James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

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.

Ending the NCAA’s Plantation Racket

In Kevin Smith‘s Chasing Amy, Banky tries to talk Holden out of his crush on Amy:

Banky Edwards: Alright, now see this? This is a four-way road, okay? And dead in the center is a crisp, new, hundred dollar bill. Now, at the end of each of these streets are four people, okay? You following?

Holden: Yeah.

Banky Edwards: Good. Over here, we have a male-affectionate, easy to get along with, non-political agenda lesbian. Down here, we have a man-hating, angry as fuck, agenda of rage, bitter dyke. Over here, we got Santa Claus, and up here the Easter Bunny. Which one is going to get to the hundred dollar bill first?

Holden: What is this supposed to prove?

Banky Edwards: No, I’m serious. This is a serious exercise. It’s like an SAT question. Which one is going to get to the hundred dollar bill first? The male-friendly lesbian, the man-hating dyke, Santa Claus, or the Easter bunny?

Holden: The man-hating dyke.

Banky Edwards: Good. Why?

Holden: I don’t know.

Banky Edwards: [shouting] Because the other three are figments of your fucking imagination!

As I read news of the National Labor Relations Board‘s decision that college players have the right to unionize and allow myself a brief celebration of this victory for common sense, I also prepare myself for the inevitable defenses of the NCAA and its racket–college sports–from folks whom, in my kindest moments, I can only describe as deluded. It is for their sake that I have excerpted Banky’s rant above, for it could be easily rewritten with its three mythical creatures replaced by: the principled NCAA executive, the truthful NCAA lawyer and the honest college sport administrator. And standing over it all, the hallucination of the amateur student-athlete, who plays for passion and pride. Not money. No sir, not that filthy stuff, so visible in prices of season tickets, the salaries of coaches, administrators, the values of television rights deals, the spanking new sports facilities, gyms and stadiums.

Read the NLRB’s ruling and read the descriptions of college football players’ training and game routines, and ask yourself whether those descriptions accord with your sense of a college student playing sports on the side while he pursues a degree as his main vocation. Or do they better describe professional athletes who study a bit on the side? A choice sample:

During this time [football season], the players devote 40 to 50 hours per week to football-related activities, including travel to and from their scheduled games.

College sports is a plantation racket, from start to finish. Hold out promises of unimaginable riches to a community desperate for economic upliftment, pay them peanuts, shackle them to draconian codes of conduct enforced by hypocrites, all the while enriching yourself. That’s how it works. The student-athlete, the scholarship, the education in exchange for a few games; they sure do sustain a great deal of fantasy don’t they?

Thank you for tearing down the non-unionized wall, Mr. Ohr. Now, hopefully, later this year, the judges in O’Bannon vs. NCAA will take the necessary next steps.

The US Government Shutdown: Party Like It’s 1995

America awoke this morning to find its government shut down, thanks to Congress’ failure to pass a funding bill. Eight hundred thousand federal workers–including my wife, a staff attorney at the National Labor Relations Board–will be furloughed today. (My wife will go in for the first four hours to carry out an orderly shutdown of the agency’s services.) Elsewhere, all over the country, government services will be curtailed to varying degrees.  If the ‘fiscal impasse’ continues, matters could worsen:

By Oct. 17, Congress must raise the nation’s debt limit to pay for bills already incurred or provoke a globe-shaking default.

And all of this is the consequence of an utterly misguided effort to repeal a piece of legislation–promised by a twice-elected president–that is the law of the land: passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, and upheld by the US Supreme Court in the face of numerous legal challenges.

The members of the Republican Party–now, more than ever, utterly beholden to the American fascist fringe–who have engineered this fiscal disaster have spoken glibly of carrying out the will of the ‘American people.’ Their confusion is never more starkly on display than when they invoke this term. They seem to care little for those who elected Barack Obama, for those whose representatives voted for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in two legislative bodies; they seem to care little for the American constitution, in light of those provisions this act emerged as appropriately constitutional. They remain fixated instead, on their indefensible ideological convictions, for the sake of which they are willing to deny hundreds of thousands of American’s their wages, and to deny millions others their services.

I’m not sure what language to use to describe those members of the Republican Party who have decided that this is the correct way to wage their battle against the ACA.  And neither am I entirely sanguine that they will face an electoral backlash; after all, these are elected members of the US House of Representatives, who were voted into power on the basis of an electoral manifesto that promised as much sand in the wheels of the US government as possible.  The vulnerability of the US constitution to acts of political hijacking like this, if it wasn’t already manifest in the first Clinton and Obama terms, are even more manifest now.

The tragedy of modern American political life is that real radicals are not in the streets, seeking real, systemic change in a broken, corrupt, system, one beholden to Wall, not Main, Street; instead, another variant is in power, dedicated to making sure that millions of Americans cannot secure healthcare. It all sounds like a bit of a cruel joke, and I really wish it was, but it isn’t.

Note: A brief accounting of our personal costs thanks to this shutdown: my wife faces an indefinite furlough; we have already paid for this month’s daycare so it might all be money down the drain. We are, however, not too badly off compared to many other Americans. For the time being.

