Germinal

9780199536894

Part of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Marquart series, Germinal is set in a mining town in 19th century France. Whatever you might imagine the life of a miner to be like, it was far worse in France. At times I had to put the book down, because it was just too heart-breaking to read about the suffering people endured.

The hero is Étienne Lantier who arrives in town seeking work. Trained as a mechanic, Étienne accepts the only work available, working in the mines. Pay’s low so he moves in with a mining family and shares a room with Catherine, their teenage daughter to whom he’s attracted. But love is not in the offing. Catherine’s jus 14 and her poor diet has stunted her maturation, but she’s involved with Chaval, a boy, who also works in the mine. Brutish and abusive, Chaval is a product of the mines, not the sort of boyfriend who can respect a girl. Respect though is a luxury item, just like a good meal. Like all their peers, Chaval and Catherine work all day in a back-breaking environment and spend their nights having sex in a kind of quarry. The young and old’s spirits have been crushed and there’s no hope, romance or joy. Life offers few choices so if you’re pregnant and your boyfriend beats you, you put up with it. Life’s about survival.

The work and environment is described in acute detail. Work was arduous in the sweltering mines. Pay was so low that children had to work. Encouraged by Étienne and a couple others who’ve read up on socialism and labor rights, the miners go on strike. Then the oppression reaches new lows. They’re tough and dedicated, but are soon starving as their pooled savings run out. As you’d expect the workers’ pay gets reduced and their expected output increased. The owners are far off in Paris. The mine’s run by managers who’re well paid, but have no power. Miners and their families start to die. Some return to work and violence ensues. Just as things appear to improve more disaster, disaster based on a true event, strikes.

Each day I looked forward to reading more of this gripping story, but then would have to put it down as the hardship was unbearable, worse than other stories of coal mingling like King Coal by Upton Sinclair. I appreciated Zola’s descriptions and how he portrayed his era with such clarity. (Though when people were moving through the mines it was hard to grasp how extensive they were.)

To his credit, Zola doesn’t glorify the miner’s and vilify the managers and elite. There’s plenty of realism and fairness to go round. I appreciated Zola’s prose and his complex characters.  I read that Zola researched Germinal painstakingly and even went into the mines to see the conditions.

Robots are Coming

On Sunday I happened upon a radio show about robots and how they’ll revolutionize industry. The program mentioned how construction is far more labor intensive compared to other fields and how there are now robots that do these jobs much more quickly and without needing bathroom breaks, vacations, lunch time, etc. Robots do need maintenance but they don’t get tired as people do. They don’t need insurance or a pension. They won’t strike. You get the idea.

The video at the top shows a robot that lays bricks. Masons are still needed, but not as many. The robot can lay bricks an estimated 3 to 5 times faster than a mason.

Here we see a robot that can do demolition work.

In the radio show, the presenters asserted that a house could be build much faster and far cheaper. A small brick house could be built for $5000. Amazing. That would really do something to the housing market as a whole.

Of course the big question is how will this impact labor and economics. People do need jobs. The Second Industrial Revolution featured great turmoil as the people who worked as craftsmen were put out of work. Can we learn from those mistakes? Can we plan so that thousands of people aren’t thrust into poverty?

We also have the advent of driverless cars. I’m not a fan. I realize that these cars can prevent accidents, but I like driving and accidents seem rare. This change will do away with truck drivers, cab drivers, bus drivers, etc do when their jobs are eliminated. One reason I prefer to take the bus if I’m in the city at night is that there’s a person who can take action if there’s a crime on the bus, while the subway lacks personnel. In the early days there are sure to be more accidents with the driverless cars malfunctioning.

Bughouse Square Debates

Don Washington, Mayoral Tutorial

Shakespeare Project – Julius Caesar

Saturday was the annual Bughouse Square Debates, a celebration of free speech held every July in Chicago’s Washington Park. It’s free and great fun. The even opened with an actor from the Shakespeare Project reading from Julius Caesar followed by an introduction by The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan. Kogan welcomed the crowd, explained the event’s history and shared Illinois governor John Altgeld‘s releasing the remaining Haymaker Square  protesters.

Then two Chicago Reader columnists received the 2014 Altgeld Free Speech award.Next Don Washington, the main speaker, took the stage. Washington gave an interactive “Mayoral Tutorial” which clued the audience in to how the current mayor is simply repackaging and using new terms to continue former Mayor Daly’s failed privatization schemes. For example, the “Concept Schools” are under investigation by the FBI because they allegedly use funds inappropriately to get visas for teachers from Turkey and Central Asia. Quite an unexpected way to keep teachers’ wages low. Another form of privatization Rahm’s Red Light ticketing scam, which anyone who watches local news knows are erratic and have been giving drivers who’ve done nothing wrong $100 tickets and the driver’s obligated to prove they’re innocent.

