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?

Step This Way For The Deunionized American Workplace

American unions look headed for another legal beating in the US Supreme Court. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to drop all pretense and just advocate beatings until the morale–of American workers–improves. The Supreme Court is about to hand their overseers a slightly thicker, more knotted, whip.

Ten Californian teachers have sued their union–on First Amendment grounds–alleging that by paying union dues “they are being forced to pay money to support positions with which they disagree.” Their plea will likely find sympathetic ears on the current almost-completely-fallen-over-to-the-right Supreme Court, which has twice ruled that “the First Amendment bars forcing government workers to make payments to unions.” These are no innocent plaintiffs; they are an integral component of a “decades-long legal campaign to undermine public unions.” (Their lawsuit has been organized by the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian group which enjoys funding from conservative foundations.)

Of course, the plaintiffs will continue to benefit from the union’s work to secure higher wages and workplace benefits–that’s just how collective bargaining works. But the rugged individualist at the head of the lawsuit, Mr. Elrich, will have none of it. As he notes, presumably standing on a cliff overlooking the American West, through which he will roll on his covered wagon, fighting off various governmental depredators:

“I can negotiate for myself,” he said. “I’m a good teacher, highly respected, and I can go anywhere.”

If the experience of American workers in the years following the extensive deunionization of the American workplace is any indication, most teachers will  likely “go” down the ladder of economic and social advancement. But freedom, fuck yeah, so that’s cool.

The plaintiff’s First Amendment concerns appear overblown:

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, urged the justices to leave the Abood ruling alone. Reaping the benefits of collective bargaining, he said, is not the same as being compelled to support a political position.

 “The typical worker would surely perceive a significant difference between, on the one hand, contributing to a union’s legal and research costs to develop a collective-bargaining proposal for his own unit, and, on the other hand, making a political contribution to a union-favored candidate for governor,” Mr. Verrilli wrote.

Kamala D. Harris, California’s attorney general, told the justices in a brief that workers who object to the positions taken by unions suffer no First Amendment injuries because “they remain free to communicate their views to school officials, their colleagues and the public at large.”

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of market language forthcoming from the plaintiffs

Ms. Cuen said the unions might need to improve to keep their members.

“If they’re worried about not getting forced money from everyone, what does that say about their product?” she asked. “So maybe if we win the case and they’re worried about people leaving in droves, they might need to improve their product and make it a little more user-friendly.”

I’m surprised Ms. Cuen forgot to throw in talk of union ‘brands’ and how they are losing their ‘customers.’ Perhaps she’ll do in her press release following their legal victory.

Scott Walker: Destroying Tenure, Keeping You ‘Free’

Scott Walker is well on his way to destroying one of the finest systems of public education in this country.  Those who cheered his attack on public sector unions will cheer this move on too: it has everything they want. A repeal of tenure, destruction of faculty governance, budget slashing, more power to university administrators. Nation-hating leftists, lazy, corrupt, subversive teachers, insolent workers forming themselves into unions; these have all been disciplined and put out to pasture. The cheering from those who would have benefited the most from high-quality, affordable public education, from organized workers fighting for fair wages and better working conditions, will be the loudest. The masochistic tendencies  of those who elected Scott Walker will thus be prominently on display.  So will their sadistic ones, for they will enjoy the spectacle of uppity faculty and unionists brought to their knees, they will enjoy the idea of ‘someone else’ being told to work longer hours, just like they do.

Pay us less, make us work more, make universities more expensive for our children, let corporate managers, the one who rules our lives, run our universities too, let them hire and fire teachers and professors like they would hire and fire us–without reason, let them decide what our children will learn; our father, which art in heaven, thou hast made us powerless; make others powerless too, especially those that dare speak up for themselves. These are the rallying cries of those who elect Scott Walker, artfully packaged and funded by those who would actually benefit the most: monopolist capitalists like the Koch brothers. Wisconsin is tragedy and farce simultaneously.

