Archive for the ‘Labor’ Category

Why did the 1968 French student rebellion fail?

October 15, 2018

Last Friday I saw a remarkable movie, “In the Intense Now,” about the French student uprising in May, 1968, showing why at the time all things seemed possible and what went wrong.  I didn’t go to the movie with the intention of posting a review of it, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The filmmaker, João Moreira Salles, is a Brazilian who, in 1968, was a small boy living in Paris with his parents.  The movie consists of archival footage mainly from France, but also from Czechoslovakia and Brazil and home movies his mother took on a visit to China in 1966.

He captures the joy the students felt in breaking free of the constraints of a mediocre bureaucratic society and their hope that all things were possible.

He shows their leader, the cocky, smart-alec Daniel Cohn=Bendit and I can share their pleasure is seeing him in a TV panel show, telling off the pompous intellectual authorities.

The student riots were followed by a series of strikes by factory workers all over France.  I always thought that the students and workers in France, unlike in the USA, were comrades in arms.

But Moreira Salles showed a delegation of students marching to a factory occupied by strikers to show their solidarity, only to have the workers mock them as “future bosses.”

The striking workers, he contended, were revolutionary in a way that the students were not.  He contrasted a graffito saying (approximately – I didn’t make an exact mental note at the time) “All power to the workers,” with a graffito (again – I don’t remember exactly) saying something about following the desires of your heart and not advertising slogans.

The first graffito was a revolutionary slogan.  The second was not.

He contrasted political demonstrations that are intended to bring about revolutionary charge with political demonstrations that are merely intended to express emotion.  Holders of power feel threatened by the first, but can tolerate the second.

He showed footage from August, 1968, showing the Soviet occupation of Prague, which shot furtively, mostly from behind curtained windows, and the later footage of the funeral of Jan Palace, a student who committed suicide in 1969 by setting himself on fire in order to protest the re-imposition of dictatorship, which was shot openly.

Moreira Salles said the difference was that, in August, the Soviets were fearful of a real uprising, and, the following January, they were not threatened by allowing the Czechs to vent their grief.

He showed three funerals in France—one of a student killed by police, one of a worker killed by police, and one—never before shown in documentaries of the 1968 uprising, of a police officer murdered by rioters, who was crushed against a wall by an empty truck aimed at him with bricks on the accelerator.

He also showed a funeral of a worker killed while protesting the new Brazilian dictatorship.  The funeral was a political demonstration; burial of the worker was almost an afterthought.

Moreira Salles showed a conciliatory speech by President Charles De Gaulle on TV, which was followed by the largest student riot so ar, and then a radio broadcast a ew days later, taking a hard line against breakdown of law and order.

The second broadcast was followed by a pro-government demonstration, consisting mainly but not entirely of members of the prosperous classes, which drew more people than any of the student demonstrations.

In the age of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, it’s important to think about the difference between a serious politics with a strategy to bring about change, and a psychodrama politics limited to expressing emotion.

Then again, what good is a revolution without spontaneity and joy?  Emma Goldman, who was a true revolutionary if anybody ever was, said she didn’t want to be part of any revolutionary movement in which she couldn’t dance.

And, after all, it wasn’t the students who tamed the French workers’ movement.  It was the Communist-dominated trade unions, whose leaders had long ago compromised with the status quo.

I don’t draw a simple moral from the movie, but I find a lot to chew over in my mind.

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Does American labor need its own party?

October 5, 2018

Organized labor in the United States is committed to the Democratic Party, but, as the late Tony Mazzocchi came to realize, the Democratic Party is not committed to organized labor.

TonyMazzocchibiogralph51GaK-Gub-L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Les Leopold’s biography, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, tells how Mazzocchi’s final days were devoted to trying to create a Labor Party in the United States.

The dilemma of any labor party is that by taking votes away from a Democratic candidate that is indifferent to the needs of workers, it risks throwing the election to a Republican who is actively hostile to workers.

Mazzocchi’s answer was that a Labor Party should refrain from running candidates for at least 10 years, or until it had a realistic chance of winning.

Meanwhile it should continue politics by other means—supporting strikes and boycotts, educating workers on the issues, pressuring and lobbying politicians on the issues and holding them accountable.

Running candidates in elections is only one part of politics, Mazzocchi said.

He was a strong supporter of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy in his younger days, and helped build the Democratic Party on the Republican stronghold of Long Island.

But, as he noted, it was Richard M. Nixon, not John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  That was not because Nixon was pro-labor, but that labor unions in 1970 exerted enough power to bring him around.

He was disappointed with the Carter administration, which failed to enact modest pro-labor legislation despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.  But the impetus for a Labor Party came with the Clinton administration, which openly turned its back on the union movement.

The Labor Party made a good start in the 1990s, when there was a temporary upsurge in union membership and militancy.  At its peak, according to organizer Mark Dudzic, its affiliates comprised six national unions and 500 local unions and associated groups, representing 20 percent of union members.

But many labor activists turned against third-party movements after the 2000 election, when Mazzocchi’s friend Ralph Nader ran for President on the Green Party ticket and was blamed for throwing the election to George W. Bush.  Support for the Labor Party leveled off and then declined.

U.S. labor unions still have little voice in the Democratic Party.  President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said they “have no place to go.”  And the movement is even weaker than in 2002, when Mazzocchi died.

Mazzocchi’s long-term fear, according to Les Leopold, was the emergence of a right-wing American working-class movement organized around issues of race, immigration and nationalism.  If progressives can’t or won’t protect workers’ economic interests, somebody else will fill that void.

LINKS

Party Time: an excerpt from The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor.

