In late summer of 1973, the cucumber fields outside the Smucker’s pickle factory in Medina, Ohio were ripe for picking. I was barely a teenager, not old enough to qualify for minimum wage of $1.65, yet my middle school teacher, who had packed pickles every summer to make ends meet, got me a job on the “no questions asked” pickle packing line. She drove by to pick me up each afternoon while the pickles “were running” in her old Duster automobile to drive the hour to the factory. We only made $1.10 but the work was steady.
Each evening, we arrived at the Smucker’s parking lot to start work at 6 PM for a 12 hour shift that was broken up by two ten minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch. As I got out of the car that first night of pickle season, I saw several hundred migrant workers napping in the shady grass alongside the lot. Their soiled clothing covered their skin that had reddened in the Medina fields earlier that day as they picked cucumbers that would fill the pickle jars that night. They would now work their second shift on the factory floor with us.
My first night, I experienced how the world works. I walked through the long, dingily lit factory that steamed of vinegary pickle juice to take my place beside my teacher and the migrant workers of all ages, perhaps 50 workers on each side of a large conveyor belt. As we turned and looked to the front of the belt, a platform loomed over top, mounting a vat of new pickles above the conveyor. Behind the vat was a large clock on the high wall that I would stare at perhaps a thousand times that night as the minutes achingly ticked by. At the top of the factory wall, tiny horizontal windows allowed the sun rays to fall as we started our shift.
The factory manager mounted the conveyor platform to greet us and to instruct us that first pickle packing shift. The vat would drop the pickles onto the conveyor. Pickle jars would travel with the conveyor on the outside edges. Our job was to pick up these long dill pickles with one hand, place them in the opening of the jars as they travelled by, and pop them into the spaces between other pickles in the jars with the palm of our other hand. We were to repeat this motion several thousand times, stuffing each jar as full as possible, until the factory whistle would signal the end of our shift at 6 am the next morning.
That first night dragged on in slow motion. The acid from the pickle juice shredded the cuticles of my fingers and the hard concrete floor took its toll on my back. My palm ached from the repeated pounding of pickles into jars as they sailed past me. I found myself staring at the big clock on the wall only to be shocked when only five excruciating minutes had gone by. When my first break finally came, the floor supervisor led us off the factory floor to the break room, an amber tinge with four walls and a concrete floor where we could drop our sandwich bags and rest for only a brief moment before heading back to the line. Lunch came too late that night and ended too soon to relieve my stiffened body of its aches.
After having been tortured by the pickle packing pounding for 12 hours, I was relieved to see the sun peaking out over the windows lining the tops of the factory walls. As the shift whistle blew, the factory manager appeared once again on the platform above us at the head of the conveyor belt. He was like an Aztec god as the sun rays from the window pierced around his large silhouetted figure while the steam from the empty pickle vat misted the air behind him.
He lifted two large pickle jars, one in each hand, outstretched above his head. Raising his voice above the clamor of the factory that was just beginning to ratchet down, he cautioned us on our first day. “See these jars,” he shouted. “We cannot sell them. You can see that they are only half full with pickles floating inside the top. When you return at 6 PM, I expect you to pack twice as many pickles in each jar. And the conveyor belt was only travelling at 20 percent speed today. By the end of the week, you will be filling jars at full speed.”
I slumped off the factory floor that day too tired to be overwhelmed by the task that lay before me the rest of pickle packing season. Yet as I dragged myself to the Duster, I saw the migrant workers once again lying down in the shady grass to prepare for their shifts in the cucumber fields.
A few things come to mind as I recall the pickle factory 38 years later. First, American business has been executed on the backs of undocumented workers for many decades. Perhaps we should determine and document our desire for their role in our economy so that we may discontinue the farce of our “undocumented don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Undocumented workers have labored years for the benefit of America’s prosperity under the knowing eyes of millions of American business owners, politicians, coworkers, and neighbors. If they have a role in our future, then our laws should legalize whatever role that they will continue to play.
Second, our two tens and thirty minute lunch factory respite was not the leisure to which America has grown accustomed. To find any comfort in such a work environment took a discipline that will need to once again be summoned if we are to turn around America. Our growing desperation can be reversed and our belief and will to thrive can be challenged. Yet to do so, our nation’s political and business leadership must now lead.
Third, interestingly, while punishing our bodies over conveyor belts travelling at only 20 percent speed, our team of pickle packers only filled jars half full, not enough to sell into the world’s economy. We had to quickly step up to the competition. By the end of the week, we had gained the skill to grab a pickle, position it with one hand, and efficiently pop it between the folds of other pickles in continuous motion, avoiding bumping into our comrades on the line. This determination to gain world class pickle packing skills helped us all survive the pickle packing season. America must get on with retooling and retraining to take back world class jobs.
After seasons of discontent, Congress is again trudging the factory floor on its first day of pickle packing. Americans know that Congress must adapt a conveyor of ideas to a quickening speed of deliberation and that it must adopt a spirit of cooperation that allows competing ideas to pack so tightly into legislative pickle jars that when they are raised to the sunlight of tomorrow’s competition, they bulge the sides of the glass with America’s future prosperity.
The 2008 and 2010 elections lined the legislative conveyor with Democrats and Tea Partiers that that must now work tirelessly while the pickle vats are flowing. The season to turn around America is too short for the bludgeoning that we have seen thus far in debt ceiling debates. America understands that Congress is still learning how to pick up pickles and pop them into the jars of deliberation. Yet, as we see Greece’s legislature unable to meet the austerity tasks before them, we are also anxiously judging our Congress’s ability to turn up America’s legislative conveyor speed.
The debt ceiling factory boss already lifted jars above his head and said “Go back. Deliberate with speed or the automatic legislative conveyor will overtake you to slash the budget.”
Congress established a super committee to bypass the acidic pickle packing process and to avoid America’s judgment. Yet we know that all of Congress must eventually feel the hard cold factory floor and burn their cuticles in vinegary details. If America is to thrive, both aisles must quicken the legislative process in the tinge of an amber factory floor to grind out win-win, cooperative ideas for America’s turn-around.