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?

Anita Hill, Harvey Weinstein, And National Amnesia

In October 1991, I, along with millions of other curious viewers, watched the Senate nomination hearings for the Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. My curiosity, like that of many others, had been piqued by the presence of Thomas’ former assistant, Anita Hill, who had accused him of sexual harassment at her workplace. On the second day of her testimony, I was joined in my viewing by my girlfriend; we worked together at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey–she as a technical writer, I as a systems analyst. As we watched the hearings, my girlfriend grew increasingly animated–she commented time and again on Hill’s ‘bravery,’ her ‘courage,’ on how difficult it must have been for her to speak up. She spoke too, of the many incidents of harassment–major and minor–she herself had suffered at her workplace; she told me how all around her, women were talking–to each other, and to anyone, men included, who would listen–about how Anita Hill was giving voice to a complaint all too often ignored. And indeed, over the next few days, in newspapers, on talk shows, in usenet newsgroups, you could hear women talking about how Anita Hill’s testimony had blown the lid off the modern workplace’s biggest and most enduring scandal: the daily rituals of intimidation, humiliation, harassment that women had to undergo within its precincts. All around me, everyone agreed: this was a national ‘conversation’ we needed to be having; the world was not going to be the same again after these kinds of ‘revelations’; boyfriends and husbands were listening. (On the night Thomas’ confirmation was received, I was at my girlfriend’s house. When we heard the final 52-48 vote to confirm, she kicked the bed in disgust and anger; no one would listen to women; despite all that Hill had said, despite her transparent sincerity, the usual fog of obfuscation and denial–and in Thomas’ case, an astonishing self-pitying rant–had derailed her claims.)

It is now 2017, some twenty-six years on. The years have rolled on, much has changed, but yet more endures. We have been assured, thanks to La Affaire Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign, that we are at a national watershed moment when it comes to the problem of sexual harassment, that we now have unprecedented awareness about the problems that women face in the workplace–and elsewhere–when it comes to the business of being able to simply maintain some kinds of boundaries around themselves and their bodies. Back in 1991, in my workplace, there had been many employee seminars for ‘sensitivity training’ and the like–all to increase workplace awareness about the problem of sexual harassment. The men hadn’t liked it then; the current evidence seems to suggest all those seminars, at workplaces nationwide, had little effect–the Weinstein scandal is merely the most publicized of the many sexual harassment ‘scandals’ since. There is reason for pessimism again: the #MeToo campaign is already old hat, and business is returning to normal all too soon.

We’ve been here before; we might yet find ourselves at these crossroads again. Our memories are all too fragile, all too easily effaced.

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.

The FBI, Online Brokerages, And The Hiring Of ‘Potheads’

This almost-two-years-old story about the FBI’s claim that it could not find hackers–AKA ‘cybersecurity experts’–to hire because they smoke marijuana (and thus would fail their pre-employment drug tests) reminds me of a story from the days of the Internet gold rush, as demand for programmers, system administrators, and the like meant the instant hiring and satisfaction of salary requests with little regard for the background of the applicant other than their technical credentials.

The background to this story, as described in a previous post, is as follows:

As the summer of 1997 ended, I found myself, within the confines of New York City, a nomad. A break-up with my girlfriend meant I had to find new accommodations, and it had resulted in my moving thrice in three months. Finally I settled on the Lower East Side, renting a room in an apartment still under construction. I was broke; the moving had cost me; I had lost apartment deposits and spent too much money eating out, drinking beer, whiling away my time in bars playing pool. My meager summer employment hadn’t kept pace with my reckless expenditures and I found myself skimping, saving, borrowing money from friends, just to get by and pay rent. Even more problematically, my doctoral oral examinations awaited; I had an ambitious reading list–in philosophy of language, logic, and science–to get through.

As the fall semester began, I found myself caught, willy-nilly, in a form of monastic discipline. I had wasted enough time over the summer; I had to buckle down now. I had two section of Introductory Philosophy to teach, a long list of journal articles to get through, and very little money to spend. So I did what all abstainers do: I enforced a routine. I tried to wake up at the same time everyday, avoided my old haunts, and kept my nose to the wheel.

Well, it worked. I passed my oral exams (I was told I had earned ‘a distinction.’) But I was still broke. I needed work, and would have to take a semester–the coming spring of 1998–off from graduate school. So, I typed up a CV, detailed my previous experience as a C programmer and a UNIX system administrator, and faxed it to a dozen or so head-hunters in New York City. By the end of the day, I had received several call-backs. The next morning, I spoke to one of the agencies, and was directed to an interview with an online brokerage for the position of a UNIX system administrator (to take care of their battery of SUN servers that powered their website.) I interviewed, made my salary demands known, and waited for a call. It soon came, informing me I was hired. But I had to take a drug test first.

I had smoked pot several times over the past summer, but from September onward, I had abstained. You see, folks who smoke marijuana can make reasoned decisions about whether they think indulgence in it may interfere with personal and professional projects of importance. I wanted to concentrate on my teaching and exam preparation; simple abstinence seemed like a good way to facilitate that process.  And now, it seemed my abstinence would also help me pass the drug test my employer wanted me to undertake.

There was one problem though: the drug test was not the usual ‘piss-in-a-bottle’ test; instead it tested hair samples. I found this out on the day I went for the test. Surprised at not being handed a bottle, I dutifully raised my arms for clippings to be taken from my armpits. This did not bode well, for I had learned that traces of marijuana can be found in hair samples for months longer than in urine samples.  A day later, I received a phone call from the Human Resources Department. The conversation went as follows:

Administrative Lady: Mr. Chopra, we want to let you know that you tested positive for marijuana in your drug test.