What Happened to the Labor Party? An interview with Mark Dudzic in Jacobin.

American labor and the environmental movement

October 5, 2018

Down through the years, corporate polluters have told their employees they have a choice of working under toxic conditions or not having any jobs at all.

All too often workers accepted this tradeoff, and treated environmentalists as their enemies.  It is a kind of Stockholm syndrome—hostages identifying with their captors.

Environmentalists for their part have often neglected workers.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Barry Commoner’s Science and Survival (1967) warned the public of the danger of pesticides, but had little to say about the danger to workers who manufactured these pesticides.

Few workers understood the dangers of the chemicals to which they were exposed.  Few environmentalists knew the extent of worker exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The great accomplishment of Tony Mazzocchi, whose life story is told in Les Leopold’s The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Laborwas to bring environmentalists and workers together.

He never criticized environmentalists as being privileged people who failed to understand the realities of workers’ lives.  Instead he tried to bring the environmental movement and the labor movement together.

He had Commoner give eye-opening talks to members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ union on the medical effects of chemicals they worked with.

Mazzocchi helped organize the coalition of labor unions and environmentalists that is credited for enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Act of 1970.

The OSHA law gave the Secretary of Labor the power to set health and safety standards and to enforce them through workplace inspections.  It gave unions and other interested groups the right to petition for new or stronger standards, and the right to call for inspections in the face of “imminent danger.”  It required employers to provide a work environment free from hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

But as he soon found, having these legal rights was one thing, and getting the federal government to enforce them was another.   As I read accounts in the book of how the government tolerated blatant hazards, I remember my experience in reporting on business in the 1980s.  Small business owners complained of being put to great expense to fix problems that seemed picayune both them and to me.

At the same time big corporations continued to endanger the lives and health of their employees in blatant ways, and, as Les Leopold reported, the government inspectors weren’t interested.

Tony Mazzocchi said more is needed—a workers’ “right to know” what chemicals they are being exposed to and their properties, and a “right to act” to protect themselves.  The ultimate goal, he said, should be to eliminate hazardous chemicals altogether.

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Communism, American labor unions and the CIA

October 4, 2018

One thing I learned from reading Les Leopold’s biography of the visionary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi was the great harm done to the labor movement by the anti-Communist drive of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

It drove out some of the most effective and dedicated labor organizers, created lasting bitterness and division within labor and led to a secret alliance with the Central Intelligence Agency.

This was not just something imposed on labor by the anti=Communist oath required under the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.  It was part of a drive by liberals such as Walter Reuther, who organized a purge of the United Auto Workers, and Hubert Humphrey, who did the same for the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.

I came of age in the 1950s and, as I became politically aware, I became a Cold War liberal myself.  I thought of Communists as followers of a kind of cult, blindly following a leader, who in this case happened to be Joseph Stalin, one of history’s bloodiest tyrants.

The Mazzocchi biography shows this view had some truth in it, but it was not the whole story.  Some American Communists were among the bravest fighters for civil rights and labor rights.

They ran African-Americans for public office at a time when no Democrat or Republican dared to do so.   The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted white adviser was a former top Communist fund-raiser.

It seems like a paradox that fighters for democracy and freedom in their own country could be mesmerized by a totalitarian foreign ruler, but it was so.

The writer Doris Lessing, who was a Communist in Rhodesia as a young woman, said the idea, however illusory, that she was being backed up by a powerful country where ideals of justice gave her spiritual strength.

Tony Mazzocchi was never a Communist and never followed any party line, Communist or otherwise.  He thought many of the Communists he knew were unrealistic and overly ideological.   He didn’t hate, fear or shun them, but he was held back—for example, when he considered running for Congress from Long Island—by the fear that these associations could be used to discredit him and the labor movement.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, like the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO itself, worked closely and secretly with the Central Intelligence Agency to support anti-Communist unions in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

If I had known about it at the time, I would have thought it was a good idea.  Moscow supported pro-Communist unions, so what would be wrong with Washington supporting anti-Communist unions?   I would have seen this all in the context of a great struggle of democracy against totalitarianism.

The problem with the way I thought back then was the assumption that the CIA, which had engineered the overthrow of democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala, could be trusted as an ally of either workers or democracy.

In the 1950s, there was a fear of Communist infiltration and subversion of left-wing and progressive movements.  But the really effective infiltrators and subversives were the FBI and the CIA.

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Tony Mazzocchi, a working-class hero

October 4, 2018

Organized labor in the United States has been in decline for decades.  If labor unions are to make a comeback, they should learn from the example of Tony Mazzocchi (1926-2002) who was vice-president and then secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union

Mazzocchi sought an alliance between the labor movement and the environmental movement and the peace movement, which have all too often regarded each other as antagonists.  President Nixon credited him with inspiring the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

He was a friend of Karen Silkwood, the whistle-blower who revealed the toxic working conditions at the Kerr-McGee

He fought for equal rights for African-Americans and pay equity for women before these were headline issues.

He thought the labor movement made a big mistake in its unconditional loyalty to the Democratic Party, whose leadership has taken workers’ support for granted, and in the years prior to his death in 2002 was trying to create institutions to give labor an independent voice.

I confess that I knew nothing about him until my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of THE MAN WHO HATED WORK and Loved Labor: the Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold (2007).

This book is well-written and thoroughly researched.  Although Les Leopold was a friend and protegé of Mazzocchi’s, he depicts his mistakes and failings as well as his successes.

Mazzocchi really did hate work as it is organized in American industry, and he didn’t think anybody ought to have to work under existing conditions.

