The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

Demonizing Organized Labor And The Road To Fascism

The word ‘union’ occurs five times in Jedediah Purdy‘s Jacobin essay ‘How Trump Won.’

On the first two occasions, Purdy invokes unions as part of an analysis of the demographics of Trump voters:

[U]nion voters abandoned the Democrats dramatically

Clinton was much weaker than Obama with union-household voters: he won them 58–40, she only 51–43. That’s a sixteen-point loss.

Then, Purdy goes on to speculate why union voters might have voted thus:

[L]ower-income and union voters [developed] a post-2008 sense of economic abandonment by the Democrats based on how the party has actually governed in recent years, including both the trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA and a finance industry that it strongly embraces.

A chunk of those voters are working people who, fifty years ago, might have been getting their basic political information from a union, and are now getting it from a conspiracy-minded far right that convinced them they had a civic duty to vote against the corrupt liar in the race.

On the fifth occasion Purdy makes note of Richard Rorty‘s prescient remarks about a possible evolution of American politics:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack.

Unions and their workers have cottoned on to one essential fact about so-called American liberalism and progressivism: its extremely thin patina is revealed by its attitude toward labor unions. You might be a liberal when it comes to climate change, same-sex marriage, and the reproductive rights of women, but chances are you are united with conservatives in believing ‘bosses’ and ’employers’ should be able to ‘hire and fire’ their workers as they please. Without this, you believe that workers will not be motivated to work; that incompetent workers cannot be weeded out; that workers will seek out laziness and complacency; that they will wreck public and private sector budgets with their extravagant contracts and retirement schemes. Unions–like teachers unions which prevent brilliant reformist pedagogical schemes from being implemented, public sector unions which destroy municipal budgets–are the causes of all social and economic ills.

With these attitudes towards the right of workers to indulge in collective bargaining, you reveal a very poor understanding of power and how it is acquired and exercised. You show yourself willing to let one economic class be immiserated and disempowered even as another one is simultaneously enriched and empowered.

All too many who fancy themselves social progressives or liberals–and who find themselves impatient with the protections and benefits union demand for their members–need a reckoning with the possibility that they are merely technocratic elites who find the lower classes a little too grubby for their taste and wish they could whip them into shape somehow through the latest management consultancy schemes. There is a common, shared, set of American values that unite liberals and conservatives and it includes the following principle: workers are lazy and can only be motivated by fear of dismissal. From this the corporatization of American social and political values follows. From this follows contempt of populism, of the expressed sentiments of those who cannot speak the technocrat’s language.

The abandonment of the working class and organized labor is America’s greatest scandal–and it has been for a long time. Once upon a time, unionized workers–like in the Lehigh Valley–lived in houses, drove cars, and sent their children to colleges, secure in the knowledge that the American Dream was working for them, that the upward mobility of the next generation was visible in their own lives. There is no such comfort now, and none is forthcoming. The economy has been financialized, manufacturing of tangible commodities sent overseas, unions disbanded and demonized, wages sent plunging, new systems of values put in place.

The insecure, nonunionized worker is perennially on edge, worried about losing his or her job; their wages fall without contracts to hold them up; long-term economic planning is impossible. Scapegoats for misery are demanded; some will be found. by any convoluted reasoning necessary. Relief from fear and paranoia is sought; perhaps in the form of a strong man promising deliverance.

The union makes us strong; without the union, workers seek strength elsewhere.

On Voting ‘Yes’ On The CUNY Strike Authorization Vote

Yesterday, like many of my colleagues at the City University of New York I voted ‘Yes’ on our union’s strike authorization vote. (The voting period ends May 11th; at that time, the PSC-CUNY will be able to inform CUNY administration of the extent of faculty and staff support for a strike.) A strike is serious business; it is a high-risk political tactic; in the current political and economic climate, a strike invites serious rhetorical and material blow-back. A strike shuts down services, sometimes essential ones; a strike causes economic damage and hurts livelihoods; a strike inconveniences many. Why strike?

It is an interesting feature of our modern social discourse that a strike has come to be regarded with as much antipathy as it has. Such a development would not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of analysis that theorists like Max Weber or Max Horkheimer gave us of our developing understanding of work: work for the sake of work, work as a deliverance, work as a blessing, the desire to work as evidence of rationality, “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling”–these all would come to signal the refusal to work as a kind of moral failing. As Horkheimer noted in The Eclipse of Reason, “The deification of industrial activity knows no limit.” Or as Weber had noted in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, “modern labour has an ascetic character.” Unsurprisingly, we find moral abuse directed at those who strike: striking workers are lazy, they are parasites, they are selfish, they are thuggish, and so on.

