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.

The ‘Hire-And-Fire’ Fantasy Of The Libertarian

A central plank of libertarian (and neoliberal and conservative) opposition to organized labor, to collective bargaining, to workers acting collectively is something I term the ‘hire-and-fire fantasy’: that employers should be able to initiate and terminate their employees’ employment at will. (This power would presumably be written into the contracts they sign with their workers.) Let bosses hire and fire as they please; they know best how to run the company. At this stage, a few anecdotes about the onerous bureaucratic delays involved in getting rid of a spectacularly incompetent worker are introduced: terrible tales of how disgruntled employers were made to run from pillar to post, all in effort to take the most obvious of decisions, the taking out of the trash. Unionized workers it seems, are complacent and lazy; they know they cannot be fired; they do not work as hard as those who know the boss can, you guessed it, hire and fire them at will. The union, the workers’ collective, then stands exposed as sand in the wheel; it appears as a burden, a terrible economic and performative inefficiency getting in the way of the smooth deployment of ‘human resources.’

The problem with this argument–and it is a familiar one–is that it compares the worst of the unionized workplace with the best of the non-unionized workplace. In the former, the incompetent worker is protected by a venal union, even as an exasperated boss, who only wants to get the job done as expeditiously as possible, tears out his hair; in the latter, the same virtuous boss is able to summon the incompetent worker to his office, summarily dismiss him or her, and then get back to work. All virtue resides in the employer; the union and the worker are only imbued with sloth and insufficient motivation. This argument does not, of course, bother to examine the situation created by an incompetent boss who decides to peremptorily dismiss a blameless worker, perhaps one with a long and distinguished service record, on arbitrary and trivial grounds (perhaps a secretary did not smile broadly enough, perhaps a junior pointed out an embarrassing blunder in the boss’ presentation, pricking a thin patina of pride; the list goes on.) There is no court of appeal; there is no redressal possible; here is a paycheck for two weeks; clean your desk, and then the security guard will escort you to the elevators. Here is arbitrary and opaque power indeed; the boss can act, but the worker may not. (On the many occasions that I’ve discussed this argument with my students, there are those who will enthusiastically back the ‘hire-and-fire’ claim till I point out to them just how arbitrarily that power may be exercised by employers; then, expressions of dismay set in; I suspect the situation they had in mind was the one I described first above.)

The union’s contracts for its members seek to put in place a procedure for investigation of complaints, for workers to be granted the privilege of answering charges laid against them; they seek to shield the worker from the most arbitrary exercises of the boss’ undoubted power. The stakes are high; the worker’s livelihood is at stake. The power of the employer (sometimes a corporation) is always greater than that of the worker; collective bargaining and action and worker-protective contracts aim to address this imbalance. Those who criticize the worker’s collective body, accuse it of wielding too much power, both recognize and fail to recognize power: they notice that the workers united, cannot be defeated, but they fail to acknowledge the power the boss may wield over his employee. This blindness is not accidental; it is ideological, for its true motive is not the protection of the economic efficiency of the workplace–arbitrarily firing competent workers can very often be economically counterproductive–but the power of the boss, the maintenance of a very particular hierarchy, one that allows for certain pleasures only to be found in subjugation and the exercise of one’s will over another.

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.

The Right Body Language For A Court Appearance

On Wednesday morning, I reported to the New York City Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from my arrest during a civil disobedience protest staged outside the office of the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, on March 24th. The day proceeded along lines similar to those I had reported in my previous day in court (back in 2014, after protests outside the Israeli mission during the Gaza crisis): meet my fellow defendants; meet our union’s lawyers; wait to be called into courtroom; wait to be called up before judge. We would, in all probability, be granted an ‘adjournment contemplating dismissal’ (ACD)–a deferment for six months, during which time the charge would remain open and after which could be dropped. Unlike my last appearance in court, this time my name was called out in the first group itself.

I walked up to the front of the courtroom and stood in front of the judge. My fellow defendants–three of them–stood next to me. As I stood and waited, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Seeing this, a court guard–who was handing papers to the judge–walked up to me and told me to put my arms down. He didn’t specify an alternate location; just that the current one wouldn’t do. I complied; I had no intention of arguing with a police officer in a courtroom, thus risking another arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ even as I was appearing in court for another such charge.

But the business of being told to adopt the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ body language was intriguing and revelatory. So much of what happens in the courtroom is pure performance, a legal theater: the judge’s seat placed on high, the imposing architecture, the formal, stately, convoluted language, the solemnity, the tightly circumscribed procedure, all the better to impress upon legal subjects–sinners, penitents, and legal officers alike–the awe-inspiring power and majesty of the law. Respect; deference to authority; unblinking conformity–these are the values to be reinforced in this space.

My act of crossing my arms was, I suppose, in this context, an insolent gesture: I did not convey the appropriate respect. I was certainly not causing any disruption; I did not talk; I had not raised my voice.  I was not a threat of any sort–in case, you think that crossing arms allows for the concealment of weapons–because I had already been searched upon entrance to the court. No, quite simply, I had to be bent into that shape which would convey the appropriate respect for the court. And also the particular and peculiar blend of humility and servility that the law is looking for in those who ‘commit crimes.’ The guard’s admonishment was a reminder I was not following the director’s stage instructions.