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.

The ‘Adversarial’ Nature of Unions

One of the strangest objections to the presence of unions in the workplace is that unions make the workplace adversarial, that they introduce conflict into the relationship between the worker and the manager (or between the two classes), that rather than letting workers and management concentrate on maximizing output (or throughput) and enterprise profit, which would then ultimately translate back into prosperity for all concerned, the union imposes an externality, a transaction cost by virtue of its fundamentally oppositional nature.

The so-called ‘adversarial nature’ of the union should not be surprising. Management and workers’ incentives often do not align, especially when the employing entity is not employee owned or incorporated i.e., it is a standard  enterprise where the economic power of capital is concentrated in a small group of owners. The goods to be maximized and minimized–wages and profits for instance–by the parties in this relationship are different and often orthogonal; it is not entirely unexpected that management and workers’ actions would bring them into conflict with each other. This situation is an almost straightforward consequence of the acceptance of two axioms pertaining to such a workplace: a) that it brings together two parties of grossly disparate economic power, with both aiming to maximize their standings in those stakes and b) that this encounter will often be a zero-sum game. Conflict seems inevitable under these circumstances.

(A little historical perspective is useful here. Early hostility to unions from management was systematic; it found a significant legal edge thanks to sympathetic courts that, having internalized the mantra that unions were irritants to markets blamed them for declining profits whenever they occurred. Indeed, the sometimes violent, protracted, and bitter history of labor relations in this country suggests that to note and object to the adversarial nature of unions is to merely note the aggressive posture of one of the two parties in an extended, hostile, and a yet-to-be-resolved conflict: at best it makes note of the obvious, at worst it seeks to obfuscate understanding of the forces that conspire to keep the workplace a space for worker control.)

What is most interesting about this almost-aesthetic distaste which underwrites the objection to the conflict-engendering union–the only one to be indicted of the charge of adversarial behavior–is the contrast it intends to conjure up with an imaginary union-free workplace, one that is productive, low-cost, profit-producing, a harmonious vale of workers and management working peacefully together with shoulders to the wheel. Such union-free workplaces in the real world, of course, now free of the friction created by the presence of the union, almost invariably do poorly on those reckonings of worker quality most beloved of unions: worker job security, inflation-pacing wages with annual raises, safe and regulated workplaces. It turns out that conflict in the workplace might be the price workers and management have to pay if the widespread ubiquity of collectively owned economic entities does not become a reality and the workplace continues to showcase relationships between powerful, capital-owning management and economically precarious worker forces.

Narrowing the American Dream to Exclude the American Worker

My sister-in-law works as a labor organizer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I’m proud of the work she does and remain resolutely convinced that her efforts to facilitate the unionization of workers count among the most important contemporary attempts to reform the American workplace and reduce income inequality. But because she works on behalf of organized labor, she also encounters, on occasion, some of the knee-jerk, reflexive, unthinking hostility toward unions that is so common among American workers and the American middle-class, who seem determined to ignore, marginalize, and sometimes actively work against, the one entity that could do the most to rescue them from their ever-worsening economic decline. Last week or so, on telling someone she worked for the AFSCME, her interlocutor baldly said to her face, ‘That’s like working for organized crime.’

Right. You could call that ‘false consciousness‘ and move on. But what I find most revealing about that kind of remark–and it is not that different from the standard hostile missive sent organized labor’s way–is its straightforward exclusion of the worker-who-wants-to-unionize from any aspiration to a supposedly common ‘dream’, the ‘American’ one. For in that dream, everyone is an entrepreneur, doing the best for himself, scraping out, by any means possible, the best possible configuration of economic and material affairs for themselves and theirs.  Those that succeed at this combination of hustle and hard work, always supposedly achievable by chutzpah and the nose to the wheel, are the American ideals, the success stories to be recounted, and the idols to be built for future generations to venerate and cherish.

Everyone, except, it seems, for the worker. When he does the best for himself, by ensuring a regulated workplace that pays attention to his health and safety, or by monitoring the hours worked, and asking for overtime or compensation pay for hours worked over those contracted for, or by ensuring appropriate pension schemes, health benefits and vacation times, he is castigated and described as a leech singularly responsible for the decline of the American economy. Budgets fail to be balanced and crisis stalks the land. Turns out, everyone can be an entrepreneur and do whatever they can to meet the bottom line, except for those that work for bosses.

So for now, in the grab-bag of tricks and tactics that are allowable to the worker in his effort to play the part of the American hero doing the best for himself, he is to be studiously denied access to worker collectivity. Rather, workers must place themselves at the mercy of the entity that manages and manipulates them, who are then free to give the fullest expression to their entrepreneurial spirit. Praise is theirs alone; the castigation, the calling-out, the vilification are reserved for the unionizing (or unionized) worker.

Note: Linda Greenhouse reminds us of the Supreme Court’s role in marginalizing labor unions. Of course, these decisions are easier to make within a particular social context, one created by the attitudes described above.