But workers can, will, and should only work–surprisingly enough–if they are adequately recompensed for their labor. Their relationship with their employers should be underwritten by a respect for this basic postulate of the employment relation. Otherwise, it is no longer enjoys such a status and  merely devolves to some variant of older, exploitative models of hiring and firing (indentured labor, feudal serfs, and so on). The failure of the City University of New York administration to sign a contract with their staff indicates that such basic respect is not forthcoming: the staff of this university have been expected, for six years now, to continue working under the terms of a contract that expired six years ago. In this nation’s most expensive city, such salary and wage conditions amount to a steadily increasing pay cut.

Such a cut in wages sends several signals, none of them respectful to the most important constituencies of the university. First, it tells students that the university does not care how their teachers are compensated for their work; second, it tells students that the university is willing to suffer shortfalls in services that might result from the lack of fair compensation (loss of staff, strikes etc); third, it tells faculty, responsible for instantiating the university’s core mission, that they are not important enough to have their reasonable demands listened to. The final result is a diminishing of the university, a member of a cohort of institutions that now finds itself increasingly under attack from a political and economic sensibility that would destroy as many public goods as possible.

A strike by the faculty and staff at the City University of New York would not just showcase workers laying down their tools; it would also signal to the rest of the polity that attacks on public education will not be tolerated.

Strikes are reviled and abused because interestingly enough, they find their grounding and motivations in firmly and passionately held political convictions that might, as Georges Sorel noted (in Reflections on Violence,) attain the status of myth. In writing of the ‘general strike’ Sorel commented on the common understanding of its supposed irrationality, but as he went on to note, this was in part because of the strong social desire to return to a more quiescent state, one that would not be possible once “the myth of the ‘general strike’ is introduced.” And such reactions were especially understandable: “It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to dispute it.”

A strike is as feared and as despised as it is because very often, a strike–the denial of a worker’s labor, his ultimate weapon, only to be exercised in the direst of circumstances–is effective. The administration of New York City and the City University of New York and its faculty and staff will soon find out–if no contract is forthcoming–how matters will turn out in this domain.

I’m Scared, Therefore I Work

A few weeks ago, I got into an argument–offline, not online–about those two horsemen of the apocalypse that are destroying the American nation, rendering it financially insolvent, and turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare. I’m referring, of course, to unions and teacher tenure.

At the heart of these fears is a very interesting generalization about the nature of human motivation in the domain of ‘work.’ To wit, humans only work productively and usefully in an environment of fear, with a Damoclean sword hanging over them: a worker only works and produces value if he or she is made aware, perhaps relentlessly, that immediate termination of his employment is possible at the whim of his employer. Otherwise, the worker will slump into his naturally indolent state, content to cut corners, all the while taking home the hard-earned money of his employers. The unionized worker is protected by the union and the provision of the contract it has signed with management, so he will not work; the tenured teacher knows he or she ‘cannot be fired,’ so naturally, having once obtained tenure, he will kick off his shoes and put them up, content with merely punching time-cards for the rest of his career. To permit the formation of unions, to grant tenure, is to open the gates to an army of sloths, come to nibble away slowly at your productivity schedules and financial bottom-lines.

It is unclear, of course, where those folks who are unionized or tenured, and are yet nevertheless productive and creative, fit into this picture. I presume there are some tenured teachers in this nation’s schools who continue to come to work, teach, assign homeworks and grade them, take their wards on field trips, write recommendation letters, meet parents, and so on. From personal experience I know that many tenured professors continue to teach, advise students, work on intellectually challenging projects and write in a variety of fora. I’m puzzled by what motivates them. Why do they continue to work, when they know they ‘cannot be fired’? (Come to think of it, why am I writing my next book, a business which is driving me a little batty at the moment, when I know won’t be fired if I don’t finish it?)

I wonder if this conception of human motivation is grounded in an archaic conception of ‘work’ itself: to wit, that work is that thing which is unpleasant, forced upon the worker against his will, which he accepts only because of external circumstance, and to bind him to which therefore needs some further form of compulsion. In this picture it seems unimaginable that anyone could ‘choose’ to work, to immerse themselves in a compensation-offering activity that they might find fulfilling. So the aspirant for tenure, one building credentials for that application, is merely shamming. His activities, his productivity, is merely a ruse to enter the building. Once inside, he will immediately disdain precisely that which occupied him so and secured him admission. All that interest in writing and teaching? Merely feigned. There is no need for that sham anymore. Tenure is here.

The panorama of human activity, the various engagements in projects of intellectual and moral worth, their grounding stands revealed: the folks engaged in them are scared of being fired.

