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Work

Tonight’s debate, the second between our two presidential candidates, was seen by millions across North America [Canada having as much interest in the election as we do]. Locally, it was streamed to the basement social hall at Asbury United Methodist, hosted by the League of Women Voters in the spirit of political œcumenism. I watched from the shadows, perfectly willing to get the digested version during coffee tomorrow morning at the Bon Ton. Like many viewers, what transpired at Washington University was unlikely to shift my position.

I turned instead to one of the topics that ought to have ranked higher in the questioning: work or the lack of it and what can be done. The political rhetoric that we’ve already heard—pipe dreams and platitudes, largely—made me think of the world of work here in Fennimore county during the last century and a half.

manufacturing

Labels, especially during an election year, are far too convenient. I slap them across a topic far too easily. So, thinking about one of Agincourt’s earliest efforts at industry, I wonder what to call the Syndicate Mills, a coöperative venture among several Archers [the residents of Agincourt quickly came to be called “archers”].

Its water-powered wheels and winches manufactured wagons and ground wheat into flour; planed wood for lumber to build our homes and stores and churches. But its developers were a syndicate of local citizens (hence the name). A history of the Syndicate Mills remains to be written, but chief among its distinguishing characteristics was ownership; a stake in the mills and a voice in their operation was available through financial investment. But it could also be earned through sweat-equity: each hour of labor, each wagonload of masonry and timber ranked with the cash from those who had the resources. What would Karl Marx have said about such an arrangement?

In 19th-century Spain, the Sagrada Familia — Barcelona’s massive church that many mistake for a cathedral — included “expiatory” in its official title, because sin could be expunged, expiated, through voluntary labor on its construction; perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long—Catalunya needs more sin. Writing a check is convenient; but picking up a saw or a chisel, wheeling a barrow, mixing mortar and hoisting it into the vaulting more than a hundred feet above the pavement might be understood as larger, more substantial commitments. That’s the way I’m inclined to see sweat-equity at the Syndicate Mills: a little home-grown communitarianism.

Fifty years later, when Northwest Iowa Traction incorporated in 1909 and scheduled a stock offering, its investors included the usual suspects (Capitalists; many of them resident in the relative affluence of the city’s northeast quad) but there were other smaller investments made by a consortium of teachers in the city schools and another by the coöperative creamery at Grou, which saw the line’s potential to increase their market area.

Sure, hindsight tells us these were sound investments likely to yield a profit. But foresight just as readily might have anticipated risk. And the willingness to accept both the risk or the yield — and to share them — are part of what made America great. How do we do that again?

You might even think of it as “trickle-up economics.”


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