I seem to remember another instance of this kind of phenomenon:

The emotional satisfaction afforded by these sadistic spectacles and by an ideology which gave them a feeling of superiority…[and] was able to compensate them–for a time at least–for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally….[it] resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. [Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pp. 219]

Why do the folks who voted for Scott Walker feel this way? Perhaps they are “seized with the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness…typical for monopolistic capitalism…[their] anxiety and thereby…hatred were aroused; it moved into a state of panic and was filled a craving for submission to as well as domination over those who were powerless.” [Ibid., pp. 218]

Perhaps I exaggerate; so let me turn to The Onion for a dose of much-needed realism, where, in the ‘candidate profile’ for Walker, we find:

Personal Hero: Sixth-grade teacher who inspired him to strip educators of collective bargaining rights and dismantle publicly funded higher education

Greatest Accomplishment: Stood up to people who make living pulling others from burning buildings

Gubernatorial Record: First governor in history to raise enough out-of-state funding to overcome recall challenge from own constituents

Chief Political Rival: Those who want to make a living wage

This same man will now run for president on a platform that will look very similar to the one he brought to Wisconsin.  We live in interesting times.

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.

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.

Camden Can’t Afford Its Police and Its Union Any More

Today’s blog post has little ‘analysis’; all I need do is point. Perfect storms should be ‘admired’ from a distance. When I’m done, let the chants of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ ring out, loud and proud.

So, let us get started. Here is a little piece of news: Camden, NJ has decided to disband its police department:

The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.

These one hundred and twenty-seven additional, cheaper officers will now presumably make a significant difference in fighting crime in a city reckoned the most dangerous in America. (Did I mention it was also the poorest?) Before their arrival, things had reached a point where

[T]he police in Camden — population 77,000 — are already so overloaded they no longer respond to property crimes or car accidents that do not involve injuries.

There are few tears being shed for the police department in Camden because:

[M]any residents have come to resent a police force they see as incompetent, corrupt and doing little to make their streets safe….When police officers arrested a person suspected of dealing drugs in a house on a narrow street in North Camden last year, residents set upon their cars and freed the prisoner.

Camden’s move is part of a trend:

The new effort follows a push by New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democratic leaders in the Legislature to encourage cities and towns to regionalize government services. They maintain that in a new era of government austerity, it is no longer possible for each community to offer a full buffet of government services, especially with a new law prohibiting communities from raising property taxes more than 2 percent a year.

The police union’s contract terms are seen as the problem:

[O]fficers earn an additional 4 percent for working a day shift, and an additional 10 percent for the shift starting at 9:30 p.m. They earn an additional 11 percent for working on a special tactical force or an anticrime patrol. Salaries range from about $47,000 to $81,000 now, not including the shift differentials or additional longevity payments of 3 percent to 11 percent for any officer who has worked five years or more. Officials say they anticipate salaries for the new force will range from $47,000 to $87,000. In 2009, as the economy was putting a freeze on municipal budgets even in well-off communities, the police here secured a pay increase of 3.75 percent. And liberal sick time and family-leave policies have created an unusually high absentee rate: every day, nearly 30 percent of the force does not show up.

Urban blight; shrinking budgets; rampant crime; terrible police-community relations; Camden has it all. Yes, indeed, drastic action seems necessary and unions and their contracts seem like the right place to start. They always are.

As we move on, we should note that things weren’t always so bad economically:

Camden, in the shadow of Philadelphia’s glimmering towers, once had a thriving industrial base — a shipyard, Campbell Soup and RCA plants along the waterfront. About 60,000 jobs were lost when those companies moved or shifted them elsewhere.

Or even crime-wise:

Camden reorganized its Police Department in 2008 and had a lower homicide rate for two years. Then the recession forced layoffs, reducing the force by about 100 officers. [Links in original; one hundred, I believe, is twenty seven less than the one hundred and twenty seven to be added after this disbandment.]

 But I can’t imagine that any of that history has anything to do with the current crisis.