A Tiny Pleasure: Heading Home On Time

Yesterday evening, I took the train to my wife’s place of work at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center. I was going to drop off my baby daughter at her mother’s office, and then head to the gym to workout. It had been a tiring day as any day of infant daycare invariably is; my wife was going to take over for the rest of the evening. As I arrived at the MetroTech subway station at 5PM, I noticed commuters waiting for the train, waiting to go home; as I walked up the stairs, out into the plaza and into my destination office building, more commuters streamed past me, wearing suits, jackets, formal and semi-formal wear, and a mixture of expressions, some tired, some smiling, others engaged in conversations with co-workers. The workday was done; families and friends awaited; the rest of the day did too.

Somehow, I found this sight absurdly pleasing;  it had been a 9-5 day, and now those who had ‘put in their time’ could put it behind them and move on. Here was visible proof then, that workers could still go home on time, that a life beyond the workday, and not just on the weekends, was possible.

Of course, that same pleasure reminded me that the reason I had had occasion to experience it was that I knew all too well that most workers put in ridiculously long hours at work, that they do not earn overtime or ‘comp’ time for it, that they often do not manage to take advantage of their vacation days, that sometimes falling sick is not an option, and finally, that very often retirements have to be delayed, if not postponed indefinitely.  (This situation is undoubtedly worse in the US than it is elsewhere in the world, though when I hear stories about the Indian corporate world during my trips to India, I’m convinced the US has serious competition there.)

Somehow, bizarrely, too many workers in the US have settled for a situation whereby not only are they working longer hours, they are not compensated for it. Their workplaces are unregulated in the worst possible way: their bosses can command them to come in early, stay late, skip lunches, work on weekends, spread their two weeks annual vacation out over the year so that they become a bunch of long weekends instead, and perhaps to final injury to insult, suggest that they aren’t really sick enough to take the day off. As for ‘personal days’, well, they aren’t.

Workers could change this, of course. They could unionize, bargain collectively as a unit, push back on employer power so that space is made for their needs, their time, their lives. They could ask for paid overtime–in time or money. But most workers in the US have convinced themselves, or have been so persuaded, that organized worker forces flirt with the Antichrist, with all that is good and holy in America, that unions are parasites. So rather than organize themselves and secure for themselves the benefits of a unionized work force, they’d rather stand by and let the remnants of organized labor in this country come under sustained political attack.

And never get home on time.

On Being Mistaken for a ‘Worker’

Variants of the following situation have, I think, occurred in many people’s lives here in the US. (I have been on both the giving and receiving end, so to speak.)

You walk into a store (or perhaps a restaurant), perusing its offerings. You do not find what you need; you are confused; you need assistance. You see someone standing around, unoccupied; they are not wearing a uniform or anything like that. For whatever reason, you assume this person is a store employee, and ask for direction or assistance. You are mistaken. This person is not an employee.  Matters now get interesting.

Your respondent tells you, sometimes curtly, sometimes politely, ‘I don’t work here.’ You react as if poked with a cattle iron and electric prod combined, even as your hand flies up to cover your mouth in dismay: ‘I’m sorry!’ And you rush away, mortified, determined to never commit that particular faux pas again. The person you have dared assume was a store employee might also move away quickly from the locale of his embarrassment, wondering what accursed luck had led to this confusion, wondering what they had done wrong. Did they look slovenly or unwashed? Do they look servile?

(In my description of these kinds of encounters, I do not think I have exaggerated excessively. Some twenty or so years ago, I went with a girlfriend to an Indian restaurant for dinner; she was wearing a sari. As we waited for our table, a young man walked up to my girlfriend and asked her for a table; she politely, and with a grin on her face, replied she didn’t work there. You would have thought the lad had been shot, the way he almost doubled up with pain, flushed red, apologized and quickly walked away.)

This species of especially embarrassing social encounter has led to multiple safeguards to prevent its recurrence: in more established commercial enterprises, employees wear name tags or uniforms, and conversely, their customers have learned to be more cautious, prefixing their questions with a very (very!) tentative, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’

No one it seems, likes being mistaken for a worker. And no one likes to be in the business of mistaking a non-worker for a worker. We worry that we might offend someone by mistaking them for a lowly employee of the business we are patronizing, and the targets of our putative scorn are offended that someone has dared confuse them with those who are there to serve them. The primary sin here is class confusion: our class has been mixed up with someone else’s.

We live in a society that ostensibly aspires to, and sometimes achieves in some limited domains, an egalitarianism of sorts; we supposedly ascribe ‘dignity’ to labor, to wage work; we supposedly recognize that today’s lowly are tomorrow’s esteemed. For isn’t the road to the top available to anyone and everyone? But, I think, these little run-ins show us we’ve got a long way to go till we are ready to accept being confused with a ‘worker.’