Friday, October 27, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Working on the highway

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Working on the Highway” by Bruce Springsteen. Originally entitled “Child bride”, the song chronicles the story of a unionized highway worker who… well, turns out to be a pedophile. It is slightly less creepy than that (the technical term is child marriage) but that is basically the gist.

The interesting "work" aspect of the song is that, after going to jail, the worker ends up doing highway work for the warden. Prison labour is a growing phenomenon is the United States. It follows a long tradition of prison operators seeking to recoup the costs of incarceration by leasing prisoners to private companies. You can read a brief synopsis here. If you have ever bought a paint brush, you've likely bought the work of a prisoner.

Often this work is framed as rehabilitative (e.g., teaching skills). In practice, the work prisoners do is rarely skilled. What it does is tire out prisoners and give them some pocket money (usually a pittance) thus making them more manageable. The profits of their labour go to the corporations that operate the jails.

These corporations have, in turn, struck deals with several states for a continuous supply of labour (regardless of the level of crime). This incentivizes incarceration and helps explain why America has 2 million prisoners (often members of visible minorities)

Friday nights pay night guys fresh out of work
Talking about the weekend scrubbing off the dirt
Some heading home to their families some looking to get hurt
Some going down to stovell wearing trouble on their shirts

I work for the county out on 95
All day I hold a red flag and watch the traffic pass me by
In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss
Someday mister I’m gonna lead a better life than this

Working on the highway laying down the blacktop
Working on the highway all day long I don't stop
Working on the highway blasting through the bedrock
Working on the highway, working on the highway

I met her at a dance down at the union hall
She was standing with her brothers back up against the wall
Sometimes we’d go walking down the union tracks
One day I looked straight at her and she looked straight back

Working on the highway...

I saved up my money and I put it all away
I went to see her daddy but we didn't have much to say
Son can't you see that she's just a little girl
She don't know nothing about this cruel cruel world

We lit out down to Florida we got along all right
One day her brothers came and got her and they took me in a black and white
The prosecutor kept the promise that he made on that day
And the judge got mad and he put me straight away
I wake up every morning to the work bell clang
Me and the warden go swinging on the charlotte county road gang

Working on the highway...

-- Bob Barnetson

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