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In the promised land of $10 an hour

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As the fires raged through Colorado last week, darkening Front Range cities with sooty smoke and searing the hearts of Forest Service workers who learned the culprit behind the Hayman inferno was one of their own, the Public Eye was stranded in Spain, in the midst of a national workers strike that shut down the country.

For a day, hundreds of thousands of workers -- taxi drivers, bus and train operators, store clerks, airport personnel, trash collectors -- brought Spain to a virtual standstill. Businesses were closed, trash piled up in the streets and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched in the capitol, chanting Huelga! Huelga! (Strike! Strike!) while underscoring their grievances, which, as in the United States, are plentiful.

Throughout Madrid, buildings were defaced with spray-painted messages supporting the strike; automatic bank machines were graffitied beyond use. To this writer's delight, even Burger King was shuttered.

Meanwhile, Colorado's fires, and the arrest of Forest Service technician Terry Lynn Barton, made international news. It was with a bizarre sort of hometown pride that I watched as U.S. Attorney (and former El Paso County District Attorney) John Suthers appeared on CNN International in my hotel room in Madrid, looking dapper with a longish hairdo, coolly dispensing the facts of the case.

By contrast, the strike that shut down much of Spain -- and the European Union Summit being held there at the same time -- didn't get much coverage back home in the states.

Other than a small story in The New York Times, we capitalist navel-gazers don't seem to have much time for such nonsense. And that's too bad. Because the United States could use a good general strike, if nothing else, to remind The Man that a vast number of people in this promised land of ours work for substandard wages, under the stress of continued downsizing and higher workloads, often a paycheck away from homelessness.

As we hear stories about Enron executives who stashed away millions while dedicated employees suffered, or Wal-Mart slave drivers who force workers to put in unpaid overtime, we could do with a wake-up call from those folks whose backs have built and sustained our country.

There is no more pathetic example than the case of Terry Barton, who, as a permanent part-time forestry technician, was rewarded after 18 years of dedicated service with the U.S. Forest Service with a salary of $17,820 a year.

This week, Forest Service spokesman Dave Steinke couldn't say exactly how many hours Barton worked every week, while she inspected roads and culverts and campgrounds and was a sort of "Johnny-on-the spot utility infielder." Barton could have been putting in anywhere from 26 to 36 hours of weekly labor, probably averaging $9 to $11 an hour.

Instead, Steinke underscored the magic of working for the U.S. Forest Service. "None of us are making a lot of money -- we get to eat the scenery and work in incredibly beautiful places," said Steinke, who himself worked for substandard wages as chief cinematographer at KRDO Channel 13 before he went to work for the forest service 24 years ago.

And that sounds fine, but try feeding two children on scenery and paying the rent with beauty, and that government paycheck doesn't go very far.

Because the U.S Forest Service's dispatch recorder has been broken since May, there is no audiotape available of what the admitted fire-starter said when she initially reported the blaze. Was Barton bitterly burning an old love letter, or deliberately starting a $26 million fire, whose charges possibly include homicide?

Perhaps we'll never know, but Barton's sure gonna need more than $9 an hour to defend herself from serious time behind bars.

Too bad for her, she's not an Enron executive.

-- degette@csindy.com

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