Maybe a good work ethic requires real jobs

  A specter is haunting the mountain resorts of the West, not the specter of a working-class revolt against the owning class, but the specter of no working class at all.

In western Colorado in recent years, some restaurants and shops have had to cut business hours due to a lack of workers to fill their shifts. And many employers complain about the quality of the worker pool available. The problem has been exacerbated by the booming second-home construction industry, where grunt laborers get wages much higher than restaurants, shops and hotels can afford. Large resort employers now import planeloads of seasonal workers from Mexico, Africa and Europe to fill the gap, but small businesses lack that option.

A more subtle part of the problem seems to be attitudinal: Employers complain that the locals who will work don’t have a good "work ethic." Locals call in sick on powder days. There are "attitude" problems, mostly concerning surliness toward customers, and then there’s the matter of dress, tattoos, body piercings.

"Job applicants don’t ask about wages and benefits," one shop owner said; "they start by telling me what hours they are willing to work, and when they need a long weekend for a kayak trip or whatever."

But, while this is a real problem for business owners in the mountain valleys, I think blaming the "working class" for losing the "work ethic" — or at least expecting that reform should come from the workers — is a narrow and nostalgic approach that achieves nothing. That "work ethic" needs a little analysis.

The epitome of the pure work ethic in the Upper Gunnison Valley has always been attributed to the coal miners and the cowboys -- "pure" because, unlike the ranchers who work hard, and the shop owners and restaurateurs who work hard, the miners and the cowboys had no ownership in what they did; it was straight work for wages, the dirtiest, most dangerous work imaginable, for the meanest wages employers could get away with.

Most of the miners had traveled across an ocean for the opportunity to earn a few dollars a day working for companies that viewed them as less valuable than the mine mules (harder to replace). But what of their work ethic? Did they love their work? They were proud of their ability to survive the work, and to stand up to its brutal nastiness. But I don’t believe most toiled for any love of the work.

Once they began to organize themselves in unions to get better working conditions and wages, the owners raised the same cry we hear today about the loss of the work ethic. The Industrial Workers of the World ("the Wobblies") got slammed as the "I Won’t Work" union for arguing that workers should have reasonably safe working environments, an eight-hour day, and some tangible share in the ownership of the businesses that succeeded on their backs.

Joe Saya in Crested Butte said it for a lot of the miners when he told me, "If I had it all to do over again, I’d rather sell pencils in the street." But coal mining was at least an industry where great gains in productivity were possible through mechanization; the unions were able to make sure that those gains got spread around rather than all going to the owners. Those kinds of productivity gains are not possible in most jobs in the resort industry.

So if a community’s workers aren’t enthusiastic about jobs that don’t support such reasonable middle-class ambitions as desire for advancement, opportunity to purchase a home, the stability to start and raise a family, it’s not just a "work ethic" problem to blame on the workers. But on the other hand, it’s too easy to just blame it all on the "capitalist" owners of the restaurants and shops and hotels and say they just need to start paying higher wages. Not many of them are getting stinking rich exploiting labor. Many of them are having to pull their own shifts just to stay open.

It’s really a problem for the whole community of the New West to puzzle out. Just bringing in a globalized workforce from those abundant places where people are still desperate enough to be grateful for any work at all is a 19th-century solution that doesn’t address the larger problem at all.

Except that this labor force gets sent back home at the end of the season: No fear of them settling down, getting organized and rebuilding that vanishing middle class that was supposedly one of America’s greatest achievements.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He teaches and writes in Gunnison, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.