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A Dilemma: Good Climate or Good Wages?

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Old 04-28-2007, 12:18 AM
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Default A Dilemma: Good Climate or Good Wages?


Comes now a confession from me. Until now, I have only complained about my small Michigan hometown and how I couldn't wait to leave for good as soon as I was old enough to avoid being arrested as a runaway minor.

But I must admit that Benton Harbor had one shining virtue. It was a worker's "paradise" -- not in terms of climate or social sophistication, but in the ability to make a comfortable living with a high school diploma or even less education.

This was mainly because Benton Harbor was a strong union town. After World War II, many poor southerners had relocated to Benton Harbor which offered an abundance of decent-paying jobs for a town with a relatively small population of 18,000.

I had fled in the opposite direction to the climate paradise of Florida, a "right-to-work" state where unions were kept out of most industries. Florida should have been called a right-to-starve state based on the wages paid to typical workers.

I was earning only $60 per week and I had no health insurance benefits as a reporter for a daily newspaper in West Palm Beach when I became eligible for my first vacation. It was a one-week unpaid vacation and I decided to return to Benton Harbor to visit my mother and see how my friends were doing.

Although I could brag about living in a semi-tropical place with warm winters, I was surprised to discover that my friends were all making much more money than me for doing much less sophisticated work than I did.

One friend was already assistant manager of a supermarket, knocking down $150 per week with three weeks paid vacation per year plus health benefits. Not one of the young men I went to high school with earned less than $100 per week a year after we graduated. They could afford to live in nice two-bedroom apartments or houses while I rented a one-room "guest house" (read shack) in a fireman's back yard.

I was embarrassed to admit how little money I made doing a supposedly important job.

Before I left Michigan, I sent a job application to the chemistry department of Whirlpool Corporation, the washing machine manufacturer whose headquarters were in Benton Harbor where it was the largest single employer. I was a chemistry nut when I was a teenager and I was curious to see if my avocation could be turned into paying work some day.

During my brief vacation in Benton Harbor, my mother gave me a letter from Whirlpool she had forgotten to forward to me in Florida. It was a tentative job offer in Whirlpool's chemistry department.

I had no intention of giving up my newspaper job in Florida -- I was determined to be a writer even if it meant living on a wage that barely covered basic necessitites -- but I rescheduled the Whirlpool job interview and went in just for the hell of it.

I was surprised by what Whirlpool offered me: a nice clean job as a laboratory technician wearing a smock (as opposed to the dirty factory jobs that many of my friends had.) And the starting pay was $130 per week, more than twice as much as the salary I made in West Palm Beach where living costs were comparable to Benton Harbor.

I lied to the job interviewer and said I would get back to him soon, but the experience made me curious about something else. The next day I went to the daily newspaper in Benton Harbor and talked to the managing editor about a job.

After I explained my journalism experience in Florida, he promptly offered me a job as a general assignment reporter for $120 per week. This was a much smaller newspaper than the one where I worked in Florida, yet they paid twice as much because they had a union.

Of course I returned to my job in West Palm Beach (tropical junkie that I had become), but for a long time I couldn't shake the nagging suspicion that I was screwing myself financially. In Florida the sick joke was they paid you in sunshine because you sure as hell didn't earn much money in wages.

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Old 04-28-2007, 12:53 AM
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This is a wonderful piece, giving us a great veiw of how it is elsewhere.
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