Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Labor Day follies

Our work is always more than just a job

Image courtesy of Richard Asinof

The headline from the Springfield Daily News announcing that Asinof & Sons in Chicopee, Mass., had been sold.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/28/23
The latest is a series of reflections on the nature of work and how we can invest in the human enterprise to make our lives better.
How will the news media respond to the release on Friday, Sept. 1, by OHIC, detailing how Rhode Island has invested in the rates of reimbursement for providers of mental health and behavioral health services, from 2017 through 2022? How many doctors and nurses have become providers of what is known as “direct primary care,” independent of corporate medical structures? When will Attorney General Peter Neronha release his proposal for solutions to the current health care crisis in Rhode Island?
How we talk to each other, or perhaps, more importantly, how we listen to each other, often feels like lost techniques of speech. The tendency is for people to talk at each other, making declarations based on opinions rather than facts. An entire generation of health care leaders in Rhode Island is now in active transition. What does it mean when a chief medical officer at a community health center leaves their job? Or, how does a hospital system talk about the changing dynamics of leadership around investments in primary care? When will health insurers change the equation around third-party prior authorization approvals, so that a company based in South Carolina is not making evaluations about the best course of treatment for a patient in Rhode Island, two days before a scheduled surgery?
The pathway to achieve better health outcomes depends on the ability to have an honest dialogue between patients, health insurers, and providers. The question is: where does that happen?

PROVIDENCE – My mother was a shop steward of her union, representing social workers at a local community agency, Jewish Family Service, in Millburn, N.J. She led a successful strike against the agency in 1970 – forever earning her the enmity of the established elders of the Jewish community, so much so that the rabbi of the congregation where my family belonged refused to shake her hand and wish her Happy New Year. That was the year when her name was not to be inscribed for a blessing in the book o f life, if the rabbi actually had any say in the matter.

Bosses have a way of seeking blind obedience and loyalty from employees and punishing those who do not bow down.

My mother’s transition from housewife to shop steward is one of those tales that does not get retold at family gatherings as an important historical marker in our own family’s history. Why not? [See link below to the 2018 ConvergenceRI story, “Labor Day blues.”]

In 2017, I had begun writing what has since evolved into an annual feature in ConvergenceRI, examining the conflicted nature of work as a way to celebrate Labor Day.

It began as a reflection of the time when I labored as a sous chef for a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., Rocky Racoon’s Saloon and Rosa’s Cantina. The owners of the restaurant were the sons of executives at Riggs National Bank, and the restaurant was an apparent way to launder cash. The photograph accompanying the story showed me in the kitchen, in full regalia in a dirty apron. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A personal meditation on the nature of work on Labor Day 2017.”]

In that personal meditation, I wrote: Years later I would discover that it was similar in nature to what George Orwell had once described in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, and his travails of daily survival working as a dishwasher, a plongeur, a pearl diver for hotels in Paris in 1928.

My dismal work experience, toiling in the kitchen hell, located in the basement of the restaurant, without any source of natural light, has forever shaped my understanding of the American work-a-day world. The lessons learned: It taught me the importance of the human spark that is necessary to stand up together to fight back against the greed, corruption and racism that is often an endemic part of American enterprise – and a respect for how difficult it is to escape the crushing nature of poverty, even while employed.

I walked out of that job on the day when the head chef, pulled a gun out of paper bag and put it up to the head of the broiler cook, pulling the trigger, which clicked on a empty chamber, as an unfunny joke. The head cook was addicted to speed, a gift from his days as a grunt in Vietnam. It was not a story that I ever included on my work resumé – or one that I shared with my parents or family.

How I ended up in that basement kitchen, running the lunch shift at a Mexican restaurant in the summer and fall of 1975, was a tale of personal economic survival. I had moved to Washington, D.C., in January of 1975, having been hired as an associate editor for Washington Newsworks, a weekly newspaper that was scheduled to launch that spring.

But fundraising for the venture kept missing its target. Without a steady income from the job-to-be, coupled with the economic difficulties of trying to make ends meet as a 23-year-old freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., I fell back on one of my few marketable skills – cooking in a Mexican restaurant.

I had been a line cook in a Mexican restaurant in Seattle, Wash., the Guadalajara Café, in the summer of 1974, having been bumped from a job on a salmon fishing boat bound for Alaska – after I hurt my ankle and before I was hired to write television scripts for the “Rockford Files” at Universal Studios. My life has never traveled in a straight, scripted line.

[My descent into the labyrinths of the kitchen was not for lack of effort on my part – I had been able to find freelance work for Rolling Stone magazine, for New Times magazine, and for the newly re-launched Harper’s Weekly, but it was not enough work to pay the rent.]

Stories that do not get told
In 2019, in the third edition of my Labor Day reflections, I wrote about my grandfather, my mother’s father, an immigrant from Romania who arrived in the U.S. at Ellis Island in 1900 at the age of 16. He once worked as a strikebreaker, because the wages he was offered were much better than what he was making as a day laborer in New York City. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “In America, all we do is work, but for whom? And, for what?”]

My grandfather became the epitome of the American dream, the self-made immigrant who became a pioneer in the plastics industry. He would pay for the rest of his family to come to America. His manufacturing plant in Kearny, N.J., known as the “factory” in family lore, had been built on land that was purchased from DuPont, where the original work had been done in manufacturing Teflon and the forever plastics known as PFAS.