He believed that no wage-earner need work for more than 20 hours a day, and that workers should have the final say in how work is organized.

I read somewhere that the average chemical worker lives less than 10 years beyond his retirement date.  In contrast, I spent my work life on newspapers, and I have enjoyed 20 years of a pleasant retirement and may well enjoy four or five or even more to come.

This is not because I exercised or ate a healthy diet, but because I had a job that didn’t kill me.  Workers in the oil, chemical and nuclear industries have as much right to live out their natural life span as I do.

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American labor unions may not survive

August 30, 2018

Garret Keizer wrote about the desperate plight of American labor unions in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  His thinking is the same as mine.  In the following passage, he quotes himself.

“I grew up with the assumption that there was labor and there was management,” I tell him, “and they’d always be locked in this struggle, and sometimes labor would win and sometimes, probably most of the time, management would win, but they’d be wrestling back and forth, and that’s how it would go on, and in some ways that would be how society progressed.

“And now I’ve started to wonder whether that’s the right way of thinking about it, whether it isn’t a wrestling match but a fight to the death and there are only two possible outcomes.

“One is that labor, not by itself but in a coalition with other groups, prevails to the extent of being able to restructure society in some basic ways.

“Or management, or whatever you want to call it—the One Percent—will destroy all unions and basically there will be masters and slaves.

“What’s wrong with that construction?  What am I missing?”

His question is addressed to Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America and chairman of the board of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution movement.

“Nothing,” he says.

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What’s missing from Draut’s Better Deal?

June 26, 2018

Tamara Draut, at the conclusion of Sleeping Giant, her book about the new American working class, offered a list of proposals that she called A Better Deal.

THE BLUEPRINT FOR A BETTER DEAL

A Better Deal for Workers
Modernize out labor protections by fighting the definition of “independent contractor,” creating new rules for stable scheduling practices and ensuring that the growing “on-demand” workforce is protected by labor laws and has rights to basic worker benefits.  Expand federal enforcement capacity and increase the fines and penalties for companies that break the rules.
• Guarantee paid sick days and paid parental leave as universal benefits for all workers.
• Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 and eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
• Reform labor laws to ensure the ability of workers to join a union, including prohibiting so-called right-to-work laws and establishing majority sign-up as the authorization required for establishing a union.

A Better Deal for Families
Develop a system to guarantee access to affordable and high-quality child care for infants and toddlers for all working- and middle-class families and high-quality jobs for child-care workers.
• Reinvest in state public higher education to achieve debt-free public college for all working- and middle-class students.

A Better Deal for Society
Revitalize our nation’s infrastructure, including addressing climate change, to ensure full employment
• Establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Racial Healing to provide full accounting of our nation’s violent racial history and to address its legacy in residential segregation, occupational segregation, the racial wealth gap and oppressive criminal justice and policing practices.
• Develop comprehensive immigration reform to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

A Better Deal for Democracy
Reform election procedures and practices, including establishing automatic voter registration to ensure all citizens are registered and widespread adoption of same-day registration, early voting and restoration of voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens; restore the Voting Rights Act to provide voter protections for African Americans
• Establish a system of public financing at the federal, state and local levels, to reduce the role of corporate money and private wealth in funding elections and allow more racially diverse and working-class people to run for office.
• Amend the Constitution and transform the Supreme Court’s approach to money in politics to establish that money is not free speech and that corporations are not people.

What is missing from this list?

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The new face of the U.S. working class

June 20, 2018

What should be most important to progressives?  The fights by women, African-Americans and Latinos against oppression based on gender and sex?  Or the fight by wage-earners against exploitation by a tiny minority of corporate executives and wealthy investors?

I recently finished reading SLEEPING GIANT: The Untapped Potential and Political Power of America’s New Working Class by Tamara Draut (2016, 2018), in which she argues these fights are the same fight, on behalf of largely the same people.

Wage-earners today, she said, are disproportionately female and people of color.  Some of the fastest-growing job categories are in food service, health care, education and personal service—jobs historically held by women and people of color.

Many of them, maybe for this reason, are historically low paid and outside the protection of labor laws.

The only way today’s workers can defend their rights is by means of solidarity across racial and gender lines, which means fighting against racial discrimination and sexual harassment as strongly as fighting for a higher minimum wage or universal health care.

Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a pro-labor think tank, is the daughter of a steel worker.

Her dad did hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, which caused him to die of lung disease.  But he earned a union wage that enabled his family to live in their own house, take vacation trips and send Tamara to  college.

Working people still do hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, but fewer and fewer of them earn a union wage.

In fact, the percentage of American workers represented by unions is lower than it was right before enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  The law is less and less favorable to unions.

Large companies increasingly operate through chains of franchises and subcontractors, under restrictive agreements that do not allow leeway to increase pay or provide benefits.

Nine out of 10 food service workers tell pollsters they’re subect to wage theft—being short-changed on wages or being forced to work off the clock. One in five don’t work regular shifts; they don’t know from week to week when they will work.

One of the workers Draut interviewed for the book was “Damon,” a 32-year-old African-American man who was out on disability from his job in a Coca-Cola warehouse.

He was a “puller,” which meant that he put together orders for delivery on trucks by manually stacking cases of Coca-Cola on pallets.  He was paid by the number of cases he moved each shift, at the rate of 8.4 cents per case.

On each shift, the pullers are given a quota, the number of cases they must move each shift, and they are not allowed to leave the warehouse until they make their quota.

