The Price of a Job: “De ducks are flying”

charityThis past weekend I spent some time at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. Currently showcasing local artists (past and present) in a gallery show called “Monuments & Metaphors: Art in Public Spaces,” the museum is a pretty nifty gem here in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge.

One of the pieces currently on display is a digital model of some art (an aluminum relief piece) that has been embedded above the main entrance of New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. The hospital, opened in 1736 just 18 years after the city was founded by France in 1718, has been the second oldest continually operated public hospital in the US. As some of you may know, the hospital has been closed since the flooding of Hurricane Katrina. Hope, however, springs eternal that something will eventually move into the space.

On the placard next to the model of “Louisiana at Work and Play” created in 1939) it was related that artist Enrique Alferez included a duck as a reference to some shenanigans (and there were numerous shenanigans) of Governor Huey P. Long. A few enticing details were given so I went home to look up the story.

The book Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard White gave me the details:

“With the Depression putting thousands of Louisianians out of work, state jobs became even more precious and patronage an incredibly important tool. Huey hired extra game wardens, bridge tenders, state policemen, and added thousands of jobs with his huge road building program, with every new job securing at least one new vote. By 1931, Louisiana employed over 22,000 men working on highways, more than any other state in the country.”

 “He funded his political organization with money given by wealthy supporters,,,,, and from the collection of “deducts” from state workers. State employees paid 5 to 10 percent of their salaries, a total of $1 million a year, for the upkeep of his political machine. If the refused to pay, the ‘come or quit” employees lost their jobs. When the squeeze was put on them for more contributions, they uttered the expression “de ducks are flying” and shelled out for tickets to the machine-controlled baseball park or took out another subscription to the machine-owned newspaper.”

I found this fascinating.

It also got me thinking about the reality of not only securing a job but also having a satisfactory experience as a job seeker or employee 85 years hence.

We know, with certainty, we don’t want to go back to the days of Huey and paying for the right to maintain our employment status. Yet, to combat the sort of crap that was de rigueur in the good-old-days, we have created complex processes in order for people to secure, let alone maintain, employment. Want to work for government or big business? You have hoops to jump through and HR ladies with whom you have to deal. HR ladies who could care less that you come personally recommended by Ms. Big Shot VP tell you to “fill out this 10 page on line application” if you want to be considered. Jesus himself may be your close personal friend but there are still rules.

We can, in a round about way, thank Huey and his brethren for this. But is is, perhaps, the price we pay today in order to gain employment. There’s no longer the need to toss a few bucks into the governor’s pocket but it is necessary to waste countless hours pleading like a supplicant at the altar of the ATS.

Huey may have looked damn dashing in his summer seersucker. It’s quite likely, as many will point out, that while he was nothing short of a dictator the people of Louisiana loved him and in his time as governor and later US Senator he did more for the regular Louisiana citizen than any other state politician who came before or after him. He certainly enjoyed, as do I, a perfectly blended Ramos Gin Fizz. He even wrote a song.

I, for one, would rather create my own kingdom than rely on someone else’s patronage.

Or at least create my own kingdom without the need to spend 55 minutes completing your online application only to get a canned “thanks but no thanks” reply 10 minutes later.

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Image: LSU School of Medicine (New Orleans)

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