On weekends, you're likely to find 25-year-old Rick Merkel in the woods and fields of Calvert County, Md., watching his hunting dogs in tracking competitions held by the Southern Maryland Beagle Club.
On Monday mornings, when the work week begins, it is Merkel himself who is competing at a dead run. His quarry is United Parcel Service's production quota, which requires him to make a minimum number of deliveries every hour. If a UPS driver fails to make his "stop counts" -- as the quotas are called -- a supervisor is assigned to ride with him, stopwatch in hand, to evaluate his performance. Sometimes a driver's stop counts will be lowered; usually the driver must adjust or face warning letters and, ultimately, suspension or discharge.
"There's no doubt about it," Merkel says. "Delivery is the hardest job there is at UPS because the pressure is so great. The company pays a lot and demands a lot. They realize there's a limit, but they'll run you right ti it every time."
There are a lot of things that can open doors for you in Washington, D.c., but a deliveryman's uniform isn't one of them.
Rick Merkel knows because he wears one of those uniforms while he's hustling in and out of downtown offices delivering packages for UPS. His white-collar customers, he says, won't lift a finger to help him.
"They look down on your job as a menial task job," he says. "If you go into some lawyer's office loaded down with a handcart full of packages, he won't even open the door for you. I guess they figure they shouldn't have to do that for someone in a service-type job. Or maybe they think they're the only ones who are meeting deadlines or doing something important."
Merkel is part of Washington's blue-collar minority -- the invisible army which makes possible the high-powered work and comfortable lifestyles in a city dominated by government. To make a living here, drivers like Merkel, construction workers, retail clerks, day-care workers and other blue-collar employes often must cope with some combination of low status, low pay, poor working conditions or hard physical labor. Off the job, they must find housing and other services at prices driven up by the high purchasing power of their white-collar neighbors.
Like many blue-collar workers, Merkel went to work right out of high school. He started as a part-timer for UPS at night, checking for damaged packages and wrong addresses at the distribution center in Landover. During the day he studied accounting at Prince George's County Community College. He left school before getting his degree to work full time for UPS on the night shift. Two years ago he was offered a $20,000-a-year driver's job on the Dupont Circle route he has today.
Merkel begins work promptly at 8:45 each morning. Drivers meet with supervisors at Landover to learn the center's "game plan" for the day and hear brief pep talks from customer service representatives.
"You can never be late for the managers' meeting," Merkel says. "It's an automatic warning letter." Both male and female drivers must conform to "grooming standards" including brown uniform with trousers, brown shiny shoes, hair length that does not cover the eyes, more than half the or part of the collar, sideburns which don't extend below the ear and mustaches which don't extend beyond the corners of the mouth. Goatees and beards are forbidden.
By 9 o'clock Merkel is heading down Route 50 for the first of 150 to 200 stops he makes each day in the District. His brown truck is loaded with about 230 packages he is given 10 hours to deliver. Before he gets back to Landover, he will have picked up 300 more. Each parcel handled by UPS weighs an average of about 25 pounds. By the end of an ordinary day, Merkel will have loaded and unloaded more than 7,500 pounds.
While white-collar workers in the Dupont Circle area are lunching in restaurants or picnicking in the park, Merkel gets his lunch where "you can order a sandwich going into the building and pick it up on the way out." He balances his food on the narrow dashboard of his truck while steering in and out of downtown traffic on the way to his next stop.
If traffic is tied up, the weather bad or pickups heavier than usual, a driver can fall behind schedule. As Merkel heads for Landover late in the is frequently caught in rush-hour traffic on Massachusetts Avenue or, if it's a warm Friday, among bumper-to-bumper beachgoers on Route 50. By the time he gets back, it's 7 or 7:30 p.m.
His day ends in a flurry of paperwork. All day he collects signatures on C.O.D. orders and fills out forms for pickups, making detailed notations on his time card to account for every minute he spends on the job. He has 12 minutes to finish before clocking off.
"By the time I get home, I feel beat to death," Merkel says. "There's no way you can plan for anything or go anywhere at night during the week because you're too tired. If you do, you pay for it the next day."
Merkel isn't married, but other UPS drivers have wives and children. For them, the long hours and exhausting pace is "a lifestyle that families just have to adjust to," Merkel says.
"A lot of the drivers find they're getting along in life and are married and need more income," he says. "Some of them even have college or some college education like me. They're struggling to make it in their field, so they end up going into something like this because they know they can make good money. For a lot of people, shirt-and-tie jobs just aren't where it's at."
