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 bĂȘte 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. 


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