“Because we get paid on commission, I go out hard,” he said.  “I put my body on the line.  In order to make a good living pulling cases, you got to be fast.”  He told Draut he typically finishes his shift in six to seven hours. but most of his co-workers take eleven to twelve hours.  One died of a heart attack while pulling cases.

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The many pitfalls of management theory

June 12, 2018

As a newspaper reporter who covered business for 20 years, I learned that there are intellectual fashions in management theory as in everything else.

Once the key to success was thought to be vertical integration.  The idea was that a corporation should control every aspect of its business, from raw materials to distribution, in order to guarantee quality and eliminate the middleman.

Then the key was supposed to be diversification.  The idea was that a corporation should engage in varied lines of business so that a downturn in one line of business was offset by continued gains in others.

Then it was core competency.  The idea was that a corporation should limit itself to whatever it did best and enjoyed a competitive advantage, and outsource everything else.

The path of least resistance for any manager has been to follow the fashion of the day.  Failing by doing the same thing everybody else was doing has always been more acceptable than failing by doing something different.

I recently read a book, THE MANAGEMENT MYTH: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong by Matthew Stewart (2009)that validity of these management theories ranges from highly uncertain to completely bogus.

I was surprised to learn that the ideas of Frederick W. Taylor, founder of scientific management, and Elton Mayo, discoverer of the so-called Hawthorne effect, were based on fake experiments.

F.W. Taylor

Frederick W. Taylor claimed that there was one best way to perform any physical task.  It was the job of the manager or industrial engineer to discover the best way and to micro-manage workers so that they followed it, mindlessly and repetitively.

He claimed to have taught a Bethlehem Steel worker he called “Schmidt” the most efficient way of loading pig iron onto a freight car, and made that a standard method for loading pig iron.

The reality was that, one day in 1899, he gathered a group of Hungarian immigrant workers and challenged them to load as many 92-pound ingots as they could in 14 minutes.  He then extrapolated this to a 10-hour work day, discounted the total by 40 percent.  The total was 47.5 tons.

He offered a wage incentive if they could do this all day.  This would have been quadruple their normal output.  They declined.

Taylor then recruited another group of workers and challenged them to meet the target.  The only one who could was a German immigrant named Henry Noll—the “Schmidt” in Taylor’s tale.  Bethlehem Steel did not adopt Taylor’s method, but it became famous anyhow.

Taylor’s system eliminated the need for skilled workers.  They were undesirable because they might have ideas of their own.  It was up to managers and industrial engineers, not the workers themselves, to determine how each job can best be done.

His method was the same as the Soviet Stakhanovite system: Take a strong and efficient worker, determine the most he can accomplish under ideal conditions and make that the target for every worker.  Lenin praised Taylorism.

Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo claimed that workers could be managed by offering them psychological and emotional rewards.

He claimed to have found by accident that workers at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant became more efficient as a result of being the center of attention—the so-called Hawthorne effect.

The reality was that in 1924, an engineer named Henry Hilbert at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant ran an experiment to determine whether increased illumination would increase worker efficiency.  The study was subsidized by the electric power industry.

He gathered seven women employees in a separate room and had them assemble telephone relays under different lighting conditions.  He also experimented with work breaks.  Efficiency seemed to increase no matter what he did.

Mayo learned of the results of the experiment and decided that the real Hawthorne effect was treating these women as though they were special and making them feel they were members of a team.

But Stewart pointed out that the factor he ignored was that the assemblers were given a group wage incentive to achieve greater efficiency.  Also, two members of the original team were fired for being shirkers and malcontents, and one of their replacements strongly wanted the higher wage and pushed her co-workers to do more.

Hilbert later repeated the experiment.  One group of workers were given the same special treatment, but no wage incentive.  Their efficiency did not improve.  Another were given a group wage incentive, but no special treatment.  They achieved the same efficiency gains as the original group.

So it was the pay, not the special treatment that mattered.  But the whole point of Mayo’s method was to avoid the need for increased pay.

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Is a non-BS economy even possible?

May 26, 2018

What would the U.S. unemployment rate be if all useless or harmful jobs were eliminated?

It would probably be equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Barack Obama, in an interview in 2006, stated the problem:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’  That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.  What are we doing with them?  Where are we employing them?”

Source: The Nation

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, quoted public opinion polls that found 37 percent of UK employees and 40 percent in the Netherlands thought their jobs made no meaningful contribution to the world.

Now maybe that is exaggerated.  Maybe some of them think they make a contribution, but that it’s not “meaningful.”

Offsetting this, the inherent bias of people is to think we are accomplishing more than other people think we do or the objective facts indicate.

For example, public relations, advertising, lobbying, consulting and even speculation on financial and commodities markets have their uses.  It is just that they play more of a role in the economy than they should.

I myself think the U.S. military and intelligence services are much greater than necessary to protect the homeland from attack.  Of course, if the mission is to make the United States the world’s only superpower, no number could be great enough.

The question is: What would happen if all these people were thrown on the job market, all at once?

It would be a catastrophe, unless there were some sort of basic income guarantee (which Graeber advocates) or basic job guarantee.

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BS jobs, sh*t jobs and moral envy

May 25, 2018
  • Huge swaths of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.
  • It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working.
  • The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.  It is a scar across our collective soul.  Yet noone talks about it.
  • How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? 
  • David Graeber: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013)

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, describes the frustrations of people doing jobs that they know are useless or even harmful, because the meaningful jobs are either unavailable or low-paid.

He said that forcing people to engage on tedious activities that serve no useful purpose, or, worse still, pretending to work when they actually aren’t, constitutes a kind of spiritual violence.

Not all useless or harmful jobs are BS jobs. Graeber defines a BS job as one you know is useless, but you have to pretend is necessary.