Workers in traditional blue-collar occupations such as trucking, printing, manufacturing and construction represent only about 15 percent of the total area work force. Additional blue-collar workers are found in the District's thriving retail and service industries, but even these growth fields lag behind government as the main source of employment. Forty percent of all Washington paychecks come from federal or District treasuries, and much of the local private sector involves white-collar work related to government activity and contracts.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the office workers, professionals, civil servants and managers of Washington's white-collar world and the blue-collar workers. Blue-collar workers cook the meals, serve the drinks and wash the dishes for the lunch meetings and conventions where so much of Washington's business and socializing is conducted. They take care of the young children, drive the cabs, build the subways and punch cash registers for the nation's richest collection of shoppers. In the city's laundries, they keep white collars white.
Not surprisingly, blue-collar Washington is disproportionately black. Blacks make up only a quarter of the 1.5 million workers in the area, but they are concentrated in blue-collar jobs in both the government and the private sector. For example, they provide more than half the transport workers and 45 percent of the laborers and service workers.
In retail and service jobs, the work force is largely black and female. While less than half of District workers are women, they hold more than two-thirds of all jobs as household workers, hospital employees, retail clerks and clericals.
Without much heavy industry or the big blue-collar unions associated with it, Washington has never been a strong union town. Despite organizing efforts by the Retail Clerks, Culinary Union, Service Employes and Hospital Workers, only 15 percent of District-area workers belong to unions -- well below the national average.
Unlike Baltimore or Philadelphia, Washington has only vaguely identifiable blue-collar neighborhoods. With the exception of small residential pockets in places like Cabin John, Beltsville and Camp Springs, Md., most blue-collar workers are and indistinguishable part of the District's black community or an invisible presence in the vast suburban sprawl beyond the District line.
Many white-collar Washingtonians are aware of the problems of their blue-collar neighbors only when there is a Metro strike or another cave-in which claims the life of a construction worker. Thirty-seven D.C. workers were killed on the job in 1978, the last year for which figures are available. More than 30,000 work-related injuries were reported in the private sector alone. For the 300,000 private sector workers in the District, that means an average of one occupational injury or illness per worker every 10 years, or four in a 40-year career. Since blue-collar workers frequently have the more dangerous jobs, the odds they face may be worse.
Some blue-collar workers like Teamster Rick Merkel are paid well for their work. Averaging well over $20,000 a year, the income of UPS drivers equals or exceeds many white-collar salaries. Others -- many in non-union jobs -- barely make the minimum wage. But, regardless of pay, there are few compensations such as job status, social recognition and opportunities for career advancement that make long hours at the office seem worthwhile to many white-collar Washingtonians.
Horacio and Transito Artiga have looked at Washington from both sides now. For years, the District was an oasis of opportunity for these El Salvadorean immigrants, aged 36 and 35. Now it seems to them a city of discrimination and economic pressures that many other blue-collar workers perceive it to be.
Since they first came here in 1968, the Artigas have been model citizens. Horacio Artiga worked his way up from $1.80-per-hour construction work for a small contractor to a nearly $13-per-hour job. Knowing at first only how to haul bricks and mix mortar, he learned to operate heavy equipment, to do electrical work and welding, and to plan and lay out the work for pile-driving crews which install steel supports for buildings and tunnels. Transito Artiga took care of other people's children in her home.
Together, the couple saved enough money to buy a row house in Mount Pleasant. Their home is now a neighborhood landmark, where children find dozens of flickering pumpkins and gourds at Halloween, elaborate Nativity scenes at Christmas, larger-than-life snowmen in the winter, and the brightest flower garden around in the spring. Visitors to their kitchen can learn to make pupusas, tamales, fried bananas and other Latin dishes. The walls of the house are filled with Central American scenes painted on large canvases by Horacio, who also makes altar decorations for El Salvadorean holidays at his church and floats for the annual Spanish Heritage Day parade. The couple can always be counted on to support fund drives and other events at bilingual Oyster School, which their children attend and where Horacio is co-chairman of the PTA.
Their prosperity was a tribute to their willingness to work hard and do as they were told. Artiga knew he was lucky to have such a good job and was afraid to say or do anything to jeopardize it. That fear apparently turned out to be his undoing.
Several years ago Artiga was doing his normal layout work for pile drivers at a Washington construction site. He says other members of his crew had been assigned to use a hoist to remove a seven-ton steel beam which had been used for a support during early stages of the construction work. A worker would have to sit on a platform above the beam with his legs dangling over and pull on the hoist chain. The hoist that day, Artiga recalls, was designed to lift only four tons. If it failed to hold, the vertical beam could tip to the side, crushing a worker's leg.
