generally more conservative than I, more careful than I, more proper than I, typical readers of a small town newspaper. If I cut it right, I give these readers permission to think things they otherwise wouldn't dare think. If I go too far, they will shudder in horror and recoil.

Despite these self-imposed limitations, I have greater freedom than most writers. I don't have to please an editor. I don't have to please somebody who writes my paycheck. For every customer who might be offended by something I write enough to quit buying petunias at our nursery there are probably a couple more who come just to see what I've been writing about. So, that's a wash.

Perhaps someday, I will write a book that lets it all hang out. Perhaps not. It could be that if I don't have the limitations imposed by my perceptions of my audience, I might not be able to write at all.


Airlines

Northwest and Delta airlines declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy this last week. United has been under Chapter 11 protection from its creditors for many months.

Meanwhile, Southwest and JetBlue, two low-cost airlines, are still making money, even with the increase in fuel prices.

I say let the big boys die and let free enterprise figure out how to meet the nation's air travel needs. The old-line airlines are saddled with union agreements which are unworkable. The new-line airlines like Southwest are vigorous, creative companies which have happy employees and happier customers. Southwest even donated the use of many planes for the hurricane relief effort.

I hope the government doesn't run to the aid of the airlines as it has in the past. Present government spending is out of control as it is. We don't need to be subsidizing boondoggles like the old-line airlines.


Follow up on foreign workers

I have spent a lot of time thinking about my experience last week, enountering what I think to be an system which invites abuse of foreign "trainees" on farms. Of course, not all such programs or farmers take advantage of trainees. But there is no question in my mind that abuses exist, and in pretty good numbers. One Brazilian student, who happened to be on a fairly good program, said he could find me hundreds of examples of the abuses I mentioned--and he was willing to get me the email addresses of the students.

What I need to do is find out what the law says. I suspect that the present system is fully legal, as long as the workers are defined as student "trainees." The question is, when the trainees are used simply for cheap labor, are they really trainees, or are they imported workers? The law is likely open to interpretation on that matter, and such an interpretation would be rendered by somebody in the federal bureaucracy.

To me, the minimum compensation required by common decency would be minimum wage minus a reasonable amount for room and board, if room and board are provided. In addition, if the program is presenting the visit to America as a cultural opportunity, and an opportunity to learn English, the students should be accepted by farms in that spirit. They should not arrive to be placed on a farm where the only interest is in their labor.

Such requirements would be difficult to regulate. I am always hesitate to advocate greater government involvment, but it is clear that when a system allows for abuse, people will take advantage of it if it will make them a buck. There is an assumption, which I sometimes share, that if you are allowed to do it, it must be okay. There are times, however, when it becomes glaringly obvious that what people are getting by with is just plain wrong.

In the case of the Brazilian workers I met last week, I think there are several things at work. First, there is an entrepreneur who figured out that he could get Brazilians (and some Japanese) to come here for $350 per month to work on farms. He also figured out that he could charge farmers $850 per month for the workers and pocket the difference.

Some of these farmers worked the trainees too hard, and he got complaints. Instead of blacklisting the bad farms, he decided to 1) select and train the students to survive on "hard farms" no matter what. 2) reward students who survived without complaint no matter the abuse. When you have each student bringing in $500 every month, you don't want anything or anybody messing with that revenue stream.

I met the man who is head of the entire program. He is Japanese. His English is just so-so. Just after meeting me and being very polite, he turned around and dressed down four Japanese students for the sin of standing too close to the hotel check-in counter. They had to check in, too, but he made them step back a yard behind a line in the carpet until he was finished. He was not polite about it, and the students, who had been all full of fun a minute before, were silent and looked at the floor in shame. I don't think this was a nice man.

The students I spoke to were all aware that the program was not their ally. They knew that $500 per month was way too much for the services rendered by the program. They knew that the program wanted them to stay with the hard farms at all costs. Yet, they celebrated like new graduates, even hugging the founder of the program. He was clearly uncomfortable, but went along with it.

