Living the Day Labor Life
By Randall Williams
Vol. 10, No. 5, 1988, pp. 7, 20
Earlier this year, the Southern Regional Council published a lengthy investigative and analytical report of the growing temporary manual labor industry. Workers in these “labor pools” are among the least protected and most poorly rewarded persons in the U.S. labor force. The SRC report, entitled Hard Labor: A Report on Labor Pools and Temporary Employment, contained first-hand accounts by many unemployed and homeless men who rely on labor pools for their meager existence. One such worker is Wade Wagner, who was interviewed in Austin, Texas, by Randall Williams. Wagner’s edited comments follow. To obtain the complete forty-eight-page report, with illustrations and a statistical appendix, send $10 to the SRC, 60 Walton Street, Atlanta, GA 30303.
Monday, I had the flu. It took me till Tuesday to feel like going outside and getting a job. Wednesday, I get up and go out there about 8 o’clock. I worked about three hours yesterday. Trimmed trees. A contractor came through that I had been helping all along. I made about 16 bucks. That’s it up to this point. And I was standing around over there at Salvation Army when you came up. That’s been my week.
All I did was go in, get a shower, get something to eat. Actually, that diet, sometimes you have to eat food to satisfy your hunger but actually didn’t satisfy the taste buds at all. I got me a shower, and then a guy came through about 8 o’clock, and said, was anybody interested in going to church? And I said, I might go. “Will they have any refreshments?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m quite sure they will. I can’t say definite, but they usually have refreshments. Sometimes we have used clothes and things, too.” So about four of us jumped in this van and went and had services. And then after service, they didn’t bring any refreshments, so the church guy brought us back and on the way he stopped by a chicken place. So we all had chicken. Had a pretty nice time of it.
The Salvation Army can be okay. It can help a person because when people are living in the streets, and they have been living under normal conditions, you always like to have a change of clothes. At least every two days, you want to get out of ’em and change. But anybody that has lived normal like that, they’re going to find out, if they’re living in the streets, they can only carry what they carry in a bag. So therefore, you have to leave your bags, and they find that very hard to do. You know, in a safe place. And then going over here and taking a shower, where they’re going to sleep [at the Salvation Army], putting back on the same clothes they got out of, that they’ve been wearing two or three days or longer, actually it’s not going to do you much good to take a shower.
Another place you can stay is the labor hall’s bunkhouse. There’s a guy that sits there in the office. You go in to the window and pay your rent. They assign you a bunk. If you are a regular you can get a regular bunk assigned to you.
It is definitely adequate. I ain’t going to say it’s spic and span. But it’s clean enough. The linens are clean. It’s sanitary. It’s safe. Well, actually, anytime you have a bunch of men together, you’ll always going to find some disturbances. Somebody may have too much to drink, start a fight. Normally it’s just fists, but there has been some stabbings in the past. But usually everybody gets along fine. You can come and go as you please. Stay out all night if you want. No curfew. TV is usually off by 12 but sometimes they leave it on all night. You can play cards. You can gamble. You can have alcohol.
But getting back to the Salvation Army, in the dorm I was in, there was probably close to a hundred.
I got up and ate breakfast–about 4:30 they woke us up. Actually, I tried to eat breakfast. It was oatmeal and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t quite eat it. Even from a child I never could eat oatmeal. So then I walked over on Sixth Street to this 7-11 store and
had myself a good cup of coffee. Then I walked down on Second Street. It was real cold. Everybody was not going to get work. So then I walked back down on Seventh Street to the labor hall. But there wasn’t much going on this morning.
Most days are routine like that, if you can come up with enough to eat and get a place to sleep. Going back to what makes people happy, everybody likes to eat the best food that they could possibly get, like meat, vegetables, you know, an adequate diet, a nutritional diet. There are places where you can show up and get food. It might not be real tasty and it probably ain’t got that many vitamins but it’ll get something in your stomach.
With my cheap labor, I mostly have enough to cover coffee, cigarettes and food. What else do we spend money on? Everybody could probably get all the outside clothes–pants, shirts, tee-shirts–that he could humanly possibly carry around. He wouldn’t have to spend his money on that. Buying a car is completely still out of anybody’s income bracket. Bus fare is fifty cents, costs you a dollar to go round trip anywhere around town.
I don’t know any program that’s going to cover any medical expenses. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had flus and colds, but–Eckerd Drug has been my doctor, what with buying cough medicines, aspirins.
You asked about recreation. Well, we used to shoot backcourt ball down at the bunkhouse. I used to jog up to last year. There’s a track by the riverside, real nice. I used to jog but I found out my diet was not sufficient to jog, so therefore I was going to do more body harm by trying to jog on malnutrition than I was going to help. I like to go to movies but I usually don’t have the money. There’s a dollar movie over on Red River and fellows go over there if they have a dollar. Otherwise you can’t go. If you got in a card game and won $25 or something like that you might do it. But if you want to go to Antone’s, or a club with entertainment, if you like blues, and I am a blues fan… I’ve been trying to get there but I never can afford the $20 it takes.