The Power of Work

My parents taught me a very valuable lesson before I was to attend college. They got me a job with my mom’s employer, Green Giant, Inc., for the summer season — the busiest time of the year.


I joined dozens of other new workers at the graveyard shift — 11 pm to 5:30 am — to cut and trim broccoli spears for broccoli and cheese sauce in plastic packets. The boil-in-the-bag kind of food that Green Giant, Birds Eye and other big agra companies were known for. My first day of work, I was allowed one light blue plastic handled carbon steel knife, a regulation pair of thick rubber gloves and a plastic shower cap to keep my hair out of the food. I wore knee high rubber work boots and a clear plastic apron.

I was still a teenager. Sleep was important, not only for health but escape. Being up to work at the time you’re normally lights out took some time to get used to. Then there was the monotony of seeing the same thing — broccoli — coming at you in an endless, relentless stream.

You were paid by the hour and your work product was graded. After two long hours we were given a break. It was necessary. The combined exhaustion of the late shift, the monotony and the repetition was enough to make you hallucinate. And that was not the worst thing that could happen to you while working a graveyard line shift.

At first, mom and I worked the same time, but three days into my schedule, her seniority on the floor allowed her an earlier shift. I was happy for her; she would get some rest. I, on the other hand, would have to stay on the graveyard shift. It was then that one of the more senior women, a middle-aged woman from Arkansas, came over during lunch break and showed me the ropes of working in the jolly Green Giant machine.

The giant vats used to make the cheese sauce never employed real cheese. Fifty-pound bags of orange powdered product were poured in to these vats and blended with an emulsifier that delivered cheese “product” into each of our little broccoli bags. You had to be strong to heft the loaded bags into the vats, or you would topple into the machine.

Next we snuck into the cauliflower section of the factory. It was dormant in summer. Cauliflower season hadn’t begun. There were rows of what looked like stainless steel basket steamers splayed open. But these were trimmers, not steamers. The folding steel plackets were razor sharp blades that spun to trim the excess greenery from the cauliflower heads.

The workers would place the crown of the cauliflower head onto a spike dead center in the circular trimming machine, and the blades would activate with the pressure, whirling and cutting until each cauliflower head was “uniform.” It was not uncommon for workers to lose a finger or a portion of a hand while working the cauliflower shift.

For the two weeks I worked there the summer of 1973, I watched the plant safety sign each night, with the small OSHA logo on the bottom right margin. I always checked to see how many days had passed at the plant since the last accident. As a laborer, you need to be aware of those things — especially nowadays, when some companies don’t report accidents or fatalities, or even do anything about them unless worker or union pressure comes down hard. Now, more so than before, even that won’t prevent labor abuse.


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Fortunately, Green Giant was a Teamsters shop. Mom was a standing member. The union pressured the company to abandon the cauliflower trimming machines. By the time I landed my first big management job in the public sector, Green Giant sold the plant to another company, which ran it for another twenty years until the property was sold again and the plant converted to do something else. I’ve stopped checking to see what has happened there since.

Working there when it was a food factory was one of the hardest and most important things I have ever had to do, which was exactly the reason my parents wanted me to work there that summer in the first place, and for which I am forever grateful. They wanted to make sure I would apply myself to my studies more, rather than dream away my life working in a factory in a small town without a future. Lesson learned.

I also came to appreciate the workers, including my parents, who have had no choice but to do those jobs that most people would never dream of or want to do. For a very short time I was one. From the agricultural fields to the kitchens, in plants and factories around the planet, human toil still provides comfort and sustenance to those comfortable enough to afford it, and profit to those rapacious enough to exploit it.

For those whose life is hard labor, and who continue to do the work most of us refuse to do, Labor Day commemorates the hard-fought rights won to protect workers who are part of the widest and lowest layer of the pyramid upon which the world rests.

To celebrate this holiday beyond the barbecue and the beach and the last days of summer, the meaning and the power of the labor performed by workers who make our lives easier needs to be appreciated, remembered, and never taken for granted. By their life, breath, skin and blood, they make our lives look easy by comparison.

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About Fe Bongolan

Planet Waves writer Fe Bongolan lives in Oakland, California. Her column, "Fe-911," has been featured on Planet Waves since 2008. As an actor and dramaturge, Fe is a core member of Cultural Odyssey's "The Medea Project -- Theater for Incarcerated Women," producing work that empowers the voices of all women in trouble, from ex-offenders, women with HIV-AIDS, to young girls and women at risk. A Planet Waves fan from almost the beginning of Eric's astrology career, Fe is a public sector employee who describes herself as a "mystical public servant." When it comes to art, culture and politics, she loves reading between the lines.

