Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Crack in Job Hell and How the Light Gets In

If you are working poor, you are not alone

      In her odyssey across the landscape of the working poor in America — Nickel and Dimed — Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t find any university graduates to write about. (Does Bait and Switch make up for that omission?) It was the first thing I noticed about Nickel and Dimed, because one of the things I found in my own miserable experience as a college grad working at low-wage jobs was that I was never alone; college graduates were everywhere I went—young, old, single, married, including some with advanced degrees.
      Rebecca N____ and Chet N____ are good examples; they were a married couple who had been teachers for many years, then gallery owners, and then, when that failed, eight-dollar-an-hour customer service representatives, which was where I met them.
      Equally common in my experience were the day-to-day, petty humiliations and reminders of one’s powerlessness, served up by supervisors and bosses whose own lack of education seemed to be irrelevant. That is, power, and the enjoyment of it, has no educational requirements. Once you get there, you’re good to go.
      Way back when, I worked for a guy I thought must be the sinister incarnation of Ichabod Crane—tall, gaunt Bob W____. Bob once said to me, with a malevolent smirk on his face, “You’re a socialist, aren’t you?” It was a rhetorical question. And it was an insult, since the world according to Bob had socialists as among the most vile of the vile. Not that the assertion came as a surprise to me; after all, this was the same boss who introduced me to his wife on my first day with this odd —and wrong— parenthetical “compliment” about me: “...and she is ‘pro-life!’” which should have been my cue to offer a parenthetical middle finger to the ass and go find another job. But I was desperately needy for work —he knew it— and rendered cynical by experience; given the job scene in my area, San Diego’s North County, who was to say my next job would be any less populated by wackos, ghouls, and ethical polliwogs? This was pot-luck, and I would have to take it.
      Yes, I should have been stronger and more courageous, but by then such positives had been lost to necessity; you get to a point where you must have compassion for yourself and do what you have to do to survive—which is another version of courage, it seems to me. So, there I was, working for a fundamentalist Christian patriarch, a small business owner, who often shamelessly demonstrated his racism and discriminatory behavior, and who had the freedom to try to shame me with the label of “socialist,” or hover over me, pressuring me to go faster, and various other indications of the perverted nature of his mind.
      Well, he had the power. Businesses are not democracies, not organizations dedicated to “liberty and justice for all,” and I had checked my civil liberties at the door when I took the job—I had no freedom of speech. There would be no honest rejoinder to his “insult,” such as, “No. I am a small-d democrat. But you, Bob, are a fascist, right?”
      Ah, retro-visions of truth and glory...
      I did manage one happy moment of triumph in my trek through job hell. One sales manager, a squat guy with a skinny mustache and slicked-back hair, told us that if the “numbers weren’t up by Friday,” his manager said he might have to “change the oil.” So, when on Friday the numbers still weren’t up, I marched up the stairs to the manager’s office, opened the door onto a meeting, interrupted and said to the manager, “The next time you decide to change the oil, maybe you should take another look at the dip stick.” Then I walked down the stairs, out the door to my car and drove home, happy as can be.
      Funny, I ran into that former boss sometime later. He laughed about it and said that from that day on, he was referred to by everybody in the building as “Dip Stick.” This is the saddest thing about job hell—most folks have good souls; it’s just that the whole system is designed to undermine our best qualities and replace them with our worst. You start out as a loving person with a desire to contribute good works, and then one day you hear yourself saying to your underling, “You were one minute late. You know the rules. You’re fired.”
      That’s because the basic frame governing the work place is that workers are dishonorable people, fundamentally and as a class. According to the frame, workers were born bad, and they will die bad, and so you have to motivate them with threats and intimidation. Regardless of the enlightened frames found in management training courses, most American businesses operate according to the conservative model.