Me: Oh, really?

Administrative Lady: We would like you to know that at XXX, we have a drug-free workplace.

Me: Uh-huh

Administrative Lady: Can you please come in as soon as possible to fill out your remaining forms?

Me: Sure.

And that was it. I had failed the drug test, but I was still hired. I was a UNIX system administrator; I ‘knew’ Solaris; I was in a possession of a ‘rare’ skill. What were they going to do? Go find another system administrator, back into the madness of trying to find someone qualified, in competition with other brokerages and Wall Street employers? Fat chance. I was in.

Six months later, I quit. I had saved enough money to float my graduate school boat for a while. And I continued to abstain from pot till the day I defended my doctoral thesis, on January 6, 2000. Then, I celebrated.

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.

Not So Fast With The Private Surveillance

A revealing–no pun intended–reaction to news of Steven Salaita’s troubles at the University of Illinois was that he was only paying the price for having his social media speech monitored (or surveilled) by his employer. As the argument goes, all employers monitor social media; we should all accept the consequences–in our places and zones of employment–of our public speech being monitored by our employers in non-workspace settings; Salaita’s employer did just that; he should deal with the consequences.

In an earlier post, I noted some of the adverse implications of such a situation for academics. But it is problematic for all workers, precisely because of the not-so-benign assumptions smuggled into its premises. First, it  uncritically accepts employer surveillance, not just of work spaces but of speech zones elsewhere as well–the restriction to social media networks is a red herring. This premise suggests we have no expectations of privacy–0r vastly lowered ones–in public spaces; but we clearly do, as our reactions to rude eavesdroppers at our restaurant table or street-corner conversations would suggest. Rather than meekly rolling back the boundaries of acceptable private surveillance to include more speech zones, this debate offers us an opportunity to inspect and examine where and how–and to what end–we consent to having our communications monitored by our employers.

Second, what does it mean to allow the content of our non-work space speech used against us in work space decisions such as hiring and firing? It means introducing an element of critical control and scrutiny into a domain where we expect to speak freely, to permit a regulation of speech by an entity as powerful, if not more, than governmental ones. No legal strictures would be required for chilling effects to be produced; the mere fear of the denial of livelihood would be enough. (Unsurprisingly, political activism of all stripes becomes easier when means of livelihood are not at stake; not for nothing is the tenured radical’s freedom so often lampooned by his critics.) The paucity of First Amendment restrictions on private employers is well-known; permitting their expansion, just because the technical means enable it, is to concede defeat all too quickly. Moreover, to permit it in a zone where the technical means permit it is to open the door to more extensive surveillance provided the technical means can be made available. This is to lose the argument at precisely the wrong point. After all, why not just micro-chip all from birth so as to permit future employers make the most informed decisions regarding suitability?

This reaction–the surveillance is in place, it is inevitable–is also depressingly indicative of the acceptance of an asymmetric surveillance; there is no talk of increasing employer–or chief executive–transparency to accompany this rollback of privacy safeguards. And lastly, as always there is the most appalling suggestion of all, more indicative of a civilizational  decline than anything else: when it comes to doing business, to making money, all concerned enter a morality-free zone of sorts; no imperative larger or more grand than an increase in profits need animate anyone’s actions.

Bowe Bergdahl and the Military: An Unhappy Marriage

Bowe Bergdahl has always been a very interesting young man. As this profile by Kirk Johnson and Matt Furber makes clear, he carried around with him, as interesting people invariably do, a divided self, one drawn in several different directions all at once. Some psychic currents pulled him in the direction of spirituality and bookish solitude, others toward the outdoors, and yet others toward guns and adventure and traditional models of masculinity. These competing forces were enough to set up internal swirls and eddies, making his outward actions increasingly complicated, and setting him on an almost certain collision course with his employer, that bastion of hierarchical control: the military.

Many young men join the armed forces not because they want to go to war, but because they want to partake of certain benefits and pleasures that only the military can provide. (My father and my brother joined an air force because they wanted to fly. And they didn’t want to fly just airliners.) Some do it so they can travel, some to earn a college degree and marketable skills. And some, like Bergdahl perhaps, sense that the military might allow for a marriage of previously entertained passions. In this case, Bergdahl might have thought he would be able to traverse all manners of new landscapes, in the company of comrades, perhaps fulfilling a humanitarian mission of sorts, all the while equipped with gun and grenade.

We don’t know what caused Bergdahl to desert, or ‘go native’, or lose his bearings and allow himself to be captured. But we can guess at what might have gone wrong out there in Afghanistan. Perhaps, well aware of the histories of US and Afghanistan, and the manner of his use by the US Army, he had become possessed by the feeling that his mission was not as noble or well-defined or morally unambiguous as he might have imagined. More problematically, for a soul as restless as his, so used to questioning and inquiring, he would have found the military’s brooding indifference to his turmoil especially galling. This indifference would have been manifest not just in his superiors and the procedures they followed, but also in his comrades, many of whom would have better internalized the military’s expectations of them, and thus would have wanted nothing more than to complete their tours of duty quietly and return home.

The military, and war, can very often make men like Bergdahl into misfits. They find themselves out of place, literally and figuratively, their moral compass disoriented; even the vaunted camaraderie of the uniformed can seem a shallow cover-up for ugly deeds. They might expect mentorship from their superiors and only find unrelenting control and domination. Unsurprisingly, some snap–as Bergdahl might have.

Bergdahl’s re-entry to civilian life is likely to be very complicated. His older relationships need considerable reconfiguration and he might yet be punished–with varying degrees of punitiveness–by the Army. In any case, when the smoke has cleared, one can only hope he will write about his experiences. I look forward to reading his story.