Monday, February 8, 2010

About Dustmen

There is much work to be done in the world, and this work is not always pleasant.

(D. Richardson)

This precious little book about garbage collectors popped into my hands at the Downtown Community Ministry Book Fair last year. I haven’t been able to find out very much about it, except that it dates back to the nineteen-thirties and that it was part of a series that included also information on policemen, firemen and postmen. The author, one D. Richardson, worked at the Froebel Education Institute’s demonstration school. He explains in the foreword the objective of the series, which went by the title of An Introduction to Citizenship:
We believe in democracy – in civil liberty, freedom of speech and movement, trial by jury, the right to choose our own representatives – in government by consent of the governed. It has taken hundreds of years to win us these things and we want to pass them on to our children.
But in these days, and in the days ahead, of social, economic, political, and international unrest, will our children be able to hold on to this precious legacy; will they enlarge it in terms of happiness and the “good life”, or, as we have seen elsewhere, will they allow it to slip from them?

The intent then was to teach civics as an antidote to totalitarianism, and to do so by telling young children about the work needed to ensure that the roads be clean and safe, and the mail be delivered. A curious choice, given that all these functions would have been carried out in very similar fashion in Italy or Russia at the time, and likely held in similar regard. Note too how the focus is on male professions only, and nothing is said for instance about nurses or teachers.

Nonetheless, and while I’d love to get hold of the other books in the series - especially the one on policing - About Dustmen holds plenty of interest, being replete not only of markers of the ideology and the spirit of its times but also of facts and pictures describing in extensive detail the life cycle of refuse and the daily routines of the people in charge of collecting and sorting it. Moral, upstanding men ('when a man is being chosen his manners are noticed carefully') who carry out essential and strenuous work for modest pay and whose only career prospect is to become inspectors and earn a more richly decorated uniform, as well of course as no longer having to lift bins.

The function of the inspector is not only to monitor the work of the dustmen but also the habits of householders, among whom one is bound to find a number of thoughtless, careless, lazy and wasteful people. An exemplary cautionary tale goes by the title of a thoughtless woman and her dog:
There is a true story of a woman who went running down the street after a dustcart. Hearing her shout, the driver thought that something serious had happened. Quite out of breath, she explained that her little dog's enamel food dish was amongst the rubbish in the cart.
The dustmen promised to look for it when the cart was emptied.
After raking through the piles of rubbish, they touched something hard and round. It was the little white dish. But many minutes of their time had been wasted.

Held in even greater contempt is the figure of the totter.
You have read that some dustbins are put on the edge of the pavement late at night and are left there until the dustman comes early in the morning.
Very often he finds the lids off the bins and the rubbish scattered about the street.
What a trouble that is for him and for the street sweepers!
It is the totters who have done it.
They are people who rake about in dustbins trying to find anything that will be useful to them or that they can sell. They do not care how much mess they make.
If the police see them, they stop them at once. But totters are very clever at doing their raking when no one is looking.

Original caption: 'Have you ever seen a totter?'

There are obviously unpleasant undercurrents here, ideas about what is orderly and good in society that deserve to be examined. But there are also useful reminders of what happens to our waste not solely in terms of the physical chain but also of the human landscape, the various categories of workers who oversee this traffic of stuff on its way to being buried, burnt, dumped or shipped overseas, or more rarely reused or recycled. And it reminds us that it is not only necessary work, but that it has positive value in terms of human ecology.

It is not so much that we don’t think about waste these days – we do. It’s the workers who have been made invisible. So I pick up About Dustmen and yes am struck by its paternalism and by the things it does not say, but I also note that it tells me about the working conditions and the hours and the pay of these men, about the gestures and the tools and the systems of their profession, about their few prospects and expectations. And it seems me that it wouldn't be a bad place where to start a conversation with children, or indeed people in general, about citizenship.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate), 1901

Article 1 of the Italian constitution says that ‘Italy is a democratic republic founded on work’. Article 4 says that ‘the Republic recognizes the right of all citizens to work and promotes those conditions which will make this right effective,’ and moreover that ‘every citizen has the duty, according to his possibilities and individual choice, to carry out an activity or a function which contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society’. These are not bad principles to found a modern nation upon. Yet to the extent that it was ever meaningfully embraced, the notion of a person’s right to work, in Italy as much as in New Zealand and most Western nations, has been very successfully eradicated. Just the other day, in receiving the news about our worse-than-expected (by whom?) unemployment figures, Mr Key flashed a smile halfway between the reassuring and the resigned. That the state is neither responsible for nor capable of securing employment for its citizens is a concept so natural that it can be conveyed entirely via non verbal cues.