      Which reminds me—in a wonderful book with the awful title, Man for Himself, Erich Fromm writes this: “We are concerned with man’s character not with his success...but what is 'power'? It is rather ironical that this word denotes two contradictory concepts: power of = capacity, and power over = domination... Power = domination results from the paralysis of power = capacity. 'Power over' is the perversion of 'power to.' ...Where potency is lacking, man’s relatedness to the world is perverted into a desire to dominate, to exert power over others as though they were things. Domination is coupled with death, potency with life. Domination springs from impotence and in turn reinforces it, for if an individual can force somebody else to serve him, his own need to be productive is increasingly paralyzed.”
      I should have posted that one on the bulletin board at my last job in the composing department of a major publishing company, where the frame “workers-are-evil-spawn” governed all employer-employee relations.
      First came the drug testing, as it was required for employment; then came the time clock, modified eventually for a hand scan, so that they could keep track of your hand’s comings and goings, to the second, and have proof if your hand was one second late, three times in a row, which mandated your being fired on the spot.
      Given that the publications we produced had advertising, with text and images, the company placed a high value on accuracy; any ad that went out with a mistake meant that the client would get the ad for free. Thus, not only were individuals tracked and records kept on those of us who worked on ads, but the entire department’s error rates were mapped on graphs, graphs which were pinned to the wall directly adjacent to the time clock, where we could admire our mistakes as we waited by the clock to leave for the day. These graphs would show our progress, month to month, and some would give numbers as to the amount of profits lost to errors.
      Keep in mind that this was a company that would hire anybody off the street who expressed an interest in Photoshop and experience with Macs, not necessarily a proficiency in Photoshop, or even a fluency in the English language, for that matter. The pay was minimum wage, with a three month probation, after which Blue Cross benefits kicked in; full health care coverage was the main reason to put up with the negatives, of course. Still, the probation period was rough; you had to be a quick study and able to dodge the myriad, petty opportunities to be fired. I stayed there ten years, managing eventually to earn a whopping $10.50 an hour.
      We had to attend yearly “climate survey” meetings, where we were encouraged to vent our complaints and suggestions without fear of reprisal. The company always engaged in heavy PR to the employees about how they bent over backward to be a great employer and how lucky you were to work there. Everybody knew the real purpose of the meetings was to manage morale in the department and to snuff any possible threats of law suits. They rarely made changes based on our complaints, except in one instance, after my comments to the upper management guy about the “stick” we always received for mistakes. I wanted to know where was the “carrot?”
      This was something I said in a conversation I had with our personnel manager and him after the meeting. I also said that if we were going to be shown graphs with our mistakes and profit losses, we would also like to see graphs comparing company profits over the past twenty-five years, as well as graphs showing employee wages and department profit losses from mistakes over the same time period. Would they show us those graphs?
      Well, soon after, all the graphs came down, and we were never again humiliated in this way over our mistakes.
      Could it be that I was onto something? Given that the company had always paid its employees at the minimum wage (cost of labor), but over the years the cost for ads had most likely risen exponentially (profits), well, just how badly was our department, with our little mistakes, costing the company? And how much were company profits enhanced by our low wages? If we had been able to see charts revealing just how bogus management’s complaints about our mistakes were, and, more importantly, just how badly we were being cheated out of a fair wage, one that kept up with inflation, how long could the company control the “climate” of our discontent?
      Sadly, the company continued to enforce its rules about mistakes. I will never forget Joe, a hugely over-weight but perennially sweet Mexican guy, who was a “closer,” the last person responsible for checking ads before they went to print. He missed three mistakes in one week. Though he’d been with the company for years, he was fired. Joe visited us a few months after his firing, and I hardly recognized him, for all the weight he had lost. I asked him how he’d managed to lose so much weight. He said, “I’m not eating. Can’t afford it.”
      Our supervisor, the one who had fired Joe, a woman who believed in ghosts and the paranormal, once expressed to me her disdain for Mexicans— “they move into your neighborhood, and before you know it gangs are everywhere.”
      She and I didn’t get along very well, needless to say. But that’s story for another time.