Washington was a powerful speaker and added playful interaction in his talk. He got the crowd to reach out to each other with a bingo game, which made me nervous as the man behind us was clearly a loud drunk. Luckily by the time I’d chatted with the people in front of us, someone had won. The reason for the interaction was that Washington thinks that people don’t know their neighbors and therefore can’t advocate for change since they’re isolated.

Don Washington

Don Washington

When Washington finished, the debates expanded as speakers took to the four soap box areas. I heard speakers on religion, Syria, healthcare and labor. This year wasn’t as good as in the past when speakers were paired with someone who disagreed with them. This year people just gave speeches. Only the Evangelical preacher was dynamic and got and handled hecklers with aplomb. The other speakers needed to practice more. Only the speaker on Syria and religion offered facts I hadn’t heard.

I was surprised that so much of the audience was over 60 — at least 50%. Aren’t the young interested in free speech? There were food trucks with empanadas, organic sausages and gelato.

I brought a former Chinese student with me and I tried to summarize and answer her questions. I do wonder what she thought of the event, which takes on tough issues with intelligence and frivolity.

Job Hunting

I shake my head whenever I think about this. I never thought this new job offer would become so confusing and annoying.  I haven’t even been up to writing about it, though I’ve mentioned it ad nauseum to my friends. Now I’ve been approved to keep my current job so all’s well. It didn’t look good 10 days ago though.  Here’s a run down.

As I said when I got the offer, I asked about housing and was told it was available for all teachers recruited from abroad. That’s why I accepted the job.

Then the new teachers got an email about 60 days of temporary housing. What? That’s not what I wanted, considering Macau’s the 5th most expensive city in Asia. I wrote to the director explaining how important housing was to me.

A week later all the new teachers got a long email and one of the items was housing. We were told that all new hires would get housing and that anyone who wanted housing had to apply for it. Is this too good to be true all of a sudden? We’ve gone from 60 days of temporary housing and the possibility of campus housing in January to immediate campus housing.  That’s good.

Well, by Monday, the relief had worn off and I was back to doubting. According to a PowerPoint on how to apply for housing, everyone must apply for housing. Housing would be allocated according to job title, family size, and a few other criteria. Distinguished Professors get 75 points, Professors, 60, Associate Professors 50,  Assistant Professors 40 and lowly Senior Lecturers and Secretaries 20.

Twenty?! Talk about insulting.  Now I would get 10 points for getting recruited from overseas, but I am single so unless I get a live in maid, which would net me 10 more points, I don’t qualify for the additional points for a spouse or children. Since I’m new I can’t claim credit for years of service.

The contract arrived on Monday. After marveling at the Portuguese, I got an English translation. The contract states that it supersedes all other communication between the employer and employee. Seems the email promising housing would count for nothing. Also, once you sign the contract, you have to give three months notice before quitting. So if someone signs it today and finds out July 15th, she doesn’t have housing, she either works for at least a semester or pays three months wages to the school. I’m not sure how they’d collect, but that’s what is stated.

Another interesting document came with the contract. It was a booklet explaining what income and assets teachers, as government employees have to declare. Macau wants to end corruption, which is admirable. They require people working in Macau to declare property, income, investments, jewelry, boats, and airplanes owned – whether they’re in Macau or elsewhere. Employees must declare such assets with a value over 500 points. I couldn’t figure out what a point is worth, but it was interesting that they insist on this. How would they check the veracity of foreign employees’ declarations?

Not my problem as I’ll be back in Jinan, but it’s interesting.

That 20-point scheme for English teachers is just galling. I bet it indicates how we’re treated across the board.

Nickel and Dimed

Northwestern dramatized Barbara Enrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed with great success. This three act play follows Enrenreich, a journalist who went undercover in Florida, Maine and Minnesota taking low paying jobs like waiting tables, cleaning houses and working at “Mall Mart.”

The cast was good especially Laura Winters, the star who was a likeable everywoman. Though it was hard to believe Winters was in her 50s, that wasn’t important. I hope to see Winters in more roles after she graduates.

What matters is that a privileged woman finds out how hard it is to get by on minimum wage, to find a decent place to live on meager wages. Enrenreich came to respect and understand her coworkers more than she expected.

The play, like the book, is a compelling look at those exploited by our economy.

Nickel and Dimed will be shown next weekend.