11 thoughts on “The Power of Work

  1. Amy Elliott

    For more information on workers’ rights, here is the relevant OSHA page.

    I must say I feel fortunate by comparison. The UK’s legislation still leaves a good deal to be desired, but the power of health and safety law is formidable. (Although I’m not sure how much will be left intact by 2020.)

    Happy Labor Day to all our readers.

    1. Deborah

      In 1971, I married my first Viet Nam at 18. I needed “a real job” to supplement my weekend gigs as a “chick singer”, so convinced the HR guy at an electrical switches factory that I should work there. He’d told me that my tests showed I didn’t possess the temprement for factory work but took pity on my situation and gave me 40 hours a week on the floor doing various tasks, rotating to different machines so I wouldn’t get bored (or go postal). I lasted less than 3 months, could never make the quotas that the other women reached with ease…some had been there over 40 years…I’m still in awe of those women. Thank you Fe, and Amy, happy Labor Day to all.

      1. Fe Bongolan

        You’re welcome Deborah! And much regards to the women at the plant and men and women everywhere who do the jobs that need doing: I know for a fact the food industry from farms to fancy restaurant industry in the US would crumble under a Trump immigration policy. What people don’t see yet act on can harm all of us.

  2. Amanda Painter

    Such a valuable experience for you, Fe! I’ve never done factory work, but I’ve experienced monotony and repetition in the form of some data-entry and filing temp jobs that were fairly long-term for temp work.

    It’s so easy to discount or overlook the mental and physical toll this work takes on workers, even when nobody is losing a finger or worse. That so many countries still force children to do such work is disheartening to say the least.

    Side note: Sometime in the last year I went to a local arts venue. I forget the title of the video-art show they had running, but part of it included a video of former automotive assembly line workers standing in front of their former (now closed) factory, I think in Detroit. Each of them would do whatever physical motion they used to do with the machine they used in their part of the line — so, you’d see a woman of man do their machine in the air several times in a row before the video went to another person.

    What I was struck by was just how clearly their bodies translated not only the shape and rhythm of what they did, but often also the force or pressure needed, or a little kickback from the machine. Their body memory was so deep and so tangible, I really felt like I could see what they were doing even though I don’t know the first thing about an automotive assembly line. It was almost dance-like — but it was missing a crucial element of dance: joy in the movement.

    There was familiarity; maybe even some satisfaction along with whatever emotions the memory (and the absence of that job) evoked. But this is not a kind of physical movement that enlivens anyone. And yet, according to how our society has grown and what it demands, somebody must do it.

    1. Fe Bongolan Post author


      As I was reading your description of the performance, I was also thinking about the work of spinning and weaving, as well as throwing pots on a wheel or hand-building them.

      So much joy in the work goes into a singular creation you can call your own, yet when that creation is broken down into component parts you can lose the meaning of the creation you’re contributing to. Thank you, Henry Ford.

      I keep thinking back to an article I read in Vanity Fair — another cost of Brexit will be who will pick the vegetables for English country farms? Where will the labor come from? One of the major hurdles any new immigration policy in America will have to involve a look at the food industry — from farm to restaurant and grocery store. As Anthony Bourdain said: you send back Central and Latin Americans to their home countries, the entire food industry in the US would collapse.

      Yes exactly Amanda, someone has to do it. The thing is we’ve been ignoring or forgot basic facts about our society and economy. Folks are still trying to come to grips with the part they play in the racism that is a basic part of our economic infrastructure; slavery and below minimum wage pay for hard labor. Under that umbrella comes the blind eye to the people who are invisible yet who provide the things that make all our lives easier, healthier, and less expensive.

      This is what’s so heinous about the blind racism of Mr. Farage and Mr. Trump — their supporters and the men themselves. Their scapegoating people who have no voice, The value of their contribution is rarely discussed. And if we the benfitting consuming society do not remember them, who will?

  3. Lizzy

    “I keep thinking back to an article I read in Vanity Fair — another cost of Brexit will be who will pick the vegetables for English country farms? ” Fe – would be great if you could post the link to this article – if you still have it?

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