Rabbitbrush Rambler: After Labor Day

After the summer fun, it’s time to get back to school or to get back to work. Or to try to find a job.

For a couple of years after college, I lived in a city where its employers were two big steel mills. This town later became part of the Rust Belt, with its employment and economic life a disaster.

Look no farther than Pueblo’s CF&I to see what happened where the plant now operates as a scrap metal recycler with far fewer employees. Coal mining that once boomed around Walsenburg and Trinidad faded away, too, as other extractive industries have done. Two coal-burning plants may be shutting down over there, I hear.

In the late 1800s, people in the San Luis Valley found work with the railroad. For Spanish-speaking families, this was a major change from the traditional economy that had been based on barter instead of wages. Daily life then altered in big ways for many of the Valley’s Hispaños, although for others changes came slowly for a few generations.

Besides employment on the D&RG, other work began to draw residents away from the Valley, although this place still was called home regardless of new addresses. Smelter work at Leadville and Pueblo and sugar beets in eastern Colorado accounted for many of the moves, and then military service during World War II resulted in the great social transformations that occurred during and after the war. 

Not all the Valley’s work force was filled by Anglo and Hispanic people. I have seen a photo made in the 1890s with several black men and women on Creede’s main street, showing a sign for Dave’s Place and raw, new buildings. Before 1900, newcomers from northern Europe came looking for land and farms, and miners came from all over, and eastern European Bulgarians contracted to work on irrigation dam construction.

Beginning in the 1930s, migrant farm work and the Bracero Movement began to bring many to the U.S. from Mexico, and the Valley’s farms also had Navajo workers from the Farmington area, even into the mid-1900s. But when industrious Japanese farmers arrived to make their homes in the Valley in the 1920s, they were not looking for jobs but farmland of their own.

Here in the Valley, as we all know, many crops rely on seasonal farm labor. It’s pretty hard to imagine farmers profitably harvesting large fields of perishable crops without those workers, but their numbers are being reduced directly and indirectly by deportation and other immigration policies. Responding to political pressure of special interests, though, Homeland Security is allowing more migrants to work in tourism, landscaping, fisheries (like shucking clams by hand), and construction, but not in seasonal farm labor.

Technology is now the big game-changer in employment. Some agricultural fields have remote-controlled equipment, although I haven’t heard of farmers here using any. More and more, mechanized equipment is replacing some of the manual work, which explains why we get those hard, tasteless tomatoes that never ripen, but so far mechanical harvesters haven’t entirely replaced human ones in fields of chili peppers in New Mexico, though the industry is trying hard to achieve that.

And just try getting any job in an office if you can’t operate a computer. Nurses and doctors now use computers. I haven’t yet heard of any factories or warehouses here with robots, but just wait…

Technology has even nudged its way into one bar in Colorado, I’ve read. The customers can walk up to a row of beer dispensers, read information on digital displays about the characteristics of each brew, try a sample, select one, and let the dispenser fill a disposable cup. No friendly bartender to chat with, no waitress to be tipped, just someone with minimum pay to empty the trash barrel and clean up the floor.