Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Service Economy (or, F@#$ You Very Much), Part 5

 "If work were so pleasant, 
the rich would keep it for themselves" 
 - Mark Twain

In the previous four 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 (1/3 of the economy), eventually expanding my ire to most work in general. Section 1: (What is a real job?) can be found here. Section 2 (the customer is always right?) can be found here. Section 3 ( the insidious happy customer service mask that hides the truth of work in the US) can be found here here . And Section 4  is the end of the bookseller’s story, along with question about the sustainability of an economy that treats so many workers like waste.  Holy crap, this should be a book. Or a Michael Moore-ish type movie.

And so, onwards and upwards…

Strikes, New Fights

There’s hope! There have been numerous strikes and protests at Walmart and McDonald’s in the last few years. This last Black Friday – November 28, 2014 – was the third consecutive year that Walmart employees stood outside stores, demanding higher wages, more hours, and associated benefits. 

Because of this, in mid-February of this year, Walmart announced “a new wage structure for hourly associates in Walmart U.S. stores and Sam’s Clubs. This new initiative, including training and educational programs, will affect current and future hourly associates in the United States.” (Walmart Fiscal Report) They raised the wage of those earning $7.75 an hour to $9.00 in April and $10.00 next year. (Fortune article) Why? Fear of unionization across the entire chain. You can read more about last year’s Black Friday protest here.

Whenever you hear about small victories like this, you have to keep in mind that quite a number of workers were harassed, demoted, and fired just to get to this point. These are people who put their jobs on the line to help raise the standard of living for others.

Kshama Sawant
The movement to raise the minimum wage is growing by leaps and bounds. The poster face for the movement right now is Kshama Sawant, the socialist on the Seattle City Council. “Since joining the council in January of 2014 she has helped push through a gradual raising of the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Seattle. She has expanded funding
for social services and blocked, along with housing advocates, an attempt by the Seattle Housing Authority to allow a rent increase of up to 400 percent. She has successfully lobbied for city money to support tent encampments and is fighting for an excise tax on millionaires. And for this she has become the bête noire of the Establishment, especially the Democratic Party.” (From an article  in Common Dreams by Chris Hedges, one of the best journalists in the world today. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.)

Sweatshop: Bangladesh
What would be incredible is if the burgeoning new labor movement in the US could connect up with movements around the world. Envision a bridge between the people in Indonesia, China, Thailand, and Mexico (the list is endless) who make the box store consumer goods and those here that sell it. There would be power in that link-up. And maybe it would create more of an understanding of how the entire system works. It is a system of waste: a waste of limited resources – pumping out endless crap for quick consumption, to be thrown away for newer pieces of crap – and also a waste of people, their unique talents and gifts.

Why such monstrous waste? 

So a limited few can accumulate wealth beyond imagining. 

Is this a fair trade-off? 

We all know the answer to that one.

Moving Beyond the Service Economy

"It has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself; a convenient belief to those who live on the wealth of others."

Long before I worked organizing a union in the Border’s chain, I imagined a world that could move beyond the call for safe work at decent wages. Yes, fighting for better wages, for better working conditions, is important work and needs to be done – people’s lives depend upon it – but, in the end, I found that this fight ended the same way:

more money = acceptance of the status quo

Tick, tick, tick...
Here's the thing: no one really wants these jobs. How many people do you know who actually like their job, are fulfilled by it? It’s an important question because we spend most of our lives at these jobs.
When we limit the fight to higher wages, we end up seeking solutions from the same system that has created this incredible waste of human potential in the first place. We’re working inside the same paradigm. Yes, raise the minimum wage, demand benefits, health care, etc. – but we also need to have an eye on where this is all going, what we actually want from our lives, what we want the world to look like – what we truly want.

As I keep saying, ad nauseum: most of the jobs out there are wasting our creative potential. They are time killers, soul killers. We do them for most of our waking hours. No one I know woke up one morning when they were ten years old and announced to their family that they had a desperate urge to become a cashier at Target when they grew up.

What would an economy look like where most people were fulfilled by their work – not fulfilling menial, and mostly useless, services for others? What would the world look like where all work had dignity; a world where no work contributed to the destruction of the planet.*

Impossible? It’s not like Capitalism appeared out of the natural cycles of the earth. It was originally imagined and implemented out of a European male desire for power and wealth (women were mostly kept out of the process for the first 500 years).

Jesus & Dinosaur
Many people, over the last five centuries, imagined this current economy. Look at the crap box store architecture all around you, the suffering that is entailed in making consumer crap, and the suffering entailed in selling it – it didn’t spring into existence as part of the evolutionary process (or, if you’re insane: it didn’t come into existence 6000 years ago when the Christian god created the earth). It was created by those who wanted to line their pockets with gold. And gain power. Some of them, to this day, believe that Global capitalism can still bring the world out of poverty, create a better life for all.

You can’t eliminate poverty in the current economy because the economy requires a certain percentage of poor people, a certain percentage of the world toiling at mindless, humiliating jobs. This is a world of finite resources. There’s only so much to go around. It’s easy to do the maths. When all wealth flows to the top, it leaves less for everyone else. A kindergartener can look at pie chart and figure this out.

Why not imagine an economy where all of us can feel fulfilled, have dignity, and contribute in a meaningful way? What would that kind of economy look like?

Ever the anarchist, I leave you to imagine a new economic model yourselves. There are plenty of models to choose from and most can easily be found online. The first requirement in the search is abandoning this belief: for some to benefit, others have to suffer. The second requirement is harder - an open mind - and the question: what do I truly want from work? Then, the final question: how do we get from here to there?

  There's a good article, an excerpt from The Capitalist Papers: flaws of an obsolete system by Jerry Mander (the author of In the Absence of the Sacred), that gives a brief rundown of the problem - how to get from the chaos and suffering we have now to something more..well...humane: Jerry Mander article on Alternet.

A good - but long - article on the history of labor in general and analysis of modern wage-slavery by the Anarchist Federation UK (on the libcom.org site) can be found here.
I’m thinking that in a more fulfilling economy everyone would have to clean their own goddamn toilets. 

After that, 
the rest would slowly - oh so slowly - begin to take care of itself.

Here’s a great poem by Gary Snyder about workers and the destruction of the world:

Dillingham, Alaska, The Willow Tree Bar

Drills chatter full of mud and compressed air
All across the globe,
            Low-ceilinged bars, we hear the same new songs

All the new songs.
In the working bars of the world.
After you done drive Cat. After the truck
            Went home.
            caribou slip,
            front legs folded first
            under the warm oil pipeline
            set four feet off the ground –

On the wood floor, glass in hand,
            laugh and cuss with
            somebody else’s wife.
            Texans, Hawaiians, Eskimos,
            Filipinos, Workers, always
            on the edge of a brawl –
            In the bars of the world.
            Hearing those same new songs
                        in Abadan,
            Naples, Galveston, Darwin, Fairbanks,
            White or brown,
Drinking it down,

the pain
of the work
of wrecking the world. 

From the book Axe Handles. 


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