I think many of the people who invent BS jobs, or invent useless tasks for the useful workers, are under the impression they are making a positive contribution.  Graeber said his strongest critics are business owners who deny the possibility that they could be paying anybody to do anything useless.

A certain number of people think the world is divided into predators and prey, and pride themselves on being successful predators.  An example would be the bankers and financiers who, prior to the 2008 financial crash, made subprime mortgage loans to suckers who could never pay them off, then collateralized the mortgages and sold them to other suckers.

What all these jobs—hedge fund managers, telemarketers, diversity consultants, receptionists who never get phone calls, consultants whose advice is never heeded, supervisors with nothing to supervise—is that, if they went on strike, nobody would notice.

What Graeber calls the sh•t jobs are just the opposite.  Food service workers, health care workers, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners—all these workers labor under worse conditions and for lower pay than in BS jobs, and, contrary to reason and justice, they get less respect.

Coincidentally or not, the sh•t jobs are disproportionately done by black people, Hispanics and immigrants.

∞∞∞

Graeber said many of us have come to accept the idea that work consists of following somebody’s order to do something we dislike.  It follows, then, that if you want good pay, job security and benefits, you are lacking in moral character.  He calls this rights scolding.

It takes two forms.  Among right-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that working people in the time of Charles Dickens didn’t have, you are a fragile snowflake.  Among left-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that the most oppressed person alive today has, you are told to check your privilege.

It also follows that people whose jobs are fulfilling, such as school teachers, are not really working.  The idea is: You get to do work that is pleasurable, useful and respected.  How dare you want good pay and job security in addition?  Graeber calls this moral envy.

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Managerial feudalism and BS jobs

May 23, 2018

BULLSHIT JOB: A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee fells obliged to pretend that this is not the issue.  [David Graeber]

∞∞∞

Huge numbers of people work in jobs that they themselves think are completely unnecessary.  Many of them would prefer to do something useful, but useful jobs on average pay less.  Sometimes they quit and take a lower-paying useful job anyway.

Some five years ago, David Graeber, an American who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote an essay for an obscure left-wing magazine called Strike!, about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

The article struck a nerve.  It got more than a million hits on the Internet, crashed the Strike! web site several times and was translated into more than 10 languages.

A YouGov poll soon after found that 37 percent of full-time employees in the United Kingdom thought their work made no meaningful contribution to the world.  A survey in the Netherlands put the number as high as 40 percent.  I imagine a survey in the United States would be much different.

Graeber himself communicated with hundreds of unhappy, useless employees via e-mail.

The result is his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory.

He learned about a museum guard whose job was to report if a certain empty room ever caught on fire; a military sub-contractor who drove more than a hundred miles in order to give a German soldier permission to move a piece of equipment from one room to another; a receptionist who, to fill her time, was tasked with jobs such as sorting paperclips by color.

But most of his reports are about people who worked in offices—making studies that were never read, making proposals that were never acted on or not doing anything at all, but doing their best to look busy.

How can there be so many admittedly useless jobs?  We live in a time of austerity and layoffs.  Full-time jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs.  That is true of government as well as the private sector.

One thing that free-enterprise advocates and Marxists agree on is that competitive capitalism produces economic efficiency.  Free-marketers think everybody benefits and Marxists think that only the capitalists benefit, but they agree on the drive of business to maximize profit.

Maybe this is wrong.  Maybe competitive capitalism is a myth.  Maybe we live under what Graeber calls managerial feudalism.

Back in the days before the French Revolution, the peasants, who were the main producers of wealth, paid so much in taxes and rent they could barely live.  They supported an aristocracy, who, in turn, supported an economic class of coachmen, door keepers, lace makers, dancing masters, gardeners and the like, who were generally better paid than the peasants.

Just like the aristocrats of old, the prestige of managers in organizations is based on the number of people they have working for them.  Prestige is not based on whether they are useful or not.  In fact, employees whose work is essential are a threat.  They have the power to quit or go on strike or to unexpectedly reveal they know more than the boss.

So the incentive is to diminish the role and power of those who do necessary work while inventing new jobs whose existence depends on the discretion of the job creators.

A large number of new jobs are administrative staff.  They are different from administrators who make actual decisions.  Their job is collect quantitative information about the work of the useful employees on the principle that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

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The heroic teachers’ strike in West Virginia

March 7, 2018

The USA in many ways has reverted to the Gilded Age of the 1890s, in which the economic and political systems are operated for the benefit of big business and a tiny group of rich people.

The striking West Virginia teachers are in the same boat as workers in the 1890s.  Their strike is illegal.  They are outside the protection of the National Labor Relations Act.   Anytime they strike, their whole futures are at risk

All they have going for them are their own solidarity and courage, and the support of public opinion and other workers.   But they have forced the Governor of West Virginia to agree to their 5 percent pay raise.   They still haven’t won a rollback in health insurance increases.

There is a lot to be learned in the way the West Virginia teachers organized their movement.   They organized all the public school employees, not just the teaching staff.   They reached out to parents and students, to make sure no student would go hungry for lack of a school lunch.

I have long believed that things in the USA cannot go on as they are forever, and I have long looked for signs of change—the Wisconsin public employees’ demonstrations, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

All these movements, in their different ways, represented working people striving for something better.  All were beaten back.   Is the West Virginia teachers’ strike the breakthrough?  We’ll see.

LINKS

The Lesson From West Virginia Teachers: If You Want to Win, Go on Strike by Miles Kampf-Lassin for In These Times.

