Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Service Economy (Or, F@#$ You Very Much), Part 4

In the previous three installments, I use the story of a bookseller in a ridiculous customer service situation as a frame to talk about the fate of those working in the service industry. The first installment can be found here. The second installment can be found here. The third installment can be found here here . Things already discussed: what is a real job; the consequences of “the customer is always right” policy; rumination on unions; the perennial question – why do I have to pretend to be happy to serve you; and questions about the viability and sustainability of an economy that treats so many workers like waste. And so, onwards and upwards…

The Money Tree/Winston Smith

End of the Hapless Bookseller’s Ridiculous Story

As you are probably aware by now (if you’ve stuck with the story thus far) the story of the bookseller and the Jokester and the drunk boss is my story. Yes, I confess I was the bookseller. Because I’m an artist and get paid very little (and sometimes not at all) for what I do rather well, and because I have moved around quite bit over the years (always penalized in the corporate-controlled economy), I have done my fair share of time in the service economy. I dip in, I flee; a couple of years later, I’m back. Remember, one third of jobs in this economy are in service.
Service: it's what's for dinner.
At this point in the proceedings there’s always some pompous-believer-in-the-shock-and-awe-of-capitalism that needs to point out to me that the job in that bookstore really wasn’t so bad. He desperately needs it to be a case of ‘one bad apple.’ "C’mon, man, quit your complaining, it’s not endemic."
I agree that my job at the bookstore was not that bad. The job certainly wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. Here's a job I had that was worse: I once cleaned toilets, waxed floors, and worked in the dining hall kitchen of a posh private university where the students went out of their way to treat all service workers with condescension and contempt, sometimes even making more of a mess for the workers (especially in the toilets) as a kind of insider class joke (remember, we were the bottom-feeders, what else did we deserve?) And I’m more than aware that too many people on this earth – millions upon millions – have much worse happen to them at work on a daily basis than I did at that private university (and that still wasn’t my worst job...not by a long shot). But the humiliation and low pay is endemic. Not just in the retail industry. It's across the board. Here in the US, the world over.
Here are a couple of examples of those doing real work in the US and still remain at the bottom of the great economic pyramid scheme.


Many waitresses that I know – or have known – over the years have had to spend quite a bit of energy fending off the unwanted sexual advances of their managers and bosses. It almost goes with the job – especially when you work in a bar. (Hey, Chickie Babe, you want the good shift, so you don’t have to pay more to the baby sitter? Well, you know what to do with that mouth of yours...”). On top of that, restaurants and bars are not required to pay minimum wage. Restaurant associations have been lobbying congress forever to keep the minimum for tip jobs at an abysmal $2.13 an hour (According to the US Department of Labor, if an employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage – $7.75 – the employer must make up the difference. Of course, employers rarely make up the difference – and no one’s out hounding them down to do it.). That’s right, restaurant labor costs have been passed on to you, the customer. So, if you don’t tip your waitress or waiter 20% then they have basically worked for something close to free.

Farm workers

Farm workers suffer on a daily basis from lack of adequate drinking water and toilet facilities; musculoskeletal injuries from lengthy stooping, lifting, and cutting; and daily exposure to pesticides. On top of that, most farm workers are largely excluded from even the very crap Federal laws that are meant to currently protect worker’s rights in this country. (You can read up about a fight involved between the UFW (United Farm Workers) and Gerawan Farming, one of the nations largest food growers, that addresses this issue here: Article from Capital and Main)

Cheap vegetables, fruits and milk come from this world. Here's an incident that happened recently - a report taken from the UFW website: "Randy Vasquez, a 27 year old dairy worker, drowned in a tragic accident at work when his front loader truck tipped into a cow manure pond. Randy had been working at Riverview Ranch, a dairy that provides milk to Darigold.

"(He had)...often lamented...about the harsh working conditions; the shifts were long, sometimes longer than 10 hours per day and he usually worked the night shift. He’d also suffered an accident at work when chemicals splashed into his eyes. Nubia (his wife) told us she watched Randy fervently look for work elsewhere, at warehouse stores and distribution centers but he had no luck; he continued to work at dairies to support Nubia and their two children ages 3 and 2 years old." (Go to the United Food Workers site and read up here. You can help simply by signing their petitions.)