I asked two students to estimate what percentage of them had a better opinion of the United States after their experience, and they both agreed about 20% had good enough experiences here to think well of this country--even though most of them wanted to come back to make the big bucks they still assumed were available here.

This was just one program. There are many. I suspect many are decent. But the measuring stick I would use is this: Are the students carefully watched after? Do they get the equivalent of minimum wage? Are the families required to show some interest in them as human beings here for a cultural experience rather than just as cheap labor?


September 15, 2005

Back in the saddle

It is good to be home, particularly this time of year. I recall a couple of years ago when I spent the last half of August and the first part of September in Europe, I returned home to find that the colors of September in Minnesota beat everything I had seen. The same held true this trip. For all of the spectacular scenery I saw, the colors--of the soybean fields, the swamps, the ditches, the just-starting-to-turn leaves--are the best here.

The swans are gone. I knew they would be, but the swamp is quiet without them. Deadly still, in fact. I don't even see any ducks. A few geese stopped by today for a while.

Spent the day getting caught up. Read the mail. Threw the mail. Got a nice letter from a 5th grader in Fertile whose teacher is making him learn more about writing. He had a list of queries, including 1) how many kids do you have? 2) will you send me a bookmark? 3) please send me an autographed picture, and finally 4) is Eric Bergeson your real name?

Countering that sweet letter was one from a woman who said my column is juvenile and "does nothing for my sense of humor." She said she was sad that I wasn't more grown up and that she wishes I would show more respect. I responded in sign language, which was fine since she lives 500 miles away-- and provided an effective way to get my feelings out of my system without further ruffling her henfeathers.

A plan for a new greenhouse was presented to me by the powers that be. I said let's go for it. We broke ground an hour later.
Greenhouses are light structures--just a bunch of bent aluminum tubing, pretty much--but they can take about a month of labor for a couple of people--at least--to put up. So, it will be a busy fall.

The big problem is building up a big enough space behind the buildings which is at the level of the other greenhouses. We're getting close to a swamp. So, we will have to do some moving of dirt. And no, we won't be digging up cattails.

Dirt moving! That rouses everybody from their slumber. I was second to the Cat loader--Ken beat me, but I later pulled rank and forced him onto the International with the old yellow scraper behind while I played around in the air conditioned cab of the Cat. Fun, fun. And Dad, our main dirt-mover, wasn't even there. He was in Grand Forks looking for a conveyor--to move dirt.


Surprise



I could tell something was different when I got home last night, even in the dark. The full extent of the change didn't become apparent until the sun rose this morning. Dad has been busy while I was gone, finishing the landscaping of the house.

What doesn't show in this picture is that Dad redid the slope of the land all around the house. Dad has been landscaping all his life since he worked for Grandpa on probably hundreds of yards, golf courses and the like. He has an eye for seeing what has to be done. This scene was full of brush and clay when I left. Now it is planted in grass.



The front of the house wasn't up to grade and what was there was hard clay left over from the building project. Now, the ground in front of the prow is ready for impatiens next spring.

Dad figures he burned about $100 worth of diesel fuel getting it done--well, that's not too bad, considering the gas prices--and considering that the whole project filled me with dread.

Thanks, Dad!


September 13, 2005

I-80 in Nevada and Utah



This is a salt flat up close. Yes, it tastes like salt.



This is somebody's idea of art. In fact, it is the outstanding vertical feature on I-80 as it skids across the salt flats. There were signs along the freeway: "Do not drive tired!" "Driving fatigued is dangerous!" "Please pull over if you are drowsy!" Huge signs. I wonder if the salty air puts people to sleep.



The empty spaces on the map in central Nevada really aren't so empty--not if you enjoy scenery like this, as I do. It is utterly unpopulated, and the vast spaces appear completely free of the stain of human toil. (I guess that means no roads or wires.)


I-80

I have spent three days on I-80. That's enough. Nine hours per day. It is probably a good idea I don't look into the details of these trips ahead of time or I would never go.

I am in York, NE at the same Comfort Inn I stay at when I go to Arizona.

