Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Lazy Mexicans

David Niewert is doing the heavy lifting these days for progressives, but there was a time when heavy lifting was not his best quality.

The first time I encountered Mexican workers was in 1975, when I came home to Idaho Falls from college in Moscow, Idaho, looking for work for the summer. The first place I could find that would hire me was a potato warehouse out on Lindsey Boulevard, next to the rail tracks.

Most of my co-workers were from Mexico, were likely illegal immigrants, and most of them spoke only Spanish. But they were friendly and tried to help me and my friend Scott, who had also gotten a job there. We both towered over them, and we were both in pretty good shape; I was 18 at the time, and had spent the previous summers hauling pipe in potato fields, so I knew what hard work was about. But we weren't quite prepared for this work.

Basically, the job entailed loading 100- and 50-pound gunny sacks of potatoes into rail cars: stacking them onto a dolly, rolling them into the car, and stacking them up. This is a reasonable job when the stack is less than chest high, but loading them over our heads was a real test.After two weeks, I failed it. I was completely exhausted and broken down by the end of that time. I called in, said thanks for the opportunity, and quit. (So did Scott.) I wound up setting up my own house-painting business that summer and making my tuition that way.

But I'm sure that most of those Latino co-workers not only stayed on, they probably worked at the warehouse year-round. Because they were simply unfazed by it all. They could load, stack, and load some more, all of it far more efficiently than I ever could. And at the end of every day, as I collapsed in a heap, they were still in good spirits.

Not only were they the hardest-working people I ever met, they also had the best work ethic I ever saw. That is, not only did they work hard, they worked smart. I muscled those 100-pound sacks of spuds up to the top row, while they simply tossed them up with a little leverage and technique.

Oh, and my old boss back at the potato farm where I hauled pipe? Within a couple of years after I left that farm, he went to an all-Latino crew, and he admitted to me that they were mostly illegals. But, he said, they worked harder and better and far more reliably than any crew of teenagers ever had for him. Having been one of those teenagers, I knew exactly what he meant.

I can testify that my own experience with immigrants in general, Mexicans in particular, has been much the same. I hired the first Mexicans at one of the busiest cafeterias in the market in 1982. All I can say is it was an answer to prayer. Six years later, at another location, I went through the same thing. After stumbling along with high-school kids and other hard-to-manage individuals, I let Mexicans take over my dishroom. I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. It was the end of broken dishes, quarreling, absenteeism, complaining, and instability. When someone wanted to go to another job, or stay home with a new baby, or return to Mexico for family matters -- they would let me know in advance and often bring in a successor to the job being vacated. You think I didn't take advantage of that kind of loyalty and reliability? You think I'm stupid?

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