This week, the Summer Documentary Program students at MISC will present the audio pieces they made as a part of Wage/Working, a jukebox-based oral history project that has travelled around the country documenting stories of people and the work they do. The project opened doors for the MISC students to get further acquainted with their community by participating in an ongoing dialogue surrounding wage inequality.
The tapes were edited to fill the amount of time it takes the interviewee to make a dollar, and placed onto an “album” in the jukebox. Some albums are long; some are very short. They all speak, in their own ways, to the delicate relationships we have with our jobs. The albums, encased in a jovial relic, contain stories of hardship and sacrifice. They tell stories of workplace boredom and frustration, reflect on years of career building, and give intimate insight into the unique perspectives of those who work in our communities. They show power structures and systems of control. These structures were made known even before the interviews started.
Many students reported back that several potential interviewees were unable or unwilling to talk about what they do. A boss or manager sometimes silenced them, but many times they were silenced by the uncomfortable thought of discussing their work, as if it were taboo. These feelings of discomfort are not unfounded. In 2014 President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discussed their wages, but prior to that, rampant pay secrecy policies in the workplace bred pay discrimination and inequality. These policies were presented as protecting workers, yet are illegal under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. This New Deal law allowed private-sector workers to get together and discuss things about their work that mattered to them. Pay is a paramount component of work, and discussions surrounding pay are protected under this act. Prior to Obama’s executive order, companies who violated this rule paid a fee, but now risk losing their federal contract if they retaliate against a worker for discussing pay.
But what about the social implications? Discussing wage eventually leads to a conversation about wage inequality, the pay gap and what skills are considered valuable. By bringing pay out into the open and normalizing the “money talk”, Wage/Working and the journalists who work on the project are acting as catalysts to these discussions. Yet despite the positive effects of being transparent about pay, it’s still an uncomfortable topic. In a study done by Wells Fargo & Co, participants said discussions about money were the most difficult conversations. However, they also said they were the most important to have. When applied to a community like Portland, the Wage/Working project acts as the vehicle that facilitates these conversations.
Here's a slam poetry performance by Olivia Gatewood “At The Owl”.