Artiga says other crew members who sized up the situation refused to do the job, and he was summoned by supervisors.
"They called me over and they said, "These guys are queers, Chico.'" he recalls. "They always called me Chico. They knew it wasn't my name, but they didn't care about my name.
"I was scared because they had picked me out, and if I didn't do what they said, I knew they could always just lay me off," he says.
Artiga recalls that he stepped up to the chain and began raising the beam; as was feared, the hoist didn't hold. The beam tipped, and Atiga's foot was pinned. "I was screaming, and everybody was running all over -- trying to find more people to help get me free," he says, "It took 20 laborers with crowbars before they could pull me out."
Artiga was driven to the company doctor, who took x-rays, told him he had no broken bones and sent him back to work. With a swollen foot causing him sharp pain, he went to his own doctor, who had him X-rayed again. This time, the test showed three broken bones in his ankle, and he was told not to go back to work.
Artiga went to a series of doctors who told him that an operation to realign the bones in his ankle might make his condition worse, not better. So, for more than a year, he stayed home and drew worker's compensation checks that were only two-thirds his normal wages. (The payments, however, are not taxed.) "I hated being out of work," he recalls. "I flet lazy. I was depressed. I couldn't even do any painting, I was so worried. I thought I was going to be crippled forever."
Despite his injury, Artiga went back to construction work on a District bridge. Right after he started a fellow worker dropped a jackhammer on his bad foot. Artiga couldn't move around well after the incident and two weeks later he was laid off.
Unable to work at construction, Artiga sells policies for a large insurance company to families in the Latin community. He has been told that once he gains experienced and contacs, his income will rise steadily. But, for now, he earns no more than half what he could be making in construction work. In addition to worries about money, he faces unfamiliar strains on his new job.
"On construction you do your work and then it's over," he says. "With insurance, you're always worrying, always out at night, trying to sell, away from your kids. Then when you're home, you get calls at any time of day about somebody's claim. It's a lot of pressure and not much money to show for it. I would rather be working construction. But I don't know -- that may never be possible again."
An "understanding" is how Flossie Robinson describes the unspoken agreement she has with the parents of the babies and toddlers she takes care of in her home. The understanding must be unspoken or it wouldn't serve its purpose.
"One of the first things I learned when I started i this business is you don't ever tell the parents when their child takes his first step, or says his first word, or anything like that," she says. "I wait until the parent notices at home and let them tell me. They're missing so much of their baby growing up, I don't want to take anything away from them I don't have to."
A large, talkative, 54-year-old black women, Flossie Robinson has been a "family home" day-care worker for six years. Starting at 7:30 every morning, four children between the ages of 2 monthes and 2 1/2 years are dropped off at her house on Illinois Avenue NE. She is responsible for them until 6 p.m. -- three-quarters of their waking hours, five days a week.
"It's so hard for the parents, hard for the children, to be seperated so young," she says. "I teach the children to eat, to talk, walk, play with ohters, even to use the potty. I see it all and the parents don't see much. I've even had a parent call me on Saturday and ask me what they should do with their child. I have to tell them because they don't always know."
Because of her concern for the parents, Robinson doesn't allow the children to follow their natual inclination to call her "Mama." As they paint, sing, dance, wrestle, eat and generally demand love and attention throughout the day, they call to her with a high-pitched "Robinson! Robinson!"
Both Flossie Robinson and the parents she serves know that without daycare for preschool children, much of white-collar Washington couldn't function. The number of single-parent families is increasing and high inflation rates force many two-parent families to maintain two incomes. Cultural changes have also brought many more women into the work force.
But the women who care for these children often make less than the minimum wage -- in Robinson's case, $24 for a 10 1/2-hour day. Those working in day-care centers are paid as little as $6,000 per year with little hope of advancement. And child-care workers employed on a private basis frequently have little job security and few fringe benefits.
"I think bringing up children is one of the most important jobs there is," Robinson says. "But the way it's considered you can't even get by on what you make unless you have a husband to fall back on. I don't get anything for health insurance, retirement or unemployment."