The invisibility of the working class, and of course of the unemployed except when it can be cast as a bludger, is essential to this erasure. So where are these workers? What do they look like? They say you need an image. They say that those first photographs from space of the whole earth were an important catalyst for the birth of the environmental movement. Do we have an image for what it means to work?

(Seriously, I'm not being rhetorical here.)

If you had asked that question in Italy until three or four decades ago most people would have visualised the painting by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo reproduced above, in which the working class is represented in the act of striking. It is a rural strike, quite appropriately - in 1901 the country had barely been touched by industrialisation - yet it remained absolutely iconic for at least three quarters of a century. It was on every other book and poster and conference and festival that had anything to do with the working class. In Rosarno a localised version with olive and orange trees was painted on a wall of the central post office.

Image via Fortress Europe

If you insisted that factory work be considered the fundamental unit of labour, then what about this picture of workers outside of the Pirelli factory in via Ponte Seveso, Milan, in 1905?

It is a poor reproduction, I know, but last time I was home I saw it on all its glorious detail in one of Mum’s books. It’s not a workforce on strike, but it’s a large group, seemingly aware of its strength, and they are all looking at the camera at the same time with the fixed stare typical of the photographs of the era, which is a little freaky, and some of them are clinging to bits of the façade so they can all be seen, and it reinforces the no doubt romantic, historically inaccurate idea that it was their factory and their jobs, their work.

So this was the image of the factory worker, la classe operaia, linguistically and materially synonymous with the Italian working class. Perhaps in Britain the iconic figure would have been the miner, in New Zealand, the watersider. Perhaps we choose to recognise the great struggles, even in defeat. But no more. Work no longer works that way. We have outsourced our visible working class, our manufacturing, displaced the ownership of the things that we buy and the conditions in which they are produced, and we have quite successfully spirited away the rest. Do we even tell each other what it is that we do anymore? Let alone organise. As if in a process of un-imagining, I wonder if the modern worker has come to resemble this study from Pellizza da Volpedo’s great tableau: a lonely and faceless figure.

But it’s just a failure of memory and representation, isn’t it? It’s not as if the working class no longer exists, but it is no longer thought of as something concrete, with shared interests and a common purpose. And so perhaps recovering those ideas might also require something as basic as little books with facts and pictures, telling the story of work, of what work does and of who does work, so that we can learn again to understand its value.

D. Richardson. About Dustmen. London: Ginn and Company, 193?
I've scanned the book and it can be downloaded here.

Part 2 of this post is About Postmen.


Philip said...

It’s not as if the working class no longer exists, but it is no longer thought of as something concrete, with shared interests and a common purpose.

Nor is much else, of course; except for The Corporation.

Word Verification: adedu, past participle of adedire, to speak towards about.

merc said...

The perfect worker combines Rubbish Collector with Rubbish Inspector,
aterl; too much time spent gaming.

Amanda said...

Giovanni- have you read "the Right to Be Lazy" by Paul Lafargue? If not you might find it of interest

Giovanni said...

Ah, yes, but a long time ago, handy that it's online. I have something next week about working oneself into the ground that would be pertinent - thanks.

Justine reports that Phil O'Reilly just now on the wireless was saying that yes, GST isn't progressive and a rise would be regrettable, but hopefully it will motivate people to go out and earn more money. Demonstrating once again the neoliberal credo that states and corporations cannot create work at will, but individuals can and should.

Jake said...

I checked worldcat, and the nearest copy of About Policemen to New Zealand is in the storage facility at the British Library.

Giovanni said...

Ohhhh... If only I knew somebody who was due to spend time at the British Library over the next few weeks, eh?

Speaking of which, here's an excerpt from the brochure of the national police museum, just for you. A killer line at the end there:

"In 1981 the Springbok Tour tore families and friendships apart.

Fifty-six days of civil protest culminated in a day where 2,100 police mobilised to contend with New Zealand's largest and most strategically orchestrated protest action. Over 7,000 anti-tour protesters attempted to converge on Eden Park packed with 49,000 pro-tour supporters.

The police objective was to maintain law and order and ensure that no one died that day as a result of public beliefs."

Tom A said...

Should "The Right to Work" more be "The Right to be unashamed to not be in work"? (or yes, "The Right To Be Lazy".)

When trying to convince a community of the need to plonk whatever latest kind of economically "necessary" commercial enterprise on it, if all else fails to quell protest there is always "it will create jobs." This is not good enough.

