Piecework Pay For D.C. Bale Buckers


Greetings from the Ridge.

You can talk about your adventures and thrills of a lifetime all you want, but until you've stood knee deep in clover hay atop a barn hay mow at 110 degrees and you get blindsided by a 90-pound hay bale dropping 12 feet off the end of John Deere elevator you just haven't lived.  Some things make a lasting impression, if not on your mind then at least on the back of your head.

It was the first time I'd been involved in a full-blown labor dispute. Summertime found the kids in our neighborhood supplied with all the work we wanted as the individual hay bales were still the rule and the gigantic machine-wrapped behemoths hadn't yet come to the farm.  If you could buck a bale you were guaranteed work all the way through the last cutting of the summer's hay. There were four of us on our little hay crew and we'd farm ourselves out to whoever needed help on any particular afternoon, but the bulk of our employment came from a guy named Jack. Jack owned his own baler and he pretty much spent the entire season in one farmer's hayfield or another. Jack could be a genuine grouch at times but he was usually so ridiculous in his complaining that we laughed instead of quit. It was all friendly and agreeable until the day of the big salary blowup.

Jack paid us $1.25 an hour, pretty much the standard rate in those days, and he never cheated us in any way, but there came that day when we heard what the "per bale" boys in the next county were getting. We'd heard rumors but I never knew for certain until I attended a family reunion where my cousin Mark said that the kids in his neighborhood were getting two cents a bale. This may sound piddling, but even with my meager math skills I could quickly figure that his was more than we were getting while being paid by the hour. So one afternoon as we were tucking the last bales into a barn our little quartet marched up to Jack sitting on his tractor and told him that we'd like to be paid by the bale. You'd have thought we'd just asked for his first-born child.

Jack frowned, Jack spit, Jack spat out a few profanities and told us that was just too much. That's when my brother hitched up his 14-year-old courage and told Jack that it was two cents a bale or nothing. Quick cut to the end of the story: Jack paid up. In fact, he not only paid the new wage but he found that when he wrote his bunch of rowdies a check for what they'd actually done instead of how many hours they'd spent on the job, that we worked harder. Wouldn't you? No more purposely slowing down on the last load of the day just to stretch out our hourly wage. Now we'd holler, "More hay!" as the nickels and dimes would click up in our calculating brains.

I thought about these hay-filled days last week as I watched a congressional committee in action–and I use the term "action" as loosely as a load of poorly stacked alfalfa hay.  A senate committee met for four days one week to "investigate" a matter on which every single senator had already decided how he or she should vote. The cost of running Congress for a single day varies widely but $33 million is a widely accepted figure. That means they spent $132 million on an issue for which the outcome was already decided.

The cure? Just look to the hay field and start paying the members of Congress for what they actually accomplish instead of the time they spend. When the summer rains drowned out a day of bucking bales we didn't get paid, so why are we paying members of Congress for not lifting a bale?

Sometimes the baler would snatch up a log or large rock instead of the intended hay so we'd have to sit while Jack called the mechanic. Again, no work, no pay. Congress has been in a state of constant breakdown for the past two years but we continue to pay them as if they were working. Know any other occupation that gets a salary for accomplishing nothing? In fact, if we truly kept track of what our Senate and House of Representatives get done then I've a notion that they would actually owe us money. Sounds like a good way to decrease the national debt: charge Congress for the harm they've done.

Jack's gone now, his baler sits rusting in the last field he baled, and the present generation of kids have no idea what it's like to spend a hot afternoon swathed in clover chaff, but I know four former bale buckers who realize that in order to get paid you have to earn it. None of us are in Congress at the moment.

You ever in Coonridge, stop by. We may not answer the door but you'll enjoy the trip.

In real life, Freida Marie Crump is Ken Bradbury, retired teacher, author, musician and playwright  who hangs out in Arenzville.


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