 Notes on the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike of 2018 by Lambert Strether for naked capitalism.

Lessons, Successes, Failures of the West Virginia Teachers Strike by Bruce A. Dixon for Black Agenda Report [Added 3/8/2018]

The curse of Amazon

February 2, 2018

When I moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1974, one of the attractions was the number of excellent individually-owned bookstores.   Later on the Borders bookstore chain opened a store here, and I was delighted at their huge selection of books.   The smaller new-book stores went out of business, one by one, but I accepted that s the price of progress.

Click to enlarge.

Borders was pushed aside by Barnes & Noble.   Now Barnes & Noble is losing sales and operating at a loss.  Unless something changes, local bookstores will be replaced by Amazon.

What’s wrong with that? you may ask.  Amazon provides low prices and excellent customer service.  What difference does the lack of a physical store make?

What’s wrong is that Amazon treats its employees like work animals or like machines.   I read an article today about how Amazon has patented wristbands for tracking what employees do with their hands, presumably so they don’t put something in the wrong bin or pause to scratch their noses.

Amazon hasn’t said when, whether or how the new system will be implemented, but employees already are subjected to an inhuman work pace that is determined and monitored by computer.

I don’t want to buy the lowest possible price if it comes at the price of human misery.   I’d hate to see a new Amazon facility in western New York.

Sometimes I give in and buy through Amazon.   This is wrong of me, because I’m helping to make its monopoly power more complete.   But in the total scheme of things, my decisions as a consumer make little difference.  It is the government’s responsibility, not mine, to enforce the anti-trust laws, and make and enforce decent labor standards.

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John Steinbeck and the crowd mind

November 8, 2017

I saw a movie version of IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck (1936) a couple of weeks ago,  I liked the movie  so much that I re-read the novel.

Anybody who likes military or political fiction should like this novel.  It is about a kind of asymmetric warfare.

Anybody who is interested in social history should like it.   So far as I can judge, it is a true to life description of labor and labor strife among fruit pickers in California in the early 1930s.

The movie is mostly true to the novel.   What the novel has that the movie lacks is John Steinbeck’s ideas about crowd psychology and the group mind.

Steinbeck believed that there are times when a group of people lose their individuality and become a kind of collective being with a mind of its own.   I think there is truth in this, and I find it frightening.  Steinbeck saw it as a fact of life.

The movie was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, here in Rochester, NY.

The film curator explained that John Steinbeck originally intended to write a magazine article about the great fruit pickers strike in northern California in 1933, but he had so much material that he decided to write a historical novel instead.

Once he got started, his story diverged from the historical facts.   The fruit pickers won a partial victory, but the novel and movie end with them about to make one last stand and go down to glorious defeat—which, however, will help the cause of the workers in the long run.

The hero of In Dubious Battle is the labor organizer Mac, explicitly a member of “the Party” in the novel and implicitly in the movie, as seen by Jim, his young apprentice.   His manipulations supposedly are justified because he cares only for the workers’ cause and wants nothing for himself.

In the movie, Mac says that the basic human desire is to have control of one’s own life.  In the novel, he says that the basic human desire is to be part of a meaningful collective effort.   One of his goals is to get the fruit pickers used to the idea of working together instead of individually and at cross purposes.

Mac has a lot to say about crowd psychology—for example, that nothing galvanizes a crowd as much as the sight of blood.   I think Steinbeck’s spokesman in the novel is his Doc Burton character, who helps the strikers, but doesn’t believe in Mac’s ideals.

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A movie of John Steinbeck’s ‘In Dubious Battle’

October 26, 2017

I recently saw a great new movie—”In Dubious Battle,” based on John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel and inspired by agricultural workers’ strikes in California in 1930 and 1933.

Directed by and starring James Franco, the movie’s cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston and other fine actors.  The photography is beautiful.  The direction is powerful.  It works well, both as drama and propaganda.  I’m glad I saw it.

This post, however, is not a review of the movie, but thoughts about questions raised by the movie.

Based on everything I’ve read, I think wages and working conditions were just as bad as the film depicts, and workers were just as desperate.

I think the criminal violence of the growers is only slightly exaggerated.  They didn’t openly commit murder, as depicted in the movie.   Rather they arranged to have labor leaders arrested in trumped up charges, and to have strikers, including peaceful picketers, fired upon and killed, as had been done so often in American labor strikes.

The most interesting part of the movie is the character of the labor organizer Mac McLeod, played by James Franco, and his apprentice Jim Nolan, played by Nat Wolff.

They are identified as generic radicals, without any specific affiliation, but what they represent is the Communist ideal of the labor hero.

They are completely dedicated to the cause of the working class, wanting nothing for themselves, and the Mac McLeod character in the end knowingly sacrifices his life to the cause.

Their dedication supposedly justifies their lies and manipulation of workers in order to achieve their goal.   They are not the official leaders of the strike, but every initiative comes from them.

There is not one instance in the movie of one of the fruit pickers themselves initiating anything good or having a good idea of what to do.   This is the Communist view that workers on their own cannot think strategically, that they need to be led by a vanguard, consisting of themselves.

I have to admit the inconvenient fact—inconvenient to self-described liberals such as myself—that Communists and anarchists were fighting for labor rights and for racial equality, many at risk to their lives, at a time when many of us college-educated middle-class liberals and progressives held back.

I think the world owes more to real-life Mac McLeods than many of us care to admit.   At the same time, I would not want to live under their rule.

People who are hard on themselves frequently think this gives them a right to be ruthless toward others.   The great flaw in the Communist program, other than its commitment to an unworkable economic system, is lack of accountability to anyone except each other.

