What Dock Workers Need, and What Government Can Give

I’m trying to decide whether the second stop in Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s self-promotional 1,000-day tour on Monday is inspired or ironic:

At 9 a.m., she’ll be at Handrigan Seafoods, 280 Great Island Rd., in Narragansett to announce an expansion of Real Jobs RI, which trains Rhode Islanders in the skills that employers need.

Handrigan is a commercial fishing dock at which I worked while in college.  Most of the jobs, there, range from dumping weighed baskets of fish into waxed cardboard boxes to sorting fish by size.  The business also has these really neat giant staplers so employees can put the boxes together during down time.  Although the atmosphere has its romance (as I tried to capture in a chapter of my youth-written novel), the job hardly requires more than a day here and there of on-the-job training.  Such employers, in other words, need brawn and, ideally, some reliability rather than “skills.”

On the other hand, I can testify that a couple of seasons as a dock worker rejuvenated the motivation to return to and do well in college that selling fish off a truck in New Jersey for two years had initiated.  Starting a frigid workday at 4:00 a.m. and discovering just how impossible it is to keep the insulation of “waterproof” gloves dry doing such a job can cast one’s mind to other job prospects.

Of course, I was the only college student working there, and even over time, such employees weren’t as plentiful as one might imagine.  For the most part, the ambitious employees look for open slots on the fishing boats.  Some slide into less harrying jobs, like at the bait dock next door.  Others find that the margin between work and welfare isn’t worth the frozen fingers.  Some anesthetize their lives with drugs.  Returning from a sports-related day trip to Block Island, last weekend, I could see from the boat that some of the same guys are working the line twenty years later.

So, is Raimondo’s message that her government program will give employees a way out of that life?  Or did her handlers just like the active New Englandy scenery as a backdrop for a program that really has nothing to do with the men-as-props behind her in the camera shot?  One detail from the above-linked chapter of fiction that I took from real life was the resentment of the workers as vacationing ferry-goers stopped to watch the arduous labor.  I can still hear the voice of one of the giants on the crew (who wouldn’t marry the mother of his children because the welfare system created a disincentive) as he shouted, “Ain’t you ever seen people working before?”

If the governor gets them on television, the excitement will probably outweigh the sense of exploitation.  But if she really wants to improve the opportunities for Rhode Islanders like those men (whose sons she would not consider eligible for her “governor for a day” student essay contest), she should cease the central planning and seek economic development by freeing up the economy.  The bottom level of pay should be determined neither by government fiat nor by the necessary margin above welfare, but by the vast availability of alternative jobs of all kinds, suiting the interests and personalities of all types of workers, and the possible career paths away from the docks should be expanded by reducing what the government tells businesses and the self employed they must or cannot do.

One suspects, though, that leading my former coworkers to more-fulfilling lives is not the top priority of politicians or progressives, for whom we’re all just props in a PR blitz or personal morality play.

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