It was only through my conversations with science writer, Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., who is working on her book, “The Song of Styrene,” that I learned the details of what had occurred on Schuyler Avenue in Kearny. Once again, it was a story that had not been shared at family gatherings.

The DuPont facility, it turned out, was located right next to the factory where my grandfather had operated his factory, also on Schuyler Avenue in Kearny, on land my grandfather had purchased from DuPont, I had written, in a story recounting my interview with Altman. My grandfather, a plastics pioneer, had been involved in the manufacture of cellulose and polystyrene, the latter product being what Altman’s father had been involved in manufacturing with Union Carbide.

“The development of Teflon at the facility just up the road from your grandfather’s place is where Teflon first went into production,” Altman explained, during the  interview. “You are like the first person I can talk to about Schuyler Avenue.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “What’s entangled and enmeshed in the plastic is us.”]

Exploited to the fullest extent of your talents
In 2020, the fourth edition of my Labor Day series continued with an essay about the nature of exploitation in the workplace, and the toxic culture endemic to most news organizations – including the workplace of alternative newsweeklies. The photograph illustrating the story was the memorable cover of the Jan. 26, 1977, edition of The Valley Advocate that was entirely devoted to the legalization of cannabis, a close up of the newspaper’s managing editor smoking a joint. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Exploited to the fullest extent of your talents.”]

The growth of alternative weeklies, once referred to as the ‘underground press,” was a technological blip spurred by the development of offset printing. Today, few of these weeklies have survived, having succumbed to the technology advances in online journalism – and the ability of the major news corporations to seize control of the marketplace. All the news that fits in print has become all the news that fits into a daily email feed from The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe – you name it.

The problem, of course, is not just the selective choices being made for you about what you should consider news – but the selective memory of what stories are told.

On this Labor Day weekend, if asked, what reporters in Rhode Island, in their weekly political columns, could explain what the origins of Labor Day were? ConvergenceRI had posed the question in 2020. Which reporters could identify who Frances Perkins was? Hint: she was a woman who served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet.

ConvergenceRI had continued: Or mention that the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, hailed as the birthplace of the industrial revolution in America [with pirated technology], was the site of the first organized labor strike in 1824, where young women workers protested a reduction in their meager wages, working in what poet William Blake had described in 1810 as “those dark Satanic mills.”

As A.J. Liebling once wrote in an essay in The New Yorker in 1960, in a parenthetical aside: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one.”

In the mid-20th century, the technological revolution of photo offset printing changed the economic dynamics of printing, moving away from the lugubrious process of forming lines of type in hot lead on linotype machines, moving toward creating columns of type on photo offset paper, which was then pasted onto blue-lined cardboard layout sheets and sent to the printer. Translated, a publisher no longer needed to own the press, only to rent it.

That technological evolution in moveable type further altered the Gutenberg Galaxy of modern culture and mass media, as Marshall McLuhan had described it. [Note that the incorporated name of The Valley Advocate was a playful pun, New Mass. Media.]

Fast forward
This year, in 2023, it is much more difficult to talk about the nature of work and the exploitation inherent in the workplace, because the definition of work itself has been forever changed by the continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health care industry has been torn asunder. The profession of caring for others -- doctors, nurses, technicians, and counselors – has disintegrated before our eyes. For patients, navigating the health care delivery system has become more and more cumbersome and expensive.

The concept for going to work by going to an office to sit behind a desk and to commute to and from work by automobile or by public transportation is a  product of a 20th-century economy that no longer holds sway.

The image that introduces this article is a scan of the front page from the March 15, 1961, evening edition of The Springfield Daily News, with the headline, “Asinof Factory Is Sold.”

It marked the end of the line for Asinof & Sons, a clothing manufacturer, founded by my great grandfather, Morris Asinof.

Why the factory was sold is still a bone of contention in the Asinof family. The reality is that my father lost his job, as did my uncle, and both had to recreate themselves. Our family moved from western Massachusetts to suburban New Jersey, outside of Newark. My mother went back to school to earn her master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Connecticut.

Sixty-two years later, all that remains of the legacy of Asinof & Sons is the newspaper headline. The former factory building in Chicopee was converted into an elderly apartment complex. Somewhere in my files there is a photograph of myself, holding my son, in front of Asinof Avenue in Chicopee.

With Labor Day fast approaching, the concept of work – what we do to earn a steady income – is still evolving.

Our own personal stories are our most valuable possession. Sharing them with others is what makes us human. The process of sharing our stories is what creates a sense of belonging, of a neighborhood, of an engaged community.

From short order cook to TV scriptwriter, from newspaper editor to sous chef, from managing editor to communications consultant, from television producer of documentaries to laborer – the transitions in my employment history do not make sense in a linear fashion. What I have succeeded at is in becoming an accomplished journalist, with more than 50 years’ worth of reporting.

I have earned recognition as a reporter who can be trusted to get the story right, particularly in health care, always protecting my sources, and, perhaps most importantly, always listening to the stories that people are sharing with me about their lives, as we struggle to survive in a time of climate urgency and economic upheaval.

On this Labor Day, let us celebrate the power of working together, as a team, as a community, as neighbors, in a collaborative fashion, recognizing that our lives will be better if we can find points of convergence.

© | subscribe | contact us | report problem | About | Advertise

powered by creative circle media solutions

Join the conversation

Want to get ConvergenceRI
in your inbox every Monday?

Type of subscription (choose one):

We will contact you with subscription details.

Thank you for subscribing!

We will contact you shortly with subscription details.