Class Empathy

Futility of a Well Ordered Life/Winston Smith
 Another reason I’ve used the relatively benign example of the bookseller is this: many in the middle class, and too many professional-types I've met, are unwilling to see the horror of what goes on around them unless it happens to be someone they feel they can identify with – you know, someone with a degree, who may have originally come from the middle class. They only have sympathy for people who resemble themselves (let’s be kind and call it class empathy).
While I was organizing at Borders I ran into a guy at a party who told me that normally he wouldn’t approve of unions in retail, or unions at all, but he was behind what we were doing because the booksellers at Borders actually had a skill. When I told him that I was hoping the movement would spread throughout the service industry, he said: “I don’t see how what you’re doing would apply to any other part of retail. Those people are unskilled.” (The verdict was in! Unskilled! Those that are deemed unskilled don’t deserve to do anything but survive! They deserve our contempt! Who cares if they’re keeping thousands of corporate box stores afloat – fuck ‘em! Yay!)

I found out he sold mortgages. Now there’s a real skill.
It goes without saying that if everyone were a professional, a manager, an assistant manager (in retail, they are also over-worked), there would be no one left to clean the toilets. The upper class, the management class, NEED the servant class to exist. They are increasingly wealthy because the servant class is making so little. That’s just how the economy works. (So, for all you people who never gave a shit that millions of other workers in this country were sinking into poverty while your salaries doubled – don’t worry, the percentage of service jobs is growing and growing and growing. I’m sure we’ll all eventually meet in the servant’s break room at Costco.) 

Workers Fighting Each Other for Scraps

Laughing on the Outside/Winston Smith
Service workers also get crap from those that should understand their plight. Sometime last year, a friend posted a petition on Facebook about raising the national minimum wage for all to fifteen dollars an hour, and some guy immediately jumped in and wrote that he understood the need for raising wages but, for Christ’s sake, some people are only slinging burgers and don’t deserve that much (there was a bit of real job blustering). It turned out that he just didn’t want to see service worker wages raised to the level that he was at in his construction job.

Carnage/Winston Smith
My immediate thought was: Okay, fine, let’s all fight among ourselves for scraps from The Overlords. Let’s pretend that this is not doing the boss’s work for him. Let’s hold onto the idea that there’s an actual ladder of morality involved in how much money we make (much like the Calvinists, who believed that the more wealth you accumulated, the more God favored you...they also believed that there is only a small elite who were going to be allowed into heaven – and it’s certainly wasn’t going to be you, bucko, poor cashier that you are – it just so happens that it’s going to be them).

 Do we really need to get our sense of self-worth from the idea that we are above someone else on the great ladder of success, grinding our boot heel on the crown of those worthless heads below, pushing down, down, down?

Back to the Bookseller & The Jokester

Ah, by this time, you know how all this ends: the Jokester won. The boss badgered me so much about smiling – and doing things that had nothing to do with selling books – things that were a distraction from my actual job, a distraction from making him money – that I finally had to quit. 

 As I walked out the door for the last time, I was reminded of a moment in the cult film Idiocracy (two people are cryogenically frozen in a military experiment and wake 500 years later in a dystopian society where a corporate commercial mindset has run rampant, resulting "in a uniformly unthinking society devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibiltiy, and coherent notions of justice and human rights." (Wikipedia) No one knows how to do anything. The world is filled with garbage endlessly pumped out by the big box stores. Oh, but there is still a greeter at the front entrance to Costco, endlessly repeating “Welcome to Costco, I love you...Welcome to Costco, I love you...Welcome to Costco, I love you...”

You can watch the idiotic moment here.
The bookstore story happened several years ago. When I walked out the door, I said “Never again.” But, as I mentioned above, that’s not the way the economy works. Service jobs are, basically, what's for dinner. I’ve come and gone from retail a few times since...

Oh, but there’s more...

Next (and final) Installment:

New Fights,
& Moving Beyond the Service Economy

Collages by Winston Smith
(for those old enough, he did the famous Dead Kennedy's album covers.
And no, I don't know him.)

His website is



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