The Crack and the Light:

      Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem, gives us these lines: “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.” Those words came to me the other day, as I drove down I-15 listening to KPBS, and heard a report about the city’s winning “the first case against a company for violating the city’s Living Wage Ordinance.”
      Hello? Living Wage Ordinance? Wait a minute—the city of San Diego? Amazing. The city of San Diego managed to let some light get in through a tiny crack in its conservative reputation, apparently. Could this be true?
      It is true. The ordinance was passed in 2005, when I wasn’t paying any attention. So now, any company contracting with the city must pay its employees either $12 an hour or $10 plus health insurance. How cool is that? Of course, there was a big battle over it. Obviously, corporate welfare queens prefer keeping their workers in poverty, while they reap the excess profits.
      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Congress would now pass a similar law, a national, living wage law?


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In “Good Faith” With Telecom Companies and Lawless Bush Administration, Senate Passes FISA:

A message to Senate supporters of HR 6304

To Pro-HR 6304 Senators:

      Today, with the passage of HR 6304, I mourned the death of the 4th Amendment to our Constitution, and I grieved for the loss of any conviction that I am a citizen of a democratic republic, governed and secured by the principle of the rule of law. Today you forced me to realize, once and for all, that I am not free, not a citizen with inalienable rights; today you disabused me of any trust I had in my government, by showing me this: whatever an administration and corporations want to do to me will be supported by you, as long as they act in “good faith” with each other, as opposed to acting in good faith with the American people and the Constitution of the United States.
      Today I grieve over your abandonment of the notion of government of, by and for the people, in favor of government of, by and for criminal corporations.
      Watching you over the past two days, as you defended your position in support of HR 6304, I grieved as your hearts bled for the telecom companies; as you pretended 9-11 was a legitimate and factual excuse for the President’s warrantless surveillance program, even though you knew he had begun the program immediately after his first month in office; as you granted unprecedented legal authority to the executive branch to violate the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, fixing the executive branch as the sole judge of its own behavior and removing the judicial branch as a check on executive power; as you sided with the likes of Kit Bond (R. Missouri), who framed telecom immunity as “liability protection” and bemoaned the possibility of holding to the rule of law as “penalizing the companies” with “frivolous lawsuits.” What is the matter with you that you approved such garbage?
      I grieved, and my stomach turned, as the bill passed, with only twenty-eight good Senators voting against and holding fast to the Constitution and the rule of law, a mere twenty-eight true patriots, compared to sixty-nine lumps of Senatorial cowardice and shame.
      I have to ask of Barack Obama and his Democratic comrades who voted for the Feingold-Dodd Amendment, which would have removed telecom immunity from the bill, but failed, and then went ahead and voted for the bill itself, which contained telecom immunity —a profound contradiction— why would you do that? So, your distaste for telecom immunity was a whim of the moment, which changed for the final vote? Or, was it the other way around? No. You knew what you were doing. Clearly, you wanted to have it both ways, so that you could say, “Well, it’s too bad about immunity, but I want conservative voters to know I’m tough on terrorists.” Sir, you have no moral compass, no profound or ethical position to offer as reason to vote for you. You are lost. I, for one, will never forgive you, never vote for you again.
      The most frightening aspect of this dark moment is that of precedence—you, Senators, have set the stage for what? What’s next after this? You have now established that a mere executive-branch say-so can be sufficient justification for lawbreaking on the part of a company, so, why should not the Bush administration, or any other administration, use other private companies to do further harm to our liberty, our privacy, our fundamental human rights? Now that you have given Bush, as well, license to gather up whole masses of communications between Americans without warrants, in violation of the 4th Amendment, why should he not go whole hog with his vile intentions against freedom, democracy and the rule of law and break more laws than he already has?
      Today you have done what Al Queda could not have done with all their miserable, ragged might, without your help—you have taken the essence of American freedom and liberty and subtracted it from the body politic; you have injured the soul of America.
      Shame on you!!!


ACLU on this subject

Judge Walker

Comic relief: Mark Fiore on the subject