Robinson began her day-care work after being a housekeeper for 18 years and a hotel and restaurant worker before that. She used to ride 40 minutes by bus to work in Rockville, leaving her four boys with her sister, who would get them to school. When Robinson's children were growing up, she sometimes had to work two jobs to supplement her husband's income as a clerk at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
As a family home worker, she is able to spend most of her weekdays in her own neighborhood, a quiet, tree-lined, black working-class residential area. Like other day-care workers, she is teacher, substitute mother, nurse and cook. She has to make sure the children don't get hurt, are well fed and are kept in dry diapers. But more importantly, she must know how to match activities to their skills, ages and attention spans.
To keep the children or herself from getting restless, she maintains a regular schedule, with meals, a nap and outdoor activities or trips. In one recent week she took the children by bus or subway to the National Zoo, the Washington Monument grounds, Martin Luther King Library and National Airport.
During one bus ride, she recalls, a man asked her if the four were all her children. "Yes," she said. "These are my kids. All of them."
Forty-three-year-old Gerald Newman is one of many area workers who can't afford to live near the city. Newman lives in a double-wide trailer near Fredericksburg, an 80-mile round-trip commute to the Dale City Safeway store where he works as a stock clerk.
The retail boom in the suburbs, made possible by the high per capita income of white-collar Washington, has provided jobs for workers like Newman, but it also has driven up the cost of living.
Before moving recently Fredericksburg, Newman made ends meet by working the night shift, for which he collected extra pay. While night work does have some advantages ("You don't have the manager around your neck all the time or the customers in you way"), Gerald says he never really got used to it.
"If you work five nights straight, it doesn't matter that much. But, if you're like me and you worked three nights and then you were off one, back to work for another two nights, and then off again, it kind of screws up your family life. Sometimes you just can't get to sleep when you need to."
While Gerald worked nights, his wife, Gitta, worked part-time during the day as a cashier at Safeway's Featherstone Plaza store. Because of their conflicting schedules, they usually saw each other only briefly in the late afternoon or evening. But there was one thing they always found time to do together: attend union meetings.
The Newmans' union, the 17,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, is the largest in the area and claims to represent 90 percent of the food store workers locally. It made a major breakthrough into the department store field last year when it won a contract for 5,000 employes of Woodward & Lothrop, the area's largest private employer.
For several years Gerald and Gitta both served as union stewards, helping other employes file grievances about pay disputes, scheduling of hours and other issues. Under Safeway's contract with Local 400, store clerks make up to $8.73 per hour. The local has also negotiated fringe benefits which include eye and dental care, pensions, more time off and higher rates of pay for weekend work.
Although they were staunch supporters of the union, the Newmans believed that unions in general, like all large institutions, must be pressured to stay responsive to members. In the Local 400 elections in 1978, both Newmans campaigned actively for an oppostion candidate for president. Not long after the vote -- which their man lost -- Gerald was removed from his unpaid position as steward. Local 400 officials gave no explanation for the action and don't have to because they can appoint and remove stewards at will. Gerald believes it was retaliation for his election activity.
These days Gerald is still active in union affairs, going to meetings, making suggestions, appealing official rulings he doesn't like. But now he goes by himself. A few months after he and his wife moved their mobile home to Fredericksburg, she died of a heart attack. Ironically, after years of working on different shifts, Gerald had finally given up the night shift bonuses and Gitta has stopped work entirely in an attempt to lead a more normal life.
Now, fighting for a better union is only one of many things Gerald must do alone.
Unfortunately for Gerald, even the most responsive union wouldn't be able to prevent a common problem he is facing for the first time since he switched to the day shift: shopper complaints about prices.
"People seem th think that because we put the prices on that we're the ones who set the prices or make the extra profits," he says. "Getta used to just smile about it when they gave her trouble at the checkout counter, but it gets on my nerves. I've got to pay the high prices just like they do, after all."
As a result of such daily encounters, many blue-collar workers understandably resent white-collar Washington. They often make a distinction, however, between high-ranking professionals and the lower-level white-collar workers who may be reacting to job presures similar to their own.
Secretaries, office clerks, teachers and receptionists all have white-collar status, but not necessarily higher pay or more control over the pace and content of their work. They may rarely face physical hazards but frequently may be bored or demoralized by repetitious tasks.
For them, as for the blue-collar workers they may look down on, life is shaped by executives and politicians far removed from their world. Those who set economic policy and workers' production quotas, who decide whether to enforce job safety procedures, are not necessarily those affected by the decisions.
"There are people in Washington who decide what's going to happen in the whole country, but they don't really understand what the average person is facing," says UPS driver Rick Merkel. "All they have to do is look around, because the problems are right here in D.C. Guys like me see the people who make these decisions every day, but I guess that doesn't mean they see us."