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Job security and speaking truth to power

July 13, 2017

During the 20 years I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, I was surprised at how many people were afraid to speak freely because of the consequences to their careers or chances of getting a job.

About the only people I ever met who were willing to speak as if they were free Americans were:

  • Self-employed professionals such as physicians and lawyers.
  • Self-employed craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians.
  • Owners of small businesses that served the public (not sub-contractors)
  • Tenured college professors.
  • Civil servants (provided they were speaking about their area of responsibility and not political issues).
  • Labor leaders and members of strong labor unions.

Many years ago I read David Kearns’ memoir of his years as CEO of Xerox Corp.  (I no longer have the book and don’t remember the title).  In one chapter, he described a meeting he held with workers at Xerox’s Webster, N.Y., plant about problems with a new model of copier.

He told how the president of the union local replied, “Why didn’t you ask us, Dave?  We could have told you it was no good.”

My impression is that Kearns thought he deserved credit for not getting angry at the union representative.   But, actually, what he should have done was to arrange to meet with him once every six or twelve months.

If you are in a position of authority, someone who will tell you the truth is invaluable.  But few in a position of authority want to hear inconvenient truths.  Hence functional stupidity.

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Unions face hard struggle in the age of Trump

December 3, 2016

unions2-12-3-2016

Leaders of organized labor in the United States face in Donald Trump what may be the most anti-union administration since before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The New Deal gave labor unions a legal right to bargain collectively and enter into binding contracts.   Subsequently so-called “right to work” laws imposed on unions the obligation to bargain collectively even for workers who choose not to join the union.

Many observers expect the Trump administration and Republican Congress to enact a national right to work law.  Under such a law, workers could join a company with a union contract, refuse to join the union or pay dues and enjoy all the benefits of the contract.   Why, union leaders ask, would anybody join a union if they could enjoy all the benefits of union membership without any of the obligations?

Trump’s likely choice for Secretary of Labor is said to be Andrew Puzder, head of the parent company of the Hardee’s and Carl Jr. restaurant chains.  He is an outspoken opponent of minimum wage increases and of Obamacare.

Other contenders who’ve been mentioned in the press are Victoria Lipnic, one of two Republican members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and  Scott Walker, the fiercely anti-union Governor of Wisconsin.

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Union worker support for Democrats is eroding

December 2, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump is an enemy of organized labor.

He favors “right to work” laws, by which employees can enjoy the benefits of a union contract without having to pay union dues.

He once said that the U.S. economy is un-competitive because wages are too high, although he later backtracked.

He promised to appoint a Supreme Court Justice with the same philosophy as the anti-union Antonin Scalia.

He promised to revoke every executive order issued by President Barack Obama, which presumably includes orders enforcing wage standards for federal contractors and new rules for overtime pay.

So it’s not surprising that American labor unions made an all-out effort to defeat him in the recent.  Labor unions donated $135 million to anti-Trump political action committees, and spent an additional $35 million to get out the vote and other political activities.  AFSCME, the NEA and other unions sent out nearly 4,000 canvassers, who knocked on an estimated 9.5 million doors.

Exit polls indicate that Hillary Clinton carried the vote of union families by an 8 percent margin.  But this is not as good as it seems.  Four years before, Barack Obama won the vote of union households by an 18 percent margin.  In other words, Clinton was down by 10 percentage points.

Donald Trump did better than Mitt Romney among union voters, but his gains were less than Clinton’s losses.  A large number of union families either didn’t vote or voted for small-party candidates.

What wasn’t Clinton able to hold more of the union vote?  First, Trump made a direct appeal to them for votes of union members, which Republicans haven’t done in recent elections.   Clinton tried to appeal to college-educated moderate Republicans, which she did with some success, but not enough to offset the erosion of majorities from traditional Democratic constituencies.

Second, Trump made an issue of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade agreements.  Clinton promoted the TPP as Secretary of State, but opposed it as a candidate.  Many factory workers blame the TPP, NAFTA and other trade agreements for loss of jobs to foreign countries.

I did not vote for Trump, but I think he is right about the TPP.  If he hopes to be re-elected, he’d better not break his word about opposing the TPP as he has so many other campaign promises.

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Health care costs ate your pay raises

October 4, 2016

hcc

Hourly compensation for American workers has increased 60 percent since 1970.  Hourly take-home pay has barely increased at all.

What’s the difference?  Financial analyst Barry Ritholtz said it is the rising cost of health insurance—which is most certainly not the same thing as a higher level of medical care.

Most American workers are probably better off taking their employer-based health insurance than they are taking their entire compensation in cash and trying to buy insurance on the open market.

Either way, we’re paying more for medical care, and getting less for our money, than citizens of other industrial countries.

LINK

Why Better Wages Are Tied to Healthcare Costs by Barry Ritholtz for The Big Picture.

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How the GOP honored Labor Day 60 years ago

September 5, 2016

GOP Labor Day 1956

Some things to read on Labor Day weekend

September 2, 2016

Inside the Corporate Utopias Where Capitalism Rules and Labor Laws Don’t Apply by Matt Kennard and Claire Provost for In These Times.

Trade Unions and the Fate of the American Left, an interview of political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. on The Real News Network.

How Unions Change Universities by Marley-Vincent Lindsey for Jacobin magazine.

Making Green Jobs Good Jobs by Kate Aranoff for In These Times.

The Housing Monster: a worker’s critique of the construction industry.

Abolish Restaurants: a worker’s critique of the food service industry.