Yesterday, I set my sights on Rock Springs, WY. I pulled into the town at 6:30 p.m. It is really remote. And there wasn't a hotel room in the city available. I knew I was in trouble when the run down local skanky motel with the neon sign with three letters burnt out had their NO VACANCY sign on.

Called Lance. While I drove, he got on the internet and looked for hotels down the road. The next one available was in Rawlins, WY, ninety miles away. Ugh. I had already driven myself out for the day. However, at 80-miles-per-hour, it went fast.

I knew the hotel wouldn't be much--it was the only one with rooms left, and there were a lot of them, most dark. It was only moderately clean and quite run-down. No internet. Questionable plumbing. (The toilet wasn't attached and just about tipped over, for those of you who want details.) A long-closed restaurant attached to the side. It was a little depressing, but I was pretty happy to have a room.

Wyoming is beautiful--I have never gone across on I-80. However, my eyes are burnt out on scenery. The snow-capped mountains didn't make much of an impact on me as I raced across this morning, passing some of the same semi trucks I have been passing for the past three days.

Reaching Nebraska's border means better rest areas. Some of the cleanest in the country, in fact. I was going to take a picture to post here but thought better of it.

Tomorrow, home again.


The salt flats of western Utah



The wastes of central Nevada



A revolutionary Ladies Aid

Weblog reader Linda asked that this announcement be passed on for an event tomorrow. Sorry I didn't get it in sooner, but I had no internet last night in the hotel in Rawlins, Wyoming. More on that later.


September 12, 2005

Hightailing

I am heading back to the middle of the USA at what for me is breakneck speed--about 600 miles per day. Yesterday I only made it 400 miles before stopping in Winnemucca, an outpost in the wastes of Nevada.

The short stay in CA--one day--was enough for this trip. The goal of the trip was to show Cassio and Raciel some of the western United States. With that accomplished, I became eager to get home.

I continue to be disturbed by the treatment received by some of the students I met. I keep running my last column through my head--some people have already objected to it--but I have decided that I am sticking by my guns: Working eager 19-year-olds for less than $2 per hour is wrong no matter how you cut it. Of course, many of the farms pay them more. But the fact remains: the system allows them to be abused if somebody is so inclined. And that is wrong.

I suspect Cassio was razzed quite a bit for having a boss who brought him out to the final meeting. The spirit of the group of kids was one of celebration--that they had survived an ordeal. The heroes were those who had a "hard farm" and made it through. The ethos of that particular training program was that of a stint in the military. You will have a hard time, and it will make you a better person.

I have to admit that sometimes I think the best thing for some of our 19-year-olds would be a little military training. Needless to say, the Brazilian students in this program make wonderfully eager workers. However, I think discipline should be accompanied by dignity. And if discipline is to be an act of caring, it has to be meted out by somebody who cares--not somebody who abuses.

I had a long talk with Lance on the phone about all this--he compared the experience of the students with that of people who have an alcoholic and abusive father. The tendency is to blame yourself. Appease, appease, appease. There is great pressure not to assert one's self in any way. In this case, Lance said, the power of American culture--these kids were so glad just to be here--was one force which kept them submissive. Added on to that was a program which seemed structured to cater to slavedrivers.

Whenever I encounter such a system of authoritarian control, I get spooked. I once held a job--briefly--writing for a firm which, it turned out, was simply an extension of the ego of an abusive bastard. He didn't care so much about profits as he did that all of his employees be abjectly submissive. It took a while for me to realize this--I am slow to catch on--but it hit home when he ordered me to clean the men's bathroom (I was hired as a writer) right after he had made a complete mess of it. I suspect he was having a tough time dealing with my independent streak, anyway. I walked out. I am sure that was a relief to him, although I found out later that he called a meeting to blame the other employees for my leaving.

One common streak pervades these authoritarian systems which pop up in families, religious organizations and businesses: Only the leader is allowed to have dignity. Any dignity which appears in underlings is a sin, an inexcusable expression of self. The goal of the organization becomes stripping people of their dignity. Those who go along with the logic of the system by stripping themselves of dignity view those who hang onto some dignity as suspect.