A minute or so later, it was all done, and I headed to campus with a warning from the judge to ‘stay out of trouble.’ That will not be easy if the Governor of New York State does not restore funding to the City University of New York, if the CUNY administration does not sign a new contract with its faculty and staff.

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.

A Day In Gaol: Protesting Andrew Cuomo’s Attack On CUNY

Yesterday I, along with many other members of the City University of New York’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) participated in a civil disobedience action outside the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Across the street from us, other members held a rally; they waved signs, chanted slogans and marched. We were all protesting New York State (and City’s) slow starvation of CUNY–through persistent budget cuts. (See this earlier report too.) Moreover, faculty and staff have now been without a contract for six years. Given the cost of living increases in New York City, this  means that we have been receiving pay cuts for the past six years.

We marched out as a group in rows, arms linked, and then performed a ‘die-in’ in front of the entrance to the office building. We received three warnings from the NYPD to cease and desist; following our non-compliance, we were all arrested and taken to NYPD’s central office at One Police Plaza for booking and post-arrest processing. (Thankfully, the NYPD was not over-enthusiastic about tightening their plastic hand-cuffs.) The usual tedium ensued: first, we waited in the paddy-wagon before being driven off, then on arrival we waited before disembarking. Once that had happened, we moved slowly through several stages of processing. Identity cards were collected, searches conducted, property–including shoelaces–confiscated for holding, mugshots were taken (with a twist that each arrested person ‘posed’ with his arresting officer.) This done, we were sent to a holding cell. I had been assured by my arresting officer–a Pakistani gentleman with whom I struck up a rolling conversation in Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani-Punjabi–that a new streamlined procedure was being followed and that we would be out quickly, but even then, a wait of approximately four hours was still in store.

As was the case in my previous time spent in a NYPD holding cell, conversation with my cellmates was the saving grace of what would otherwise have been an exercise in boredom. I chatted with, among others: a staff member of CUNY’s Murphy Institute who hailed from a family with four generations of union organizers;  a political theorist who analyzes conservative critiques of capitalism; a doctoral student in sociology writing on race and class in social movements; a Brooklyn College sociology professor specializing in studies of policing and police brutality. (In the paddy-wagon too and while waiting in line for processing, there had been wonderful moments of bonding and camaraderie, including the obligatory rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever.’)

Finally, the moment came, as our arresting officer called us out to pick up our property and court appearance notices (we had been charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’) After doing so, we were escorted out to the precinct gates, where we were greeted by our union colleagues, who had kindly arranged for food and snacks and had held on to our backpacks. I was underdressed as I had not anticipated the sharp drop in temperatures, so I quickly ate a sandwich and headed for the downtown Q train to take me back home. I was in bed around midnight.

The ongoing, seemingly nation-wide, assault on public education is one of the most shameful features of modern American life. It is the true negation of the American dream, a central component of which was the promise to educate, and make possible, a better life for those who could not afford it otherwise. An attack on public education is a political act; it loudly and proudly proclaims an anti-intellectual stance; it says that education is a privilege reserved for those able to pay for it. That is not what CUNY is about, and the faculty and staff here will not let the city and state administration forget it.

Note: These articles by Village Voice writer Nick Pintohere and here–provide more useful background on what is going down at CUNY. This article in the Gotham Gazette reports some of the latest developments in the funding crisis.

Donald Trump And Organized Labor’s Death Wish

Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi makes note of a distinctive and troubling feature of modern American political life, the seeming death wish of American organized labor:

Every four years, some Democrat who’s been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.

It’s called “transactional politics,” and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.

This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders….Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by “transactional politics.” He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches….

Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That’s true even when it comes from Donald Trump….You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump’s speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump….

Indeed. Never mind that the candidates unions would consider endorsing would then want to distance themselves as much as possible from organized labor. (As Taibbi also notes, Trump thinks Michigan autoworkers are paid too much and that in general, “wages are too high.”)

I have written before on this blog about the self-destructive, seemingly self-hating antipathy that American workers have to organized labor. The phenomenon Taibbi points to is another matter altogether. Here, unions themselves are engaged in behavior which is willfully, inexplicably self-destructive.  Perhaps this behavior reveals a particularly virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome (it is very hard, after all, to leave abusive relationships and seek help); perhaps it’s a manifestation of the thing Freud called a ‘todestrieb.’

Consider for instance, the news that Jeff Johnson, the head of the Washington State Labor Council–affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has not yet endorsed anyone for president–was allegedly pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to not speak at a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event. The AFSCME, one of the largest public-sector unions in the U.S. and a member of the AFL-CIO, endorsed Clinton for president in October. As the article linked to above notes, the AFSCME is perfectly within its rights to slap down on a state labor federation pending approval from national AFL-CIO. Still, it might be asked, why endorse candidates who send union jobs overseas to non-unionized workplaces?

Desperate political times call for desperate actions. Unions are under assault everywhere; membership is shrinking nation-wide. One might ask though, of all the actions available to organized labor, why would it endorse candidates so damaging to its members’ short-term and long-term interests, both economic and political? Especially when the decline of unionization in the American workplace has so extensively been identified as a primary cause of falling wages and rising economic inequality?