Nearly 10,000 Current and Former Chipotle Workers Join in Wage Theft Class Action Suit, an interview of labor lawyer Kent Williams on The Real News Network.

No Other Way Than Struggle: The Farmworker-Led Boycott of Driscoll’s Berries, an interview of labor leader Felimoñ Peneda by David Bacon for Truthout.

Meet Jacqui Maxwell, the United Auto Worker Who Interrupted Trump’s Economic Speech in Detroit, an interview on Democracy Now

Populists vs. liberals in American history

August 16, 2016

One of the main things I’ve learned from reading American history is that political alignments in the past were very different from what they are now, and that, prior to the New Deal, “populists” and “liberals” were rarely found in the same party.

By “populist,” I mean someone who defends the interests of the majority of the population against a ruling elite.  By “liberal,” I mean someone who takes up for downtrodden and unpopular minorities.

3080664-president-andrew-jackson--20--twenty-dollar-billAndrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was a populist.  He gained fame as the leader of a well-regulated militia, composed of citizens with the right to keep and bear arms, who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans and who fought for white settlers against Indians in what later became the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

He was regarded as a champion of poor workers, farmers and frontier settlers.  In an epic struggle, he broke the stranglehold of the financial elite, as represented by the Second Bank of the United States, on the U.S. economy.   Jacksonians fought for the enfranchisement of property-less white people.

In standing up for the common people, Jackson denied any claims to superiority by reason of education and training.  He defended the spoils system—rewarding his political supporters with government jobs—on the grounds that any American citizen was capable of performing any public function.

Jackson was a slave-owner and a breaker of Indian treaties.  He killed enemies in duels.  He was responsible for the expulsion of Indians in the southeast U.S. in the Trail of Tears.   He was not a respecter of individual rights.   He was not a liberal.

This was opposed by almost all the great New England humanitarian reformers of Jackson’s time and later.  They were educated white people who tried to help African Americans, American Indians, the deaf, the blind, prison inmates and inmates of insane asylums.  Almost of all them were Whigs, and almost all their successors were Republicans.

They were liberals, but not populists.  Like Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law,  they despised illiterate Irish Catholic immigrants in his midst.  Poor Irish people had to look for help to the Jacksonian Democratic political machines.

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Jobless youth and oldsters who can’t retire

July 26, 2016

Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago, wrote a good article for The Baffler about the connection between low wages, high youth unemployment and older people (such as himself) being unwilling to retire.

Thomas Geoghegan

Thomas Geoghegan

A reporter asked Pope Francis to name the single biggest evil in the world.  Secularism?  No.  Abortion?  Not even.  Here’s what he said: “Youth unemployment—and the abandonment of the elderly.”

OK, that’s two evils.  But aren’t they really one thing?  Unable to get a start, boomerang kids move back home—while their grandparents hang on to their jobs.

Why hang on?  They fear being abandoned.  They didn’t save.  The young have always had to wait for the old to retire in order to move up a notch, but in the twenty-first century, that wait is getting longer, increasing the competition for scarce jobs.

For the state to shrink, the old must work more.  It’s a neoliberal axiom.  Call it the New Old Deal.

As a labor lawyer, let me defend my clients.  The working-class people I represent are dying sooner, not mucking up the labor market by living too long.  Alcohol and heroin are partially to blame, and trending stories on epidemics afflicting the white working class make easy fodder for TV newsmagazines.

But let me tell you what I more often see happening to non-college whites: those who do hard physical labor for an hourly wage go lame.  By age fifty-five, or certainly sixty, many are just done.

And when they go lame, they have no options.  They have no union-bargained pensions anymore.   They certainly have no 401(k) retirement accounts.

Maybe the country should be grateful; to the extent that they die prematurely, they help shore up Social Security.  And hey, should the GOP make it harder for them to receive workers’ comp or disability, these high school grads may die even younger.

The whole article is worth reading.  Click on Exit Planning to read it.

Dean Baker on white privilege

June 6, 2016

violentTrump-RallyThe rise of Trump has provoked a considerable outpouring of commentary from the pundits.  Most of it centered on the chief complaint that the white working class is upset about losing its privileged position and see Trump as the ticket to setting things right.

There is considerable truth to this story.  Trump’s strongest support comes from white men without college degrees, although he also does quite well among small business owners.  But before we condemn these workers as hopeless Neanderthals, it is worth stepping back a bit to consider what led them to support Donald Trump’s candidacy in the first place.

The “privilege” that these working class whites are looking to defend is middle-class factory jobs paying between $15 and $30 an hour.  These jobs generally came with decent health care benefits and often a traditional defined benefit pension, although that has become increasingly rare over the last two decades.

Trump-Iowa-supporters-Getty-640x480This is certainly a privileged position compared to billions of people in the developing world who would be happy to make $15 a day.  It is also privileged compared to women, whose pay still averages less than 80 percent of their male counterparts.  And, it is privileged compared to the situation of Americans of color who have frequently been trapped in the least desirable and lowest-paying jobs.

But these factory jobs and other blue collar occupations are hardly privileged when compared to the high flyers in the financial industry, the CEOs and other top level managers, or even professionals like doctors and dentists.  These groups have all seen substantial increases in their pay and living standards over the last four decades.

If you want to see “privilege,” look to the CEO making $20 million a year as they turn in a mediocre performance managing a major corporation.  Or talk to a cardiologist, an occupation with a median annual salary of more than $420,000 a year.

The pundits all know about these disparities in pay, but they want us to believe that they have nothing to do with privilege; rather, they reflect the natural workings of the market.  And they tend to act really ridiculous when shown evidence otherwise.

Source: Dean Baker | truthout

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