Tom Hodgkinson of "The Idler" is an admirer of Lafargue, and his hedonist/anarchist take on "working oneself into the ground" in "How to be Idle" and "How to be Free" is great reading.

Giovanni said...

Should "The Right to Work" more be "The Right to be unashamed to not be in work"?

I'd love to have been in the room when they wrote article 4: a duty to carry out an activity or a function which contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society, but only according to one's possibilities and individual choice. Score one for the framers.

Anonymous said...

The Wellington City Council rubbish collectors redesigned the Council rubbish bags with handles to be easy to lift, bright yellow to be easily seen in the pre-dawn light of a winter morning, and semi-transparent to show hazards. The Council's CEO is very proud of this story & uses it to show the level of engagement Council employees have with the city. He prolly doesn't use it as much now that they've been outsourced.

Jake said...

That's a nice tour quote. I was originally going to write my 1981 article about 'law and order', and it would have been perfect.

Giovanni said...

He prolly doesn't use it as much now that they've been outsourced.

No, I wouldn't think so :-)

I was originally going to write my 1981 article about 'law and order', and it would have been perfect.

But you filed it away for the book, right?

Jake said...

Sure did. Now where is this police museum?

Giovanni said...

By the police college in Porirua, but it's hard to reach it without wheels. Are you going to have a car down here?

Maud said...

But there is a copy of About Postmen on abebooks here:

Giovanni said...

Thank you Maud! And isn't that description music to one's ears?

"Covers faded & edgeworn, corners curling, interior pages grubby w/ finger-marks, page-edges worn w/ tears etc, one b&w drawing coloured in."

Danielle said...

In the USA, they have 'right-to-work' states. The employment law in those states is basically all about union-busting and so 'right-to-work' ends up meaning that an employer has the right to fire you at any time, for any reason. I had to get my head around 'the right to work' actually meaning what it said it did while reading this post. :)

Last year, I read that book about the history of discovering the cure for cholera, The Ghost Map. What stuck with me (apart from the general ewww, grossness) was the way in which Victorian working class city dwellers had created an entire sort of horrible, diseased recycling ecosystem by wandering through sewers collecting things to be resold (and occasionally dying in explosions of literally shitty gas). In comparison, you can perhaps see why the Dustmen book was so... houseproud, for want of a better word.

rob said...

Glen Busch put out a great book of photos of NZ "working folk"
Quite a few of them are here:;jsessionid=2756878BEC1936D1620A9AD5F497DE03?view=detail&db=person&mode=1&id=2473 (hope that link is right).
With students, he also had a cool exhibition called "My Place" which I think you can now buy as a book.

Giovanni said...

I remembered Busch’s pictures from the catalogue for the Art and Organised Labour exhibition. They are quite striking in that they are all men and they are all individual portraits, and often a little bleak it seems to me, which may say something about conceptions of work as well. Quite a contrast for instance with the paintings commissioned by the Engineering and Related Trades Industrial Union of Workers, such as this one on Engineers (also from that exhibition).

Giovanni said...

@Danielle That sounds like an interesting book… May I offer, for no particular reason, some pictures from About Dustmen
concerning what happens to rubbish at the end of its cycle? I like the last one quite a bit.

Giovanni said...

The Onion rather splendidly topical today: Wal-Mart Cuts Over 13,000 of What It Calls Jobs.

Carl said...

Way cool. Reminds me of Gramsci:

"It would be possible to study concretely the formation of a collective historical
movement, analysing it in all its molecular phases — a thing which
is rarely done, since it would weigh every treatment down.... It requires an extremely minute, molecular process of extreme, capillary analysis, the documentation for which is made up of an immense quantity of books, pamphlets, review and newspaper articles, conversations and oral debates repeated countless times, and which in their gigantic
aggregation represent this long labour which gives birth to a collective will with a certain degree of homogeneity — with the degree necessary and sufficient to achieve an action which is coordinated and simultaneous in the
time and the geographical space in which the historical event takes place," Quaderno 8.

Like little books about dustmen.

Word verification: bisticar, a vehicle for the express delivery of beef cutlets.

Giovanni said...

Way cool. Reminds me of Gramsci

I do that to people sometimes.

Okay, sorry, I just had to write that. And thank you, you make a point I was labouring to get across - that relics such as About Dustmen are valuable in that they document ideas about labour but also the work itself, and the people doing it. I have an anecdotal, unresearched feeling that this is not terribly common nowadays.

And I was hoping in fact to be challenged on this point, and for somebody to say that I'm just looking in the wrong places.

