It’s 2:30 a.m. on a cool fall morning. Two hundred sleepy-eyed workers form a line outside the Lincoln Journal Star 10th and Q distribution center. The line of “independent contractors” gather their daily papers while their minds recalculate how fast they will have to work today to meet the 6 a.m. deadline. Some carriers deliver hundreds of papers in that three-hour window, all at less than 25 cents per piece.
When you get paid per throw, and that money has to cover your vehicle expenses before starting to become your sub-minimum wage, you think a lot about maximizing your efficiency. I can say sub-minimum because, in my case for example, even when I fly, not resting for a moment and with zero mistakes, I might pull in about $6.00 an hour. On a normal day it is closer to $5.50.
And you better not miss a door! That’s a $2 fine. Don’t show up for work? $75. Quit without 30 days’ notice? $500.
Labor exploitation aside, delivering the paper can be satisfying work. Every a.m., I hit the empty West O Street alongside the gas station clerks, rail crews, and DeLeon’s cooks. The best part of the day is short conversations with those people while pumping gas for my truck, delivering U-Stop its papers, or getting breakfast. In the neighborhoods, I get those papers as close to the front door as possible in the hope that pleased customers might throw a few bucks my way. I take pride in sorting, packing, and delivering those papers to the right spot — doing a job from start to finish — and that means my throwing arm has gotten a lot better over these months; every swing launches a paper to a satisfying splat. A rattle of a screen door is a victory bell.
Unfortunately, my pride began to fade after I actually started reading the damn thing. The Lincoln Journal Star/Omaha World Herald are regurgitated police reports sprinkled with poorly researched human interest stories plus a few cropped down AP scripts. After a week of reading that crap you start to get sick. Now I limit myself to only the most intelligent content: Dilbert, Pearls before Swine, and Doonesbury.
Police state journalism, sub-minimum wages, and early as fuck hours bring me a paltry $600 monthly. For me, its gas and rent. For a lot of other carriers its money for servicing debts, paying for music lessons or football gear, or turning up the heat a few more degrees in the winter. Most carriers have a full day before or after their a.m. shift, stretching the workday to 12 or 16 hours.
It’s 4:30 a.m. again and the skies are clear; the stars are shining their billion-year-old rays upon me, my papers, and the street.
Swing. Splat, rattle. I try to imagine a different way. The paper in my hands is written by the community instead of the police. Swing. Splat. My employer isn’t the predator-capitalist Lee Enterprises; it is a Revolutionary Editorial Board and they aren’t really a boss. Swing. Splat. And I ask myself, who am I? How did I get here? Swing. Splat. I ask myself, how can we hurry the overthrow of the ruling class and the destruction of the capitalist state? Swing. Splat, rattle. Swing. Splat. The papers fly.