If I had to answer my own question - do we have an image of what it means to work - I'd have to say that for me it's the migrant work, and I have two strong images from back home: all those badanti accompanying old ladies on their morning walk in Mum's street - if I didn't feel icky about photographing people, I could have taken some beautiful pictures in my last trip - and again the seasonal workers of Rosarno. Concerning whom, it seems that the local mafia has begun to replace the African workforce with new migrants from the Ukraine, and that the recent attacks might have been part of a campaign to achieve just that. Talk about making work less visible.

Che Tibby said...

busch's work makes me wonder how many of those people were still employed after the neo-liberal revolution.

Jake said...

One of the stranger facets of the service industry that seems to make up the entirety of employment in the US is that the big box corporations have recalibrated the language in all sorts of odd ways. Target doesn't have 'customers', it has 'guests'. It's employees are 'team members'. IKEA doesn't have 'employees', it has 'co-workers'. Which suggests that work is being done, of course, but also suggests a level of collaborative effort which is perhaps misleading, especially given how anti-union both companies are in the US.

And no car, but I don't think I'll have time for a trip to Porirua anyway. Perhaps next time.

Giovanni said...

busch's work makes me wonder how many of those people were still employed after the neo-liberal revolution.

Not that many, you'd have to think. New Zealand Railways Workshops, Christchurch Gas Works... they don't exist anymore, right?

One of the stranger facets of the service industry that seems to make up the entirety of employment in the US is that the big box corporations have recalibrated the language in all sorts of odd ways. Target doesn't have 'customers', it has 'guests'. It's employees are 'team members'. IKEA doesn't have 'employees', it has 'co-workers'.

I caught that wave in Italy when I left school in 1990. Every single job I had was considered under the law "atypical" (although well on its way of course to becoming the absolute norm), for instance I was always a "collaboratore" as opposed to an employee. As if I ever had a stake in any of the businesses I worked "with". Later came the, which sounded like the clucking of hens but meant that you were an oustide consultant brought in on a non-continuous basis. That is to say, an employee without benefits or holiday pay.

The film that opened the Italian Film Festival last year, Tutta la vita davanti, was all about that, and not too bad.

Giovanni said...

A reader sent me some wonderful materials about old jobs and workers in Milan. I need to share this picture of upholsterers for I cannot categorically rule out that they are members of my family.

harvestbird said...

The Staffie in the passenger seat
of the rubbish truck on its Sockburn round
and the Huntaway on the top of the ute
that crossed the main road in Karamea:

this is our job
this is our purview
this is the man with whom we do it.
Look at us while we ride up front,
the pride with which we hold our heads.

merc said...

I am Lovin' that HB, lovin' it.

twinlyza, to speak with forked tongue.

Qlipoth said...

wonderful post

off topic, you may be interested in the latest pro-Avatar thread, on facebook this time, Alex Callinicos' "wall".

Interesting I think people are at the point of saying well yes, it's actually quite volkish and fascistic, but that's okay. Good enough in these times. It's not neoliberalism, and it's pleasureable for us who can afford it, so there's really no cause to criticise or complain. Some palestinian activists have dressed up as Na'Vi, and following the very same political sensibility as the film promotes (evidently successfully) this serves as proof of authenticity. Even though it's really a desperate almost random gesture in a terrible situation, trying to use what's available to pursue the very difficult task of public pedagogy. Painting themselves blue, some activists are trying to do what Black September tried to do by taking athletes hostage in Germany. They have to act in given conditions. But we see how the ideology of Hollywood transforms, somehow, these efforts to make history in inherited conditions into further promotion of the commodity; Palestinians would like to use NewsCorp but it uses them; they can't expropriate it, it can exploit them; it is invincible (at least it is immune to these tactics); the desperation of Palestinian militants now is effortlessly transformed by spectacle enterprise into a certificate of authentic antiimperialism for one of their most influential and powerful oppressors. Debord gets more relevant by the second.

Giovanni said...

Firstly: what merc said.

Secondly: boy, that wall discussion is something, isn't it. So long as nothing ruins the sleep of Alex Callinocos, ay? Not a week goes by that the readings of Avatar don't get normalised to reflect his perfect summation: "I enjoyed it, which I hope doesn't make me a bad person. A simple tale, but you can't be too hard on a Green anti-imperialist Western with some nifty visuals."

jannon said...

late comment.

recent stumbles in images of workers:

an HVAC servicing company in los angeles that prominently displays photographs of their staff in tuxedos.

word verification: adeptio--act of obtaining| attainment| achievement

Giovanni said...

This is disturbing on so many levels.

Giovanni said...

(And thanks Maud - I am now